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The digital future of public space is taking shape in Miami’s new ‘smart park’

The Underline, a new linear park, will hire staff to help create digital tools to improve park engagement

A rendering of the Underline, a forthcoming linear park in Miami, showing residents using the running paths and bike trails.
The Underline, a new linear park taking shape underneath a metro track in Miami, will hire two new staff to help oversee a new investment in civic technology.
James Corner Field Operations

Miami’s Underline, an ongoing $120 million project to transform the underside of a raised rail corridor into a 10-mile linear park, already seeks to be a transformative civic investment. But a new grant by the Knight Foundation may turn this revitalizing transit corridor into something new: a testing ground for civic technology.

Earlier this month, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a $925,000 investment in The Underline’s technology infrastructure, which would include the hiring of a chief operating officer and chief information officer by the end of the year to help “create a technology master plan informed by residents and experts alike.”

“Technology will be the connective tissue that connects the people, places and activities within The Underline’s 120 acres,” said Meg Daly, founder of Friends of the Underline, the nonprofit that helped champion the idea of the new park. “We know technology offers infinite ways to improve this space and bring new ideas to life, but we have to build the foundation based on what’s available today and tomorrow.”

At a time when privacy issues in tech are paramount, and the prospect of a Sidewalk Labs-led smart neighborhood in Toronto is getting blowback, how would a park tech plan work, without raising data security issues?

According to Raul Moas, Knight’s Miami Director, the idea is to figure out, with the community, the best ways to apply technology as a layer on top of the new linear park.

“Security and safety are, of course, vital, but there are applications and use cases here that can drive better health outcomes,” he says. “We can use the park and technology as a canvas. Can you use technology to promote certain activities? That’s the question we have, and no other public space is out there right now asking those questions.”

The Underline seeks to redevelop open space under a span of Metrorail track roughly parallel to the north end of the Miami River. Moas described the projects as “covering up a scar,” replacing underutilized land with a 70- to 170-foot wide mobility corridor and greenspace.

In addition to pathways for cycling and pedestrians, the development, when complete, will feature amenities such as a dog park, outdoor gym and basketball court, waterfalls, butterfly gardens, a 50-foot long communal table, and a gaming table for checkers and chess inspired by similar, ad-hoc tables set up in the city’s Little Havana neighborhood. The first section of the park, Brickell Backyard, will open next summer.

Some might wonder, why ruin a new park—ostensibly a place to escape the digital tether of everyday life—with more technology? Does a park need to have an app?

Moas says that’s not the right way to look at it. This project and grant wants to engage with residents to figure out the best way to embed technology to enhance the park experience. It’s not about creating a digital dashboard measuring data. It’s about creating a civic commons that utilizes technology. Moas says that may mean tech that helps with curbside management and mobility, or ways to increase safety. But that’s low hanging fruit, he says, they want to go further. Perhaps there’s potential for a community fitness app, or a way to book and share public events.

“This funding isn’t meant to buy hardware or software, but to create a design process that brings residents in,” he says. “We should build this civic commons by, of, and for the public. It should look like the priorities of the community. It’s not tech for the sake of technology.”

While the initiative is in its very early stages, including filling the two roles funded by the grant, perhaps it’s best viewed as a promise to create a better process. Tech is ubiquitous today, even in our public spaces, so an effort to make it truly civic tech, designed by residents instead of a tech giant, is worthwhile.

“We think tech will play a bigger and bigger role,” he says. “We want to use this as a lab to experiment with tech and tech enablement. We want to optimize a public space through technology.”