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From the Design Quarterly: Teaching sustainability and energy conservation through play

March 27, 2019

By Maciej Golaszewski

Energy use is high and energy literacy is low; a pop-up park turns city parks into places that boost energy understanding

In a city center, a family enters a seaside park looking for something to do on a sunny afternoon, a group of teenagers rolls into the park to practice their dance moves, while others exercise on kinetic bench or manipulate renewable energy technologies (RET)—all of them are producing energy. And, they can compare their energy production on digital displays within the park or via a mobile app which extrapolates sensor and energy data in real time. Suddenly, the park’s users aren’t just enjoying some recreational time, they’re learning about energy transfer and use from a real-world example.

Changing behaviors

Why should a pop-up park teach us about energy? While sustainable designers and engineers continue to advance energy efficiency in buildings and urban infrastructure, energy consumption by individuals continues to rise. There is a clear disconnect regarding energy and energy consumption amongst the general public. Humans consume an average 8.6 kilowatt hours (kWh) (The World Bank, 2014) of electricity usage every day, and global demand is growing. In Canada, a single person uses 42.6 kWh a day—enough to drive an electric car for approximately 200 kilometres! Roughly 75% of global power is consumed in cities (AAAS, 2016). With population and energy demand rising, and with migration to urban areas increasing, cities will continue to be responsible for increased greenhouse gas emissions as a result of energy use.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 05 | Smart and Livable Cities

Why should a pop-up park teach us about energy? While sustainable designers and engineers continue to advance energy efficiency in buildings and urban infrastructure, energy consumption by individuals continues to rise.

Energy literacy

Worldwide, energy literacy (an understanding of the nature and role of energy in the world and in our daily lives) is quite low. Less than 30% of adults and 1% of Canadian youth are considered energy literate (Andre Turcotte, 2012). This lack of energy literacy in the general public can lead to poor choices concerning energy consumption. When we’re better educated about energy, we tend to use it more wisely.

One way cities can fulfill their sustainable agenda is to boost their residents’ and visitors’ energy literacy, creating opportunities for people to engage with and learn about energy experientially so they can make more informed energy choices. Cities need to ask themselves: What can we do to boost conservation in the public mindset at the individual level?

Introducing E-Pop, an interactive park

Inspired by research on energy tourism, smart cities and innovative technologies for outdoor settings, I prototyped a public realm installation that can educate citizens about energy through play. Energy Pop-up Park, or E-Pop, is an interactive park that provides people with a safe space to gain an understanding of basic energy concepts through games and activities. The activities in E-Pop use human movement to help individuals understand how much effort it takes to harvest or distribute energy.

At the park, visitors, through their movement and senses transfer, manipulate and observe energy.

Play is incentivized through real-time feedback, which invites competition with other players. By gamifying the experience (players are given an “energy budget” to track throughout the park), players see conservation as an ongoing challenging where they can practice and even compete with friends or family.

They also experience the transfer of energy—their own—firsthand. E-Pop players convert their chemical energy (from food) to kinetic energy (the energy of an object in motion) by exercising their muscles through movement via a treadmill, bicycle, or smart floor. E-Pop converts their physical efforts to electricity using small electrical generators and displays it.

Renewable energy technologies (RETs) embedded in the park give players a chance to compare energy-harvesting of sunlight through a photovoltaic panel versus that captured by a wind turbine. Digital data on each player’s performance will give players an understanding of what the generated electricity could be used for; how long it could power a familiar household objects―like a light bulb or laptop computer.

Where to play?

For the prototype concept, I located E-Pop along the seawall in the False Creek neighborhood of Vancouver, British Columbia, where I live. The site offers access to natural features, local businesses, and the city center. It’s easy to reach from public transport including the Sky Train, and it has a high volume of pedestrian and cycling traffic all day long. But I designed E-Pop to be small, modular, compact, scalable, and easily deployed in a popular and accessible park in any urban downtown.

If energy literacy is part of the solution for smart and sustainable cities, we will need creative ideas like E-Pop to get the message out.

  • Maciej Golaszewski

    As a landscape designer and smart city consultant, Maciej focuses on incorporating and improving energy-efficient designs for our Sustainability and Building Performance team.

    Contact Maciej
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