Urban Planning and Pokémon GO: Chris Rhie on what the PokeCraze means for cities

Chris Rhie, member of APA-NYM’s Urban Design Committee, on the pros & cons of Pokemon Go for cities and city-dwellers:

Pokémon GO has swept the nation off its feet and into the public realm. Since it was released on July 6 by Niantic, the app has been downloaded over 30 million times and has seen its daily active user base grow to over 20 million people per day — surpassing the daily usage of Twitter. Apple is now saying that it holds the all-time record for first-week App Store downloads.

Catching water types on the Long Island City waterfront.

Catching water types on the Long Island City waterfront.


This is a fantastic phenomenon for urbanism. Every day, tens of millions of players are exploring cities on a scavenger hunt for new creatures (enhancing their geographic literacy), visiting “gyms” where they can train their Pokémon alongside teammates (building social capital), increasing their daily step counts (lowering risk of chronic disease), and even spotting actual wildlife in the process (connecting with nature).

We say it unabashedly: Pokémon GO is great for cities.

We can only speculate about what has made the game such a runaway hit. Part of it is timing: the game launched at the peak of summer, when people were already inclined to spend time outdoors. Perhaps we are biased urban planners, but we think it has more to do with the interactive nature of the game.

Yes, part of this is enabled by technology. Pokémon GO is being hailed as the app that has finally popularized augmented reality (AR). The deployment is relatively simple: the app uses your smartphone’s camera and overlays an image of a Pokémon on top, and utilizes the smartphone’s motion sensors to keep the image “in place.” That’s it — and it’s delightful.

We haven’t seen a location-based game take off with such gusto since Foursquare (remember Foursquare?), the app that was arguably the first to successfully utilize location services in 2009. Merging the physical and online worlds, both apps capitalized on our innate desires for exploration, social expression, and recognition.

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Read the rest of the piece at the Voices of Urban Design Blog over at Medium.

Chris Rhie is an urban planner at BuroHappold Engineering and plays for the blue team; follow him on twitter @chris_rhie. Cristina Ungureanu is an urban planner at WXY. Look for Cristina defending her local gym at Msgr. McGolrick Park.