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Digitalization of public spaces: sensory and emotional issues in people’s relationships to places

Emeline Bailly and Dorothée Marchand


The rise of digital objects in urban space is changing the relationship to places, to others and to ourselves. Our hypothesis is that digital tools have an impact on the relationship between people and places. The research, NUMCES (Numérique et Création des Espaces urbains), takes a psycho-urban approach to question the evolution of relationships to places created by the development of digital objects in Montreuil-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris. More precisely, it questions urban and digital experiences by taking into account the representations and affects that govern them, the meaning of the spaces they create, as well as the socio-spatial and temporal rules they promote. An important result describes a relational dynamic that on the one hand expresses a social and urban distancing and, on the other, a re-anchoring through the body in motion and through the person's sensations. This relational dynamic is accompanied by an emotional state that is not linked to time or space. This evolution then questions urban quality.

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1The development of collective digital devices such as connected digital informational signs, public bike share programs (Vélib, Villo, Velov), or car sharing programs (Autolib, Zipcar, Mobility, Cambio), as well as their personal devices (smartphones, tablets or computers), build a new urban landscape. These digital objects are all urban attributes that enrich, even enhance, physical elements of the urban context, such as public places, or road and transportation networks. In impacting behaviors, these elements transform the relationship between places and people. Our hypothesis is that on the one hand, the digital devices create a mediation between city dwellers and on the other, between people and places. We study the role that connected smart urban devices play in user relationships to the city. What is the impact on the use of public spaces, the perception of landscapes, urban narratives and urban imaginings, and more broadly on the public and private conception of urban space?

2As part of the research Numérique et Création des Espaces urbains (NUMCES) (Digital Technology and the Creation of Urban Spaces), we question the evolution of the relationship individuals have with places. More specifically, we study the attitudes and the social and spatial interactions introduced by the rise of digital devices in urban spaces, to understand the repercussions on the perception and conception of urban spaces by citizens. We question digital urban experiences, taking into consideration the representations and affects that guide them, the meaning of spaces that those experiences create, as well as the socio-spatial and temporal rules they favor.

3This research proposes an interdisciplinary analysis (environmental psychology, urbanism, architecture) on the scale of an ordinary urban space, arranged by successive strata, marked by the presence of a tertiary hub of the digital economy: the Robespierre neighborhood in Montreuil-sous-Bois (in Ile-de-France on the border of the Paris 20th Arrondissement). In this article, first, we present the methodological protocol and second, we introduce some results that we discuss in a third section. We show how the elements of digital technology mediate the relationship to place and to others, specifically sensory ones, and how representations of space and relations in space are transformed with the development of digital technology. We also show how digital technology induces another sensorial relationship with urban and social spaces. In conclusion, we question these new affective modalities and relationships to place, others and the Self, introduced by digital urban goods, which in our opinion, call for the sensorial world to be considered in urban policy.

Objectives and Methods of NUMCES research

4Before presenting our results, we would like to introduce some elements of our state of the art and the methodology protocol. The state of the art shows first that digital technology in urban spaces generates deterritorialization and reterritorialization of the relationship between city dwellers and urban space. The digital city solidifies the presence of digital technology in the urban space. The considerable growth of digital devices and the speed with which they have penetrated society, requires us to question the repercussions of this evolution on relationships between individuals in public spaces and also on relationships with urban space.

Digital technology as a medium between urban spaces and people

5The digital city does not exist in and of itself (at least not yet). It goes back to the different digital attributes that enrich elements of the real world. They are all technical mediums at the service of urbanization and economic and societal globalization (Bailly, 2018). For example, digital flow infrastructures are doubling the physical networks to give them new capacities (energy performance of public lighting, flow forecasts, communication networks to forecast malfunctions and inform users about things like traffic jams). Geolocation increases virtual data that invades urban space, continually supplying metropolitan areas with information. This new understanding of environments creates new functionalities but also coherent “smart” and predictive data systems (data city) offering new urban services (information in real time, apps,...). It tends to extend the local urban world through networks and maximizing flow and interconnections, etc. It promotes a distancing, detachment from place, in favor of connecting remotely, where speed and efficiency are considered as essential in the global competition of metropolitan areas. It opens a global, infinite world, in constant exchange. Space is then spread out and partially dematerialized, even if each technical object remains linked to an urban object.

6Rouquette (2006) analyzes the psychological relationship between the individual and the city by mixing the concepts of physical territories, social territories and mental territories. By introducing new modes of communication (digital techniques), new temporalities (developed by digital tools), new behaviors and relationships to space (digital behaviors), digital technology has psychological impacts on cognitive processes, social relationships and individual behaviors. Thus, we observe new relationships with and in urban space, new modes of appropriation of places and territorial dynamics, new individual and social practices.

7This evolution of urban dynamics recomposes territorial distances and therefore social distances in space as defined by Hall (1966), Altman (1975), and Moles et Rohmer (1982), and are likely to change the proxemics of space. People regulate their relations with the world through different bubbles, distances, territories that ensure functions adapted to physical and social contexts. Redefining territorial borders, whether they are subjective or social, brings with it new behaviors. In the redefining of the subjective relationship to the environment, the first two “shells” as defined by Moles and Rohmer (1972), the body and its range of gestures are likely to be impacted by digital devices, in particular smartphones. In the same way, the use of personal devices in the urban context is part of this transformation of the relationship to territories and introduces new mediations in the relationship to places.

8Digital technologies are meant to improve services, capacity, or “metropolis performance” (Nicolas Douay, 2017), but also the opportunities for city dwellers to connect with others, therefore offering affordances (Gibson, 1979), the behavioral opportunities afforded by the place. Dominique Boulier (1999) talks of digital urbanism. If city dwellers in metropolitan areas get information, communicate, work, play simultaneously online and in urban spaces, etc., we could say that they perpetuate weak links (indeterminate), one of the virtues of the city, (Simmel, 1903) alongside communities (chosen groups). These remote links multiply and favor an increase in the communities one belongs to. They also lead to forms of reterritorialization through new types of proximity (exchange of knowledge and services, distribution networks, e-commerce, remote work, etc.). The Internet is an opportunity to invent new models of being together (sharing data, trade, solidarity, etc.) and this leads us to reconsider the meaning of lived spaces. Places are invested and experienced locally but the landscapes of the “city of flows” (Mongin, 2013) tends to minimize this relationship. While immaterial flows develop without territorial anchorage, urban places would be reinvested in proximity The abstract and dematerialized “hyperspace” (Echenne, 2008) could support a return to territoriality, as a man-made product and made up of lived spaces, each having its own identity (Magnaghi, 2014).

9In this context, it is essential that the conception of urban spaces takes into consideration the relational evolution linked to digital devices, which impacts spatial relations as much as social relations. This evolution introduces a situation of societal transition on different levels and dimensions. Dematerialization, hyperconnectivity, and the multiplicity of personal devices are all sources of transformation of place and people connections.

A theoretical approach based on urban quality

10We wanted to analyze these transformations in an urban space currently in a period of transition. The Robespierre neighborhood of Montreuil-sous-Bois, bordering the 20th arrondissement of Paris, has recently seen an influx of large companies and headquarters in the digital technology field. Numerous urban development projects are also underway in this neighborhood.

11For our work, we used an approach we would qualify as “psycho-urban”, whose foundation and objectives come from the traditional disciplines of urbanism and environmental psychology. Psycho-urbanism is a way to conceptualize the individual in his/her living environment, and to analyze the interaction between city and individual. The blending of urban psychology and a relational approach to city planning aims to respond to human and urban planning issues in cities through an analysis of the interaction between the two elements. The analysis is based on the development of a theoretical framework (Bailly and Marchand, 2019) and collection of data on the interrelations between the city, urban spaces, individuals and their socio-spatial interactions. For us, the interaction between psychological and urban planning dimensions is the foundation of urban quality. Based on a broadened qualitative theoretical approach, the concept of urban quality is at the intersection of urban form, feeling and sociocognitive relationships. The aim of psycho-urbanism is to go beyond acceptance of quality being based on technical, formal dimensions of comfort regarding norms and directives city dwellers are “invited” to conform to according to the paradigm of social acceptability, which we have also denounced (Marchand and Bailly, 2020). Quality does not exist in and of itself. It only exists if the way it is conceived (social representation) and perceived (the senses) is taken into consideration. Quality is therefore the product of a complex relationship between people and the places they experience.

12This holistic approach (the transactional perspective in environmental psychology) allows us to consider the individual from an ontological point of view. It does not consider the individual as a rational user of the city but as a being who feels and perceives, experiences and evaluates space in relation to the Self and its communication and relationship capacities, as well as through their body, senses and feelings. The individual and their environment create a whole that is characterized by a reciprocity and continuous exchange (Altman and Rogoff, 1987). Through subjective experience, the individual assigns meaning to place and creates their own urban landscape. This theoretical approach allows us to conceptualize places and more globally, the city, not only through a spatial lens but as a dynamic entity created from the interactions between individuals and places. This perspective is an interesting way to begin to understand the evolution of relationships between individuals and places in the context of the rise of connected smart devices.

The NUMCES research method

Site for study and population selected

13The study was conducted in a place in transition, an area in the city of Montreuil-sous-Bois (in Ile-de-France), bordering the 20th arrondissement of Paris. We chose this district because an urban renewal process was having a significant impact on the area, its urban dynamics and social composition. A corporate real estate program was built in the lower part of Montreuil, on the edge of the ring road and it has attracted digital companies in particular. The real estate and urban projects that have taken place on the Place de la République have caused a process of gentrification. This social and spatial transformation has added to the development of digital technology as a component of the redeveloped spaces (Wi-Fi connection in the square, digital transport services such as Autolib and Velib, digital information).

14A preliminary survey has identified four sites in the district of Lower Montreuil and they reflect the different facets of the area delimited for the study: the tower of the Place de la République, Rue Cuvier, the corner of Rue Cuvier and Rue Valmy, and the corner of the Café des Amourettes across from Place de la République (map 1).

Map 1: representation of the district studied in Montreuil-sous-Bois

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15There were multiple stages of research combining multiple methodological protocols. The first has to do with the relationship between the digital experience of city dwellers and the urban space through 1) a study of social representations of digital technology 2) an analysis of spatial configurations 3) observation in situ and through video recordings of behaviors, postures and digital practices, 4) interactive walking interviews documented with photographs to formulate the perceptions and sensorial relationships with places. Next steps include interviews with a cohort of people interviewed at three successive times: before, during and after an interactive digital urban simulation using the DIY digital tool developed by 7 Billion Urbanists. The association 7 Billion Urbanists1 has developed a participatory digital tool, which makes it possible to draw the evolution of a public space on a tablet by means of a series of transformation options: vegetation, densification, uses, mobility, etc. The goal is a diachronic and multidimensional analysis of the relationship between space and people mediated by digital technology.

16In this article, we will present the modalities of affectivity linked to digital objects and their impacts on the relationship between individuals on the one hand, and between city dwellers and spaces on the other. The representations of digital devices and digital objects are considered in the intermediation they establish in the relationship that individuals have with spaces, with other users of public places but also with each other.

17The first stages of this research consist in the analysis of social representations, interactive walking interviews and the first analysis of the digital simulation experiment. This field work shows that people’s relations to places and urban society, as well as their “sensitive” world (perceptible, of the senses), (i.e. sensorial, affective and imagined - Bailly, 2017), are transformed by digital devices. A cohort of twenty persons was assembled by controlling socio-professional categories, age and sex (see Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1: Research sample by gender and age group

Table 1: Research sample by gender and age group

Table 2: Research sample by gender and socio-professional category

Data collection

18The objective of the study was to collect empirical data on the cognitive, perceptive and behavioral dimensions that influence people’s relations to places and to the digital devices implemented in built-up environments. The commented route is a data collection technique that consists in collecting the way individuals experience and practice their relationship to space in real-time (Raulet-Croset et al., 2013). Three actions are simultaneously solicited: walking, perceiving and describing. The technique of the commented walk conceives mental activities and the physical environment as inseparable, allowing the connection between saying, perceiving and using a particular place. Conducting interviews while walking through the city or observing a specific place gives access to the lived space (Suchman, 1987), to the feelings, meanings, perceptions and representations that structure the relationship with the place.

19We accompanied the subjects in order to carry out semi-structured interviews in situ and being equipped with a recorder around the neck made it possible to transcribe the interviews in their entirety. To frame the commented pathways, an interview grid was constructed from previously collected results (Author 2 and Author 1, 2018). We asked individuals about their perception of place (sensations related to the five senses), their feelings (sentiments, emotions) as well as their use of digital technology. To develop this tool, we relied on Thibaud's (2001) three types of instructions related to the conditions of the experience, the pathway, and the description.

20The questions focused on:

  • The description of the place and the space perceived in its entirety;

  • Affordances (Gibson, 1979) as the field of possibilities conferred by a place, the rhythms and sociabilities in a place;

  • The perception, the sensitive evaluation of the place: this refers to what people feel, experience, and their emotions;

  • The digital objects of the place: identified digital supports, point of view on their presence or not and on their impact on the atmosphere of the place.

21The cohort was asked the same questions in each of the four selected sites. At the end of the survey, questions were asked about digital habits. The survey was conducted onsite in May and June 2017. Every walk lasted an average of two hours and was recorded and transcribed to build a discursive corpus. Then, we did a content analysis of the discursive corpus.

Results: Detachment from urban spaces compensated by sensitive experience and reaffirmation of urban values

22Our research shows several results. First, the digital devices are optional (information signs). They change the representation of the city and are invasive and excluding (smartphone). Second, we observe the intrusion of the private sphere into public space.

Digital urban space: detachment and reaffirming local urban and social values

23First, the results of the NUMCES research show that digital devices, while infrequently acknowledged and/or identified (visually) in public spaces, reinforce the positive and/or negative representation of a place in connection with the values that are attributed to it and, above all, engage the relational dynamic with space and with the public and private spheres.

A form of digital invisibility in urban space

24In spite of the massive presence of digital objects in the urban space revealed by in situ observation (Bailly and Marchand, 2018), a description of them is rarely spontaneously evoked by people asked to describe their feelings and points of view in the places that marked the interactive walking interviews in Lower Montreuil.

25Speech analysis revealed a semantic vagueness that can explain the low visibility of digital technology. There is a lack of definition and an indifference in the use of terms related to the digital; objects, digital supports, digital or smart systems are not distinguished. The absence of a precise vocabulary for urban technology is linked to a lack of a representation constructed for these objects. This explains why they are not perceived, as well as the difficulty in offering a description. When people are questioned directly regarding digital objects that they can identify in public space, cell phones are the most often forgotten and connected smart devices are not always identified as such. Whether it is signs at bus stops or Vélib (bike share) stations, informational signs, parking meters, or Autolib (car sharing) stations, their identification as connected devices is weak. As such, this finding strengthens the analysis of social representations that found an absence of a representation for the digital urban landscape. These digital urban objects often spark questions of whether or not they are “connected”: “I don’t know whether lampposts are connected”; “I don’t see any digital objects, no. Or Wi-Fi hotspots, for example. Is that a digital object?”, etc. However, the ones linked to shared transportation (Velib, Autolib…) are the most frequently identified in public spaces. On the other hand, smartphones are rarely described in spite of their massive presence in public spaces. Have they become so integrated they are no longer perceived as distinct from individuals or places?

26However, the analysis of social representations shows that digital technology is associated with personal digital goods, first smartphones, then tablets and laptops. It appears more strongly linked to inside spaces, private or professional, than to public spaces. The fact that digital devices are little perceived in urban spaces confirms the role of their representation.

27The invisible quality of digital objects in urban space raises questions. Are they less visible because of the absence of a social representation, or do they open up another virtual space, elsewhere, outside of time and space? A mental territory, even a mental landscape? These issues are part of the same questions about the relation to others, the relation to the space and, more widely, to urban time.

Digital devices create detachment from urban spaces

28The invitation to describe digital objects that are present in urban spaces shows representations linked to values but not descriptive categories. It makes a clear distinction between 1) digital objects that arouse little interest (such as connected/smart signs, which are judged to be purely informational) and 2) those that, on the contrary, are judged to be interesting because they are in line with environmental values (such as shared vehicle services (Vélib and Autolib) and, finally, 3) digital objects that are highly controversial (such as smartphones), which are judged to be practical, but which are represented in such a way that they pose a threat to social life and health.

29In effect, if digital objects are appreciated for their functionality and utility in terms of travel, orientation, information, time saving, etc., they are also associated with values, notably those that convey positive or negative urban values linked to the Lower Montreuil area.

30Even though digital devices create virtual connections with the others, they do not increase people’s sociability. On the contrary, according to the interviewees they favor social distancing and detachment: “I have the feeling that digital technology can cut off human relationships”; “I think that it reduces sociability.” Digital devices seem to be integrated into individuals by provoking a withdrawal into the Self: “It feels like the telephone is grafted onto us.” Digital devices are criticized for massive, automatic use, in a systematic and sometimes even incongruous way: “I notice that people often have their noses glued to their smartphones, even when walking.”

31This detachment is also highlighted through discussion of inequalities in access to digital technology from a social point of view (the ability to have an internet subscription, 4G or not) as well as a generational point of view. Being a private good, the smartphone is a form of discrimination: “Everything we need to know or find, we have it on our smartphone (...) except for the people who don’t have smartphones.” Among older people, some say they feel lost around technology and don’t feel they have the social codes to evolve with digital society. More than other interviewees, they are hurt by exclusive and intrusive behaviors engendered by smartphones, like distancing/detachment, even forgetting about other people. Therefore, digital technology is associated with a dehumanization in the sense that it puts machine intelligence in the forefront: “It’s an object with an intelligence in the sense of a machine”; “A traditional tradesman does not need digital media.”

32The limiting of social interactions is linked to people withdrawing into their private sphere while they are in public spaces: “I don’t look at people in the street, I don’t really pay attention to what’s going on around me when I walk down the street. I pay attention to myself and my telephone.” The conversation is unanimous regarding the distancing and detachment smartphones generate: “If I’m waiting for someone, I read my email, I look at things on the internet”; “When we go on break, we look at our smartphones.” Digital practices are often characterized by the ubiquity that they afford, in being “here and elsewhere” (Picon, 2015), and this is coupled with a ubiquity between the private and public spheres. In fact, video recordings show many behaviors from the private sphere in public spaces, specifically, attitudes free from social codes, such as slumped, relaxed postures.

33Smartphones are also described as a threat. Withdrawal and inattention raise questions about the dangers of using smartphones in public space. Interviewees are concerned about the risk of accidents: "Pedestrians walk, without looking, without turning around are so dangerous. They don't hear anything because they have headphones or earpieces". Other people expressed fears related to exposure to radio frequencies or the surveillance of public space.

34Thus smartphones drive representations of a loss of sociability that goes against urbanity in general, the ideals of the urban life associated with Lower Montreuil in particular. The threat is in specific micro-places: La place de la République with its square, cafés, and local shops that are the emblem of a social life accessible to all, diverse and intergenerational, founded on civic and ecological values. Discourses on technology seem to reinforce concerns about the transformation of this district. We believe that these results would not be as pronounced in another part of Montreuil. The representations of the transition of the Robespierre district and the perception of digital facilities are strongly linked to individual and social values. Digital devices cause an evolution of the relationships with lived spaces and the social sphere in relationship with the symbolic representation of a given place. In the same way that digital objects are one characteristic of a place, they are used to highlight or minimize values associated with a place and in the present example, an urban projection linked to the context of a redevelopment project.

Digital devices influence the social and urban representation of a neighborhood

35The discourses on the places visited in Lower Montreuil express urban values related to civic rights (accessibility, identity, diversity), ecology (nature, soft transportation, a more peaceful atmosphere without cars or noise pollution, etc.), and ambiance (related to public spaces and urban design). The urban future that was revealed mobilizes representations that are more or less optimistic, underlining aspirations for a calmer way of life (increased centrality, soft transportation, security).

36Contrary to the representations of smartphones, the representations of Velib and Autolib are strongly positive. As shared and environmentally friendly vehicles, they correspond to environmental values. The promotion of the Velib self-service bicycle system emphasizes the alternatives to cars, the use of which really bothers the users of the district. Thus, car sharing and bike sharing services can improve the ambiance of a place (fewer cars, less noise and pollution, positive image of an environmentally friendly transportation system, etc.). They offer an opportunity to bring back the pedestrian city. They make soft mobility possible and promote other behaviors in the city, like walking. They also facilitate travels to other neighborhoods and neighboring cities, etc. Users of vehicle sharing services feel that they increase their territory: “I prefer using a bike and I use it more often; I’m able to discover new neighborhoods, actually, that were maybe too far, so I didn’t feel like going so far... but now it’s really accessible, so that’s good.”

37These digital objects are subject to transformational recommendations. For example, considered as not aesthetically pleasing, even as a degradation of the urban landscape, questions about their use and its effect on urban quality is highlighted: “If there are negative aspects of the use of digital objects, it’s more from an aesthetic point of view”.

38People’s relations to urban digital objects therefore seem to be evaluated through the filter of the values that they convey. Digital tools are evaluated differently according to their representations. They are represented negatively when they are optional (information panels), invasive and excluding (smartphone). They are represented as positive when they are evaluated in accordance with the objectives of the local authorities' urban policies. Thus, Vélib and Autolib are symbols of the city’s universal accessibility, offering a public service, promoting a sense of community and sharing, gentle, silent and ecological transport, and the pleasure of exploring the city. These civic and ecological values in favor of a city-dwelling urbanity link to an urban ideal for a future Montreuil.

39If the relationship with digital devices in urban space appears to be controversial, it seems above all mediated by representations and values that are assigned to it. The conversation around digital devices is connected to the image individuals project on a given place. It strengthens the relational dynamic linked to the interpretation of the perceived urban quality of a place.

40The digital symbolizes urban values and the perception of urban quality. But it is also poorly perceived because there are no social representations, but probably also because it creates a virtual world that is essentially immaterial and invisible. The absence of perception of digital objects, including physical perception in space, seems to be a line of research to explore in order to understand the types of withdrawal into the private sphere and the relational modifications to others, to Self, notably the sensorial relationship, that these modifications provoke. This question of a link between the mental landscape and dematerialization induced by digital technology, the relationship to the body and the transformation of proxemic rules, particularly those that relate to the intimate, seems to be a fundamental research question to pursue.

Social and urban relationships mediated by digital technology: from withdrawal to the felt experience

41Social detachment underlined in the discussions from the guided walking tours, was also observed in situ, notably through attitudes of withdrawal into the private sphere. Connected people (who are using digital devices), such as those we observed in public spaces during the observation sessions in situ and through video recordings, adopt different postures that, in our opinion, mark an evolution of the relations to places and to the social sphere, in favor of a relationship that is more sensorial, even perceptive or “sensitive.”

42Behaviors vary with the use of personal digital devices (especially smartphones) but not with the use of connected urban services. These digital urban services are rarely perceived. They are judged as more or less useful and are evaluated through the values they promote. On the contrary, smartphones have an impact on urban attitudes and practices. We observe an attention to non-visual sensations; new bodily attitudes, an evolution of the emotions that people experience in places. This transforms the relational dynamics between the Self, others and public space. This relational dynamic is both intentional and unintentional, conscious and unconscious (Laflamme, 2009). Indeed, in relational thinking, emotions and senses are not separated from cognition. In other words, the relationship to the world combines the social, subjective (intentional or not), and sensory dimensions, and therefore feelings, sensations and imaginations. In the context of Lower Montreuil, smartphones actually favor multiple evolutions that engage relational and communication dynamics: the individualization of space, the corporeal and sensorial relationship with place, and the expression of emotions experienced at a distance. In public places, digital devices, as personal goods, seem to elongate the private sphere, even the intimate one. Behaviors considered as intimate, and even those that are more reserved and/or good mannered, can be observed in urban spaces. Yawning, stretching, back scratching, relaxed postures, etc., translate into a type of individualization of the relationship to collective spaces. With the attention being placed on a remote communication, whether intimate or not, people using digital technology seem to extract themselves from the social urban spaces. They thus prioritize a relationship that is tactile (touching urban elements), kinesthetic (slowing down movements) and sometimes intimate (through attitudes that are not typically socially acceptable in public places). These people are in a spatial and social relationship, stemming from an interiority, not being visually engaged in a relationship with/to others.

43The proxemic rules recompose those stated by Hall (1966). New forms of social and cultural interactions are at work. They were intentional and conscious before digital. With digital they become more intuitive and separate from other city dwellers. This creates a kind of abstraction of the Other. The co-presence of individuals in the same space is characterized by the avoidance of eye contact and interaction. These intimate postures are accompanied by a detachment from the representation of the public space itself, a decreased perception of the public dimension of place that is founded on urbanity, or in other words, city living (urban life), civility (social life), and citizenship (political life) (Bailly, 2013).

“Alone together”, Excerpts from video recordings of Lower Montreuil. CSTB, Marie Elyse Beyne, 2016.

44This withdrawal into the Self also has an impact on the ways urban spaces are invested by people. In situ observation showed that the use of smartphones is more frequent when there is an opportunity for seclusion (in side streets or recessed areas) or slowing down, even stopping, in public spaces. Smartphone use is thus more frequent when urban spaces are less attractive: residential roads, little activity, ordinary landscapes (Bailly, 2014). Metro exits, red lights, waiting lines, as well as benches or other walls offering a seat, are seized as opportunities to use cell phones. These pauses and moments of slowing down related to the use of technology contrast with the idea of a temporal acceleration of networks (Rosa, 2013). They accentuate body language and an incursion of the private sphere into a social space. The attitudes themselves are accompanied by slower rhythms and intimate attitudes that seem to disregard time and public space. These attitudes in urban spaces show a co-presence of individuals more than the existence of a space of urban sociability.

45In addition, smartphones as corporeal attributes transform the physical and sensorial experience and by extension the relationship to urban and social spaces. The intuitive relationship to space seems first to be expressed through the body. People’s withdrawal into themselves resulting from the use of smartphones, tends to distance social and cultural body language while creating an intimate body language that is expressed, as we saw, through body postures from the private sphere in public spaces (relaxed posture, staring into the distance, ...).

46Urban digital devices, especially smartphones, are invasive and exclusionary. While they are not very visible, they impact a sensitive relationship with the place and the urban landscape. In our opinion, this is no small change. Are they changing the rules of proxemics and urban sociabilities?

Discussion: Digital urban devices as sensitive mediation tools in urban places

  • 2 Gaston Bachelard talks of phenomeno-technology designating the discovery of the world through scien (...)

47The results of our study show the transfer from a social to a sensitive approach of public spaces. We postulate that digital devices, as public or personal devices, mediate the relations between city dwellers and places. Digital devices constitute mediums that make the relationship with the urban and social world evolve. Walter Benjamin (1931) showed, through the concept of phenomeno-technology developed by Gaston Bachelard (1934)2, how esthesia, in other words the capacity to perceive the senses, is transformed by artistic and technical mediums, like pictures or films. Corporeal objects (glasses, cell phones, scooters, etc.) modify the connection to space by the body and the experience of place. All these experiences are in return anchored in place and modify their sensorial charge (Bailly, 2017).

48Following the example of Nathalie Audas and Denis Martouzet (2008), we consider that the affective relationship with space is constructed through the interaction between urban experiences, including sensorial, their representations and what they evoke. These affective relationships create images and representations, sensations and affects blending the ideal city with experience, a city of representations with its narrative. This conception subscribes itself in a relational, even communicational, perspective of affects. In fact, emotions stem from individual subjectivity as well as relational subjectivity (Laflamme, 1995). Even for Simon Laflamme, the latter takes precedence over subjectivity in the sense that it is in dialectic with the conscious, the psyche, communication, history, society, time, etc. For him, “every human emotion is framed by a relationship” (ibid., p. 178). We would add that it is situated in a given environment and linked to one or multiple languages that are superimposed. Urban, social, corporeal, and poetic languages intertwine. In this sense, the city itself is a language, with its signs, significations and readings/interpretations. This language evolves with the introduction of digital technology.

49The corporeal experience mediated by digital devices also highlights a more sensorial spatial relationship. Slouched, the connected city dweller (while using technology) navigates by mobilizing senses other than eyesight to overcome a reduced visual field. Touch and sound become important, as well as sense of movement (Berthoz, 1997). This last element allows for an intuitive orientation, notably through the use of other senses. People recreate the perception they have of their body in space. This perception compels them to act differently in space. Meaning, slower rhythms, stops, an attraction to calmer or less frequented places combined with tactile and sonorial sensations. To allow movement through space, noises and materials on the ground guide steps and navigational strategies. As a way to guide themselves, people brush their hand on walls while using their smartphone, which they press to their ear, touch with a finger, or look at, all while on the move. Even while stopped, people lightly move their body, favoring postures in relation to physical space. A wall, tree, lamppost or other post, are all supports that highlight the materiality of the environment. It is the world of tactile, sound and movement sensations that engages the relational dynamic between place and the connected individual. The use of technology accentuates the multisensorial relationship with space (Bailly and Marchand, 2018), which extends Rath’s (1986) hypothesis that digital technology does not favor “the predominance of one sense over another, but on the contrary, the quest for the sensual, the intense, and generally, sensation” (p. 201).

50This corporeal and sensorial experience seem to be linked to the use of smartphones impacts, the affective relationship with place and others. Loved or hated, perceived or not, conscious or unconscious, digital technology seems to spark a range of contrasting perceptions and emotions. It favors an imaginary relation to urban space through virtual overlay forms (image of place), but also an affective one (subjective representation). The relationship founded on the experience of place and their material and sensory dimensions, on the primary qualities of the social world (Frias, 2001) opens onto an affective world, itself mediated by digital technology.

51First and foremost, the digital object seems to be as much a functional tool (utilitarian) as an affective issue. Many passersby, when they’re not on their smartphone, wander with it in hand. The exits of office buildings or metro stations are accompanied by smartphones being held in hand, like the cigarette of old, as if it is an obligatory accessory, required to show oneself in urban and social space.

52Digital practices also give rise to emotional behaviors belonging to the private sphere. People using digital technology relax their social acts and show their emotions. Smiles, anger, excitement, nervousness, etc., are all emotional markers (Bernard, 2015). In their relational conception of emotion that critiques the idea that model emotional “patterns” like joy, fear or anxiety, Tcherkassof and Frijda (2014) feel that corporeal attitudes express the emotional subject-object relationship (or subject-situation). They consider “expressive phenomena (gestures, gait, physiognomy games, tone of voice, prosody) reflect the complexity of emotional dispositions: the mixing of attraction and repulsion, curiosity and wariness, kindness mixed with coldness, a disdainful politeness” (p. 527). They cite in particular Scherer (1984), for whom “the notion of emotion serves as an indicator of complex and multi-faceted responses”, in other words, composed of many responses, whether they be physiological, motor, cognitive, affective and/or felt.

53Emotional expressions in the urban space create emotives (Reddy, 2001), in other words, signs coming from the emotions themselves, which become visible in public spaces. These emotions linked to a remote relationship appear in the attitudes and speech from the interactive walking tours, which underline their state of emotional pleasure or displeasure. So, digital devices are associated with negative emotions (fear, feeling left out, etc.) but also with positive emotions (enjoyment, joy, relaxation, etc.), linked to a game, the ability to be close to loved ones, to discover new places thanks to geolocation or car or bike share services. Like every objects, digital devices engage a sensory relationship. The relationship to elsewhere, encourages a detachment from place, which in turn favors the remote relationship and favors a displacement of emotions outside of the Self. Tcherkassof and Frijda (2014) associate emotional expression with a language of the senses that is “sensitive”. “Even though emotional expression can be compared to a language, the signs/symbols that make up this language do not call for an analytical reading. (...) Expressive behavior, including facial expression, reorganizes the field of the observer and establishes a Gestalt, in the same way a group of musical notes creates a melody.” (p. 528)

54In this way, the body and sensations create a spatial and temporal space. They translate the act of existence but also its perception and feeling (linked to sensations as well as emotions). The relationship between people and urban space is not only anchored in the physical, the language of the body, sensations and emotions, but also in the perception of the language of the space itself. Physicality and movements in the environment make us feel our body (Younes and Bonnaud, 2014). Elements like climate, sound, lighting, traffic, etc., expose the body to a “sensitive” (sensory) experience of place. The “discontinuity and unpredictable elements of the urban condition” (Baudry, 2004, p. 62) favor senses related to movement just as the virtual world encourages remote, detached connections and emotions.

55Thus, a relational dynamic seems to be established between the language of the body and its sensory and emotional perceptions and spatial and social language. A distancing from place in favor of space seems to occur due to the dematerialization induced by the digital. It translates into intuitive spatial practices. It promotes an image of space as the distance between two locations and not as a lived and appropriated place in an intentional social relationship. In fact, people using technology are not only distanced and detached from social space but also from the urban landscape, which they look at or engage with only indirectly. On the other hand, corporeal sensations, in particular sound, tactile and kinesthetic ones, encourage the perception of a spatial language made up of materials, sensory environments, perceived and felt movements. This spatial re-anchoring by the senses favors another reading of urban space and shows a space of co-presence rather than a social space. The sensory environment thus takes precedence over the characteristics of public space.

56In the end, with the use of smartphones, the virtual world superimposes itself on the real world. It opens a spatial and temporal world to the infinite and the undefined. Therefore, it symbolizes the visible and invisible totality of the world. It gives itself to the subject more than it results from the interaction between subject and object (Vial, 2014), favoring emotions in public spaces that are lived remotely, at a distance. Between an open spatial virtual world and the private world linked to sensation in situ and remote emotions, the urban and social space appears in part to be put at a distance and made remote, even invisible, limiting the potential of lived spaces as those that are engaged in the social sphere and in a societal urban framework.


57If digital urban services seem to promote values associated with urban space, personal digital devices favor a superimposition and an interaction in the here and now of the spatial world (which becomes polytopic), the temporal world (which blends past, present and future), the social world (which favors a multidimensional sense of belonging and remote relationships) and above all the personal world, as a result of the intrusion of the private sphere in public space. They engage a relational dynamic between people and places, as well as images and narratives of urban spaces.

58In fact, remote communication transforms in part the relationship to oneself, to social life, to urban space, and to temporality. They favor a double dynamic of a social and urban distancing and anchoring of the body in movement and sensation in space. At the same time, they encourage an emotional experience that is out of time and space.

59Likewise, space is regarded and interpreted differently. Digital devices translate a symbolic charge that is reinforced by the values they convey. They create a co-presence of city dwellers and a spatial language made up of ambiance, matter and movement. The dialogue between these languages seems to be established through the combined kinesthetics of the body and the city.

60The relational dynamics of city dwellers and places evolve according to values, feelings on the one hand, and by affordances (Gibson, 1979) on the other (i.e. the opportunities offered by the place, and their displacement), It puts in constant interaction the symbolic, cognitive, sensory and affective dimensions of individuals and places. It questions the urban characteristics of the place and in the context of the Lower Montreuil, the space tending to substitute itself to the place. At the same time, new symbolic and sensory dimensions emerge in the urban frame.

61The notion of place is an essential dimension that must be taken into account in the analysis of the modalities of appropriation of space. The lived space becomes a place. As Ramadier (1998) reminds us, by considering space as a psychological construction, Kant (quoted by Bienma (2010)) opened a controversial field of thought between the proponents of space defined as a physical entity and those for whom space is lived. Our research shows that digital technology in the city modifies spatial/proxemic relations and impacts social interactions, transforming individual behaviors. In the case of the use of smartphones, space is no longer a lived space; it becomes simply a support, an area in which the individual may disregard the social codes linked to public place, to psychologically anchor themself in their primary territory. The lived space would henceforth become a substitute (replacement) for the mental landscape.

62This psycho-urban approach invites us to broach the relationship between city dwellers and place in a different way. By extension, it proposes a conception of urban spaces that is more cognizant of these relational and “sensitive”, sensory dynamics. In fact, if for urban development professionals, the digital city is one that is constantly monitored and modeled in real time, creating an event-driven city marked by an eternal present (Picon, 2015), for city dwellers the relational evolution seems to be something entirely different. The relational evolution shows up in a resonance of sensations that are infrequently considered in development (sound, touch, movement) or even emotional markers in public space that encourage a more affective reading of place (despite its spatial and temporal expansion). It also calls into question urban social space, with a lesser manifestation of social and societal codes in favor of the manifestation of private, even intimate, spheres. Even though these evolutions need to be studied outside Lower Montreuil, in our opinion, they already call into question the methods and knowledge of the spatial, social and sensory language of cities required so as not to lose the possibility of an urban narrative, and to design an urban quality of life that respects the multiplicity of connections between people and place.

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2 Gaston Bachelard talks of phenomeno-technology designating the discovery of the world through scientific and technical biases. Thus, he considers that the technical introduces a phenomenological way of conceptualizing devices. In the same vein, Walter Benjamin showed how the history of photographic techniques changes our view.

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Electronic reference

Emeline Bailly and Dorothée Marchand, Digitalization of public spaces: sensory and emotional issues in people’s relationships to placesArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 22 | 2021, Online since 05 February 2022, connection on 25 May 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Emeline Bailly

Emeline Bailly. C.S.T.B. Researcher in urban studies,

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Dorothée Marchand

Dorothée Marchand. C.S.T.B. Researcher in Environmental psychology,

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