CBNGaryHeadshotBy Gary Newcomer

Gary Newcomer is the newest addition to the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis (CBN). As a native of South St. Louis City, Gary has always had a passion for exploring and strengthening the rich fabric of neighborhoods in the St. Louis region. He graduated from Boston College and later received his Masters from Saint Louis University in Urban Planning and Development with a research focus on alleys in St. Louis City. Before starting at CBN, Gary worked on historic redevelopment projects in St. Louis and Davenport, Iowa and specialized in the historic tax credit program. His background in urban planning and historic real estate development have contributed to his approach to community development and made him a strong believer in place-based solutions for promoting vibrant and inclusive neighborhoods.

I spent Friday night playing Pokémon GO. I admit it. In fact, I downloaded the iPhone app on the first day it hit the market. But before you relegate the game or my op-ed to Millennial hogwash, consider that Pokémon GO has strong implications for the future of community development.

I intend to convert the nonbelievers, but first let me take a moment to initiate those unfamiliar with the game.

Pokémon GO works by scattering Pokémon monsters, Pokéstops, and Gyms across a street map not too different from what you find on Google. By commanding your smart phone’s GPS and pedometer, the game requires users to get out of the house and explore the neighborhood. Pokémon are all over (I caught a Rattata on a man’s lap outside of Cafe Mochi), but the Pokéstops and Gyms are actual landmarks. These range from churches to statues to that Chinese restaurant you’ve been meaning to try. My roommate and I took to the streets of Tower Grove South to test it out. We meandered up South Grand, holding our iPhones at arm’s length and attracting dozens of stares. What we discovered immediately, besides hordes of digital Pokémon bouncing across the sidewalk, was how much the game encourages social interactions.

Neighborhoods with a high density of businesses and landmarks have more Pokéstops, Gyms, and wild Pokémon. Essentially, St. Louis’s most walkable areas like South Grand and the Delmar Loop are packed full of Pokémon and, inevitably, young people playing Pokémon GO. Pokémon want to be around people, and the game ultimately rewards vibrant, community-oriented spaces.

Gyms are community gathering spots in the most organic sense. Pokémon GO manages to identify a community’s assets and amenities like a team of social workers. These locations are not just schools or parks or popular restaurants. On my block, the two gyms are a gay bar specializing in amateur drag and a Vietnamese restaurant. Both buildings are fairly nondescript and rarely attract the attention of those driving past. However, I can attest to the tightly-knit communities that frequent both.

The game is a success because it harnesses an aspect of community that too often gets neglected: a sense of place. Pokémon GO elevates the ordinary spaces where we conduct our lives by signaling an added importance. Users do not just catch imaginary Pokémon and battle in virtual Gyms, but explore the places they pass every day and even check out new neighborhoods altogether.

The joy of playing Pokémon GO is sharing an array of community spaces and, just as importantly, a common language to describe them and our experiences. My roommate and I had a reason to pause at Franz Park. We had a reason to walk around the block after dinner and, ultimately, bump into a few neighbors. We had a reason to engage with strangers and visit the Grey Fox Pub. I may have lost my Pokémon battle, but stayed for the cabaret. I have heard these stories countless times: people discovering local businesses through the game or noticing a historical marker or speaking to a neighbor for the first time.

Pokémon GO is an example of the role technology can play in community development, an aspect of 21st century engagement too often cast aside in favor of hands-on, boots-on-the-ground, by-the-sweat-of-our-brows community development. I know it is easy to scoff at a game where twenty-somethings catch virtual Japanese creatures. Naysayers are right to call it what it is: a fad. However, the future of augmented reality is not.

How can we bridge the virtual and physical world to better our communities? This question will define the field in the next decade. Imagine pointing a phone at a vacant lot and seeing a 3D architectural rendering rising from the street. Consider virtual markers identifying places in community history. Envision rewards for young people to vote, attend public meetings, or contact their local representatives. If these technologies seem farfetched or unattainable, talk to the child catching a Pikachu in Tower Grove Park. Pokémon GO showcases all of these tools with incredible success. We are cheating ourselves if we do not engage with them for the purpose of community development.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.