The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 2, 2016

Pokémon GO is changing how cities use public space, but could it be more inclusive?

Updated on August 5, 2016.

In the three weeks since its release, Pokémon GO has surpassed Twitter in daily active users, spawned Poké-themed fitness and dating apps, and generally broken the Internet. Along the way, the augmented-reality game has earned accolades for its role in connecting people to the places they live, but has also been criticized for “Pokéstop redlining,” or the disproportionately high concentration of Pokémon in white neighborhoods. As DC shows, this disparity is important not just to players trying to catch ’em all, but also to larger placemaking efforts.

Pokémon GO, which is free to download and play, uses a phone’s camera and GPS to overlay Pokémon in the real world. Players catch Pokémon using Pokéballs which, along with other game-related items, can be picked up at Pokéstops. Pokéstops and the virtual gyms where Pokémon can train for battle tend to be located near local landmarks, businesses, and historical monuments that are heavily trafficked by pedestrians. And as the maps below show, they are concentrated in majority-white neighborhoods.

Ingress Portal Locations in the District of Columbia

Though Pokémon GO has not made its geographic data publicly available, it is possible to estimate the number of Pokéstops and gyms using maps of “portals” from Pokémon GO’s gaming predecessor, Ingress. Ingress was created by Niantic, the same company that created Pokémon GO, and much of Pokémon GO’s geographic data was based on the same database. Ingress used to allow players to suggest relevant portal locations in their areas, but because Ingress players tended to be younger, English-speaking men, and because Ingress’s portal criteria biased business districts and tourist areas, it is unsurprising that portals ended up in white-majority neighborhoods.

Ingress Portals Are Concentrated in Majority-White Census Tracts

We used actual Ingress data to demonstrate that in DC, Pokéstops and gyms are abundant in predominantly white neighborhoods. Even when accounting for population density and the percentage of millennials at the neighborhood level, we find that as the share of the white population increases, Pokéstops and gyms become more plentiful. How stark is the difference? In neighborhoods that are majority white, there are 55 portals on average, compared with 19 portals in neighborhoods that are majority black.* Clusters of portals are clearly evident in and around the National Mall and other DC monuments, but removing these nonresidential areas has no effect on our findings.

These disparities are not unique to Pokémon GO, but they do highlight a central challenge of placemaking, the process of collaboratively creating public spaces that are meaningful to a community and that enhance people’s quality of life. Pokémon GO facilitates virtual placemaking, as players are finding new meaning in their daily commutes, exploring new areas of their neighborhoods in hopes of discovering rare Pokémon, and perhaps forming relationships they never would have otherwise. But it also points to a problem: placemaking can only be as inclusive as the population engaged in the process.  

More traditional placemaking projects, like the creation of parks, art installations, or public markets, face similar problems. These endeavors are subject to several challenges: projects must comply with a myriad of rules and regulations; they are time, resource, and capital intensive, they are often in environments with scarce financial and intellectual resources; and they are usually difficult to get off the ground, frequently owing to a lack of public motivation. As a consequence, many placemaking projects that fail to start from inclusive and collaborative planning processes have excluded disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Why does greater inclusion matter? Beyond the moral arguments for inclusion and equity, placemaking can help strengthen local economies, reduce crime, and drive civic engagement. For digital platforms like Pokémon GO, focusing on inclusion allows platforms to grow their customer bases, allowing for both financial and reputational gains.

In the absence of typical barriers to placemaking, digital platforms—not limited to Pokémon GO—should strive to be truly inclusive of communities that are often left behind. Pokémon GO has demonstrated how effectively digital platforms can contribute to urban life. With sufficient intentionality, Pokémon GO and its inevitable successors can make placemaking more inclusive and capitalize on the opportunities that come with reaching traditionally marginalized communities while enabling these communities to share in the benefits of placemaking and reengage with their surroundings.

*Due to a data duplication error, our original calculations found an average of 58 portals in majority-white neighborhoods, compared with 26 portals in majority-black neighborhoods. But upon rerunning the regressions, we discovered that the model is actually even stronger and the influence of race is still valid when controlling for population density and share of millennials.

A woman holds up her cell phone as she plays the Pokemon Go game in Lafayette Park in front of the White House in Washington, DC, July 12, 2016. Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Graphics: Hannah Recht/Urban Institute

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