Placemaking is not simply about reconnecting people with place, it’s about reconnecting people with each other.
The flurry of attention that placemaking has recently received belies an approach that has existed for decades. Back in the 1960s, William H. Whyte and Jane Jacobs published their “groundbreaking ideas about America and the urban experience.” Their case studies, undertaken before the concept had a name, emphasized a need for “cities [to] be designed for people, with walkable streets, welcoming public spaces, and lively neighbourhoods.”1 Whyte’s numerous publications (including the seminal The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces) distilled the “essential elements for creating social life in public spaces,” while Jacobs’ influential writing “advocated citizen ownership of the street through her now famous idea of ‘eyes on the street.’”2 The not-for-profit planning, design and educational organization Project for Public Spaces (PPS), was founded in 1975 to build on the work of Whyte. To date, they have completed placemaking projects in over 2,500 communities in forty countries and fifty US states. For PPS, “placemaking is a multifaceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces.”3
Some twenty years later, Doreen Massey in “A Global Sense of Place” suggested that “contemporary urban ways of life and urban values are increasingly mobile both culturally and physically.” Hand-held devices are further personalizing our geographies.4 While digital technologies have always been mediated by space, they are now becoming more place-specific like the geo-based services Facebook Places and Foursquare, location-based applications that allow you to share your real-world position with your friends. At the same time, information architects and experience designers are looking to spatial architectures to enrich virtual experiences. According to Massey, one of the consequences of this growing mobility and complexity is that “what we mean by ‘place’ and how we relate to places has become more uncertain as a result.” For her, a “longing for place” is equivalent to a “longing for consistency across geographic fragmentation and spatial disruption.”5 It is in the context of what David Harvey calls time-space compression, and our transition from a service economy to an experience economy, that the international placemaking movement has emerged.
More and more communities are engaging in placemaking, and ever-growing numbers of professionals are calling themselves placemakers. While this growth reflects a desire for stability, resourceful consultants have, it seems, also identified the failure of the built environment design professions to design, develop and facilitate place. It seems there is a prevalence of placemakers and placemaking in Australia. Last year VicUrban ran the Melbourne Place Making Series which concluded with a conference jointly hosted by the Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD), the City of Melbourne, Fed Square and Village Well, where they identified that “placemaking has captured the imagination of many professional fields, governments, businesses and the broader community.” In January this year Village Well’s Gilbert Rochecouste was included in The Age magazine’s Top 100 of 2010 issue, said to include those who “push boundaries, create masterpieces, help those in need, agitate for change and make Melbourne a better place to live.”
As this issue hits the shelves, the “world’s largest privately funded single real estate venture,” the “model assembly line city” of Songdo South Korea, is nearly a third complete. It’s an “instant” city built from scratch that can be packaged up “in a box” and sold off the shelf at “$40 billion a pop to countries where demand for urban life is rising.”6 This cookie-cutter approach to the production of our cities is alarming. In parallel across the world, authorities are vying for placemaking equivalents of the “Bilbao effect,” with international urban designers lauded as the new “stararchitects” engaged to retrofit our cities.
It is in response to an increased interest in placemaking that PPS calls for a renewed emphasis on preserving the “integrity of placemaking,” a “term [that] can be heard in many settings, not only by citizens committed to grassroots community improvement, but by planners and developers who use it as a fashionable ‘brand’ that implies authenticity and quality even when their projects don’t always live up to the promise.” For PPS, placemaking is ever-changing and multidisciplinary, not reactive, static or discipline-driven. “Placemaking belongs to everyone: its message and mission is bigger than any one person or organization.”7 As the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects seeks to engage other built environment professionals, for designers and planners the role of place must remain paramount. It is, after all, essential to work at multiple scales to make successful, vibrant cities.
In his AD Primer, Spatial Intelligence: New Futures for Architecture, Leon Van Schaik suggests that “when architecture was professionalized in the 1840s, it sought out as its ‘body of knowledge’ the notion of being Master Builders” and that the “architectural capacity to think and design in three and four dimensions, our highly developed spatial intelligence was overlooked.”8 Over 150 years later, landscape architects increasingly look to environmental engineering, and our profession, which has always combined art and science, seems to be erring towards science. Perhaps we need to adopt a more phenomenological approach? Public spaces and places involve encounter and experience. We need to refocus on the intensity of these experiences, on the creation of more immersive spaces, haptic and sensorial, in order to create more meaningful everyday experiences. Massey suggests we might “rethink our sense of place … to be progressive; not self-closing and defensive, but outward-looking, a place which is adequate to this era of time-space compression … that we rethink locality to make it relevant to our global-local times.”9
There is an aspirational aspect to placemaking that may never be attainable. While it remains an approach and a process, it can be truly projective, opening up our disciplines, encouraging more collaboration and equipping us with more skills. Ultimately placemaking is not about the concept; it’s not about what it means; it’s about what it can do. Placemaking is not simply about reconnecting people with place, it’s about reconnecting people with each other.
1. Project for Public Spaces, “Placemaker Profile Articles,” on the Project for Public Spaces website, www.pps.org/placemaking/articles/placemaker-profiles/
2. Project for Public Spaces, “What is Placemaking?” on the Project for Public Spaces website, /www.pps.org/articles/what_is_placemaking/
3. Project for Public Spaces, “What is Placemaking?”
4. Doreen Massey, “A Global Sense of Place,” in Marxism Today, June 1991.
5. Massey, “A Global Sense of Place.”
6. IPC Media, Wallpaper* (October 2010), 262.
7. IPC Media, Wallpaper* , 262.
8. Leon van Schaik, Spatial Intelligence: New Futures for Architecture, AD Primer (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), pp 11–13.
9. Massey, “A Global Sense of Place.”