A few weeks ago I attended the PPS Placemaking Leadership Forum in Vancouver, BC. Being relatively new to the field as a professional, I was eager to learn what others were doing around the world and how the term 'placemaking' continues to be defined.
I think what is most fascinating about the term placemaking is that it both unites people and creates a certain kind of line in the sand. Are you going to try to own placemaking, or be a part of it? It's less a discipline as it is a way of being...which makes it even more ambiguous. Because of its roots (and I suppose current practice) in activism, there was a lot of talk about how to keep it out of the mainstream, which I think is bogus. If we want everyone to work towards creating the best places for all people, then we really need to accept and educate everyone. I understand why there's a fear of people or entities using the term as a way to mask commercial interest, but isn't it better to educate and open up best practices to that world and at least try to work together?
One big elephant in the room is -- how to create sustainable places that are great and continue to thrive despite rising costs and the need for constant maintenance? I am a huge believe in lighter, quicker, cheaper, but we still need to figure out the heavier, slower, more expensive in order to actually ensure sustainable urban development.
Since my work is actually in placemaking, I have spent a lot time thinking about its definition and spend even more time forcing myself to stay open about how other people define it and practice it. The whole point is that is is community-oriented and open-minded, so sticking to a strict definition and a narrow-viewed understanding is almost anti-placemaking.
At the conference, I met many different people who approach placemaking in many different ways. Some were architects, some activists, some consultants, some non-profit arts organizations. All were committed to creating great spaces for the community. Presentations were all over the map, but the most useful ones shared specific examples of activation, measurement, and working with multiple stakeholders.
- Community-based -- there's no way around this. True placemaking is based on the community itself - not (just) the government, the land owners, the organization leaders, the loudest person in the room, but the people that actually use the space. This can get really funky, especially if you don't yet know who uses the space or have certain aspirations about who uses the space.
- Multi-use -- I think Bryant park is more-or-less an amusement park, but there is truth in multi-use space as a key factor to creating an ACTIVE place. You can have a very well-designed and beautiful space, but you won't get people in to linger if there aren't enough things to do. Moveable chairs is not enough, but it is a great start.
- Collaboration -- Probably the #1 thing that was talked about as being absolutely necessary to creating great places. It doesn't mean that everyone has to be onboard with the same vision, but everyone should contribute and try to collaborate.
- Placemaking as/is activism -- Another really obvious theme that is super interesting as sometimes this divides people. I talked to quite a few 'professionals' that felt a out-of-place at the conference because they were, in fact, working architects or developers. It also seemed like many of the more popular happenings or changes started as guerrilla movements that then were adopted by official entities. Though, many were very well planned (with the community and key stakeholders) initiatives, and all major projects needed serious funds, which typically came from a combo of government and land owners or developers and organizations and/or crowd funding.
- Metrics + Graphics -- It's all about the story you tell. And the way you show the stats can make all the difference. To funders. To the community. To yourself.
- Digital Placemaking -- Instead of blanketing new technology in a city or a place, why not actually think about how technology is already being used by the community and how it can create more avenues for collaboration and creation? Instead of a focus on technology for consumption, let's pay attention to how it is used for positive community-building and civic engagement. This is probably my favorite area of placemaking and I was super excited to meet other people interested in it and starting to do work in it. Soon there will be a Digital Placemaking Institute - and I am very excited to see where this goes! Contact @danlatorre for more info if you are interested.
- A movement…-- anyone can participate in placemaking. I think this is really comforting. Whether you just moved to a new place or have been living somewhere for decades, you have the power to make your own community a little bit better. It may just be smiling at someone in the elevator, but your part matters and is the only way to build community and a sense of place.
Questions I still have about placemaking, particularly for other people working in this field:
If the goal is to create a great place for all people, how do you ensure certain people don't eventually get priced out of the community?
Does it matter who owns the space? Can privately-owned spaces be just as successful (according to the community) as publicly owned spaces? I think yes, as my work is mostly in this arena, but it seems still up to debate.
How can we create sustainable urban environments for people to live, work and play without catering solely to the socio-economic class that can afford the price of modern-day (urban) development?
How do you define digital placemaking? (another area in which I do a lot of work and am curious how others define it)
Other things I did in Vancouver: shopped at Kit+Ace, ate lots of amazing food, solidified my belief that all global cities are facing the same issues (and have the same coffeeshops) and had great conversations with great people.
Digital technology as one pathway to social inclusion in placemaking - by Cities for People
The City at Eye Level ed. by Hans Karssenberg, Jeroen Laven, Meredith Glaser & Mattijs van ‘t Hoff
This is Where you Belong by Melody Warnick
Tactical Urbanism by Mike Lydon
Recoded City: Co-creating Urban Futures by Thomas Ermacora
Leading the inclusive city: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet by Robin Hambleton
I'm based in DC and always down to chat about this field -- you can also message me on Twitter @stephanieetxe.