The Placemaking “Space”

“How do you make a place? Aren’t places already here?”

That’s a question I get often during my speaking engagements and in my consulting work.

Sometimes it is pure puzzlement. What is this term placemaking that isn’t really a word and that comes up as a misspelling on my auto spell check?

Sometimes it’s offense. Are you saying my community isn’t a place already? That it doesn’t count?

I have had to think about this question a lot lately. In October, I gave a placemaking Talk at Chicago Ideas Week. There’s nothing like a theatre full of hundreds of people and video cameras ready to immortalize your every word on the internet to force you to focus your thoughts and words with razor like clarity. Ditto for my upcoming TEDx Talk (today in fact!).

While both Talks are different in many ways, the themes have been consistent and have explored our understanding of placemaking that I will paraphrase from my 2013 MIT publication Places in the Making:

Placemaking is the act of people coming together in a physical environment to deliberately design, plan, program, and maintain public space to facilitate social interaction and improve their quality of life.

 And the case studies I chose for each Talk…cases that I believe illustrate the core principles and practices of placemaking…are extraordinarily diverse and attempt to get at the nuances of that definition:

  • A “classic” placemaking case that illustrates a community problem that is solved by grassroots activism and resident/government collaboration to build a better public space.
  • A temporary event, organized and sponsored by government and private foundations that has occurred twice yearly for the past four years that has changed how a community views their environmental issues and development practices.
  • An example of residents breaking the law and ignoring regulatory restrictions to temporarily build their ideal block (and then seeing governments jump on board and encourage similar actions in other places)
  • An initiative that has seen no “bricks and mortar” improvements to date but that has mobilized a community to break out of its comfort zone to learn how to collaborate and act for itself, outside the framework of government support or input.

What do these case studies have in common? It’s not the better public spaces that have resulted. Not in the traditional sense anyway. Some show no physical improvements to date. It’s not the presence of public sector support. Some have occurred with government support and funding, others have broken laws and ignored zoning/public health regulations, and still others exist completely outside the framework of government planning initiatives. And it’s not the permanence or longevity of the effort. Ephemeral events may occur only once or twice, or for a few years, until funding is exhausted or other efforts take precedence.

What ties these cases together then? What makes these stories placemaking stories? I believe it is the “space” they create for individuals and communities to act. And I don’t necessarily mean physical space although that is certainly helpful. These stories break the tradition of communities working solely within a government planning structure, or in a top down model of planning. To put it in very conventional terms, these projects don’t follow the “ let’s all reach consensus on one plan and someone else will implement the model” (and I am being overly simplistic here to make a point). That model looks something like this:

traditional planning space cropped

I don’t mean for this diagram to imply that visioning processes, comprehensive planning, or government driven processes are bad.  I am involved in a City-led planning endeavor right now in Burlington, VT and the City totally gets the placemaking model and that process embraces creative placemaking. Rather, I use the diagram above to illustrate how the cases I use in my two Talks show common elements of placemaking.  The cases all illustrate how the placemaking “space” is a space for collaboration, diversity of actions, and fluidity. Placemaking is as nimble and flexible as the circumstances require. And that placemaking ‘space” looks something like this:

placemaking space cropped

The best planning creates a framework that mirrors the placemaking space.  It is planning that welcomes many actors and actions, recognizing that it takes many people, funding sources, organizations, and good ideas to accomplish great things.  Savvy public officials know this and understand how to incorporate these things into the planning processes.  Grasp this idea of placemaking “space,” and it is easy to see how an ephemeral event, or a community effort to collaborate fits within the placemaking universe. It shifts placemaking from the product (physical space) to the process. This placemaking “space” celebrates the actions, the making–one of the key findings of my MIT research. And there will be more on that topic in my TEDxBeaconStreet Talk later today!