Placemaking: Introduction to the American Experience

Angelica Fortuzzi, Architect, PhD

Placemaking is considered both a practice and a way of thinking. In other words, it is an approach to design and planning public spaces, including their management, which is becoming very widespread not only in the United States, but at international level. It is an extremely practical tool for community-driven processes to improve a neighbourhood, a city or a region. Qualities that define Placemaking are “collaborative, community-driven, sociable; culturally aware context-sensitive; multi-disciplinary; visionary, inspiring; function before form, focused on creating destinations; adaptable, inclusive, ever changing, transformative, flexible”, therefore placemaking is not “imposed from above; reactive, exclusionary, static, privatized, a quick fix; project-focused, design-driven, discipline-driven, one-size-fits-all, one-dimensional; monolithic development, dependent on regulatory controls, overly accommodating of the car; a blanket solution; benefit analysis, a cost” (www.pps.org).

Placemaking is both an overarching idea and a hands-on tool for improving a neighbourhood, city or region. It has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century” (Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago). Placemaking is a multi-faceted, community-driven, bottom-up approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. It is both a process and a philosophy, a hands-on tool for improving a neighbourhood, city or region.

Placemaking has three main different steps:

1) Discover: looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations. View a place in its entirety; pay attention to issues on the small scales. Placemaking takes root when a community expresses needs and desires about places in their lives, even if there is not yet a clearly defined plan of action.

2) Create a common vision: the information gathered is then used to create a common vision for that place.

3) Implement: the vision can evolve quickly into an implementation strategy, beginning with small-scale, do-able improvements that can immediately bring benefits to public spaces and the people who use them.

Therefore placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being.

A genuine Placemaking in action happens when: people enjoy a place for its special social and physical attributes; function is put ahead of form, to focus on places and the people who use them. As a result Placemaking strikes a balance between the physical, the social and even the spiritual qualities of a place.

In the U.S. the practice of Placemaking involves many different experiences and activities, led mainly by organizations and professionals. One of the most active is the “Project for Public Spaces – PPS” (www.pps.org). Another organization, very active and opinion leader in the placemaking practice, is the “PlaceMakers” (www.placemakers.com).

PPS is a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. Mentor of PPS is William H. Whyte. Holly Whyte emphasized essential elements for creating social life in public spaces. They consider also the work and theories of Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs advocated citizen ownership of streets through the now-famous idea of “eyes on the street.” When you focus on place, you do everything differently. According to Jan Gehl (www.gehlarchitects.com – gehlcitiesforpeople.dk), if you create spaces based on the senses and scale of a human being (we the users, after all) then you create places where people want to be. Quality of life improves, people encounter other people, and the city thrives. What’s important is the quality of the places we inhabit, recognizing that uses tend to evolve and change over time. Moreover, places, just like people, are dynamic, changing, growing, shrinking, refining, evolving.

In the PPS’ toolbox there are different tools as the “power of ten”, which offers an easy framework to communities and stakeholders to revitalize urban life. It shows that by starting efforts at the smallest scale you can accomplish big things. The “11 Principles” are guidelines for a good and effective placemaking process.

References

Alexander, C., Ishikawa S., Silverstein S. (1977), A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford UP.

Alexander, C. (1979), The Timeless Way of Building, New York: Oxford UP.

Borys, H. (2013), Creative Placemaking: From Here Until Now, last modified November 15, http://www.placemakers.com/2012/11/15/creative-placemaking-from-here-until-now/

Gehl, J. (2010), Cities for People, Washington, DC: Island.

Jacobs, J. (1992), The Death and Life of Great American Cities, [New York]: Random House.

Project for Public Spaces, Placemaking for Communities, www.pps.org.

Whyte, W. H. (1980), The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Washington, D.C.: Conservation Foundation.