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THE EVOLUTION OF PLACE MAKING - WHAT IS NEXT?

Place making. Place making. Place making. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But what exactly is place making and how can it help create, enhance, and manage places that are attractive and meaningful to people?

Strangely, considering the current trend toward place making across a wide array of community, economic, and design professions, defining place making has not been high on the agenda. Like a mirage, it can change to reflect the desire of the viewer, and this is why it so attractive to so many. Today, most would agree that place making is about delivering at least one, but up to all three, of these key objectives: the local identity; community participation, and; economic revitalisation. It is perhaps, then, not a coincidence that these objectives reflect the history of place making as well as its evolution.

Any consideration of place making begins with an understanding of what place is and why it is valued as an objective. The place can define a location, a personal relationship to an environment, or act as a representation of the spirit of the land and our unspoken communion with it. In the simplest terms “place is a space that has a distinct character”. At its most complex, it embodies the essence of a location, its community, spiritual beliefs, stories, history and aspirations. This essence or sense of place is its genius loci - its ‘place-ness’. Norberg-Schulz defines the genius loci as what a thing or place is and also what it wants to be and reflects the focus of the first era of place making; that is, delivering place character, identity, or meaning.

The second key period in history for place makers occurred in the mid-20th century, centred in New York and the work of community activist Jane Jacobs and urbanist William Whyte. This period really represents the birth of contemporary place making. It catalysed a move from the macro planning of cities via infrastructure oriented development to the microenvironments of communal activity and relationships. From the professional to the personal - whether that was the community activism led by Jacobs to save Manhattan’s unique villages or Whyte’s commitment to creating urban public spaces that allowed for social interaction - the focus of this period was on community participation, both in planning and activation of public spaces.

At the turn of the new century, professional place making was still on the edge, not widely known, understood, or utilised. However, many of the tenets of place making (collaboration, the experience economy, place branding, and the relocalisation movement) were gaining greater acceptance. Then, in late 2008, came the tipping point: A global financial crisis that - on the back of the increase in internet shopping, changes in consumer values, and increased competition after a decade of development - fundamentally changed the way our urban centres function. The result has been that many of our main streets, mixed-use developments, and even malls have been left with gaping vacancies, a degraded public realm, and, in turn, fewer people spending time in them. There seemed to be a lot of problems, and there was little money for large-scale capital improvement works or economic programs to try and fix them.

This is where the promise of place making really has come into its own; a relatively low-cost process that involves people in ensuring the economic sustainability or revitalisation of their own places. A process that aims to share responsibility, build connections between people and their places, and - of course - build and sustain local economies. The third era of place making has truly begun.

In 2010, the Knight Soul of the Community research was released and what for many had been intuitive now became definitive. Place attachment - defined as how loyal a person was to their place - was a direct result of three factors: 1) Openness - How welcoming the place was to a diversity of people; 2) Aesthetics – such as the look and feel of the place, and; 3) Social offerings - the social activities and what the place delivers in terms of opportunities to connect with other people. This was the research place makers had been waiting for. It provided the evidence to prove that connecting people to their places was real – and more importantly for many critics, that there was a measurable economic benefit. The place attachment research had revealed one other ground-breaking piece of data; that places where there were higher levels of attachment also had high levels of GDP growth and economic resilience. Put simply, people who were connected to their places were more likely to shop locally and support their fellow community members in their businesses.  

        

In Australia, the economic benefit of place making has been a key driver behind the growth of the profession and the uptake of its principles across a range of disciplines. Defined in the simplest terms, the key objective of most place making projects today is about creating places that people want to spend time and money in, whether that be meeting friends, buying a coffee, attending a festival, or purchasing a new home.

At Place Partners our definition of place making is ‘the collaborative process of creating, enhancing, and managing people-focused places that reflect and respect the unique qualities of each location.’ This definition aims to be both a process diagram for our work and a synthesis of place making history, theory, and best practice. It considers the uniqueness of each location, the values, and aspirations of the community and it does not discount the economic rationale behind many of our projects. In fact, understanding the value proposition of any place making work is fundamental, whether the goal is economic, social, cultural, or physical improvements.

"The key defining aspect of what we call strategic place making, particularly in the built environment arena, is that the real benefits come from the process, not a product."

The key defining aspect of what we call strategic place making, particularly in the built environment arena, is that the real benefits come from the process, not a product. This is a massive shift for an industry primarily focused on delivering a product, and one that we are still struggling with. Recently Ingo Kumic authored an online article, “Build a sustainable what?!?!” , where he discussed two Melbourne projects both with the aim of activating underutilised public spaces. Each resulted in delivering ‘pop-up’ community facilities, and both were well used and enthusiastically supported. The difference was one went through an engagement process where the community was involved in determining the outcome, while the other did not. Kumic poses a question fundamental to the next era of place makers:

“If one were to look at images of both events then neither would appear to be demonstrably different from the other. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The differences do not lie in the technical resolution of the pop-up itself but rather in its political resolution. The former failed to build a sustainable network of community and therefore benefactors resulting in Council having to finance the ‘pop-up’ into perpetuity.”

 

The risks inherent in product versus process focused place making are substantial. While ‘pop-ups’ and other similar urban trends are transplantable, they are not always sustainable. On the one hand, ‘quick-wins’ are attractive, particularly to governments as a result of being relatively easy to deliver; low cost, and; demonstrate that something is occurring. On the other hand, ‘quick-wins’ can also be a waste of precious resources by actually avoiding real engagement, and acting as a distraction from the main game. Ideally, what should be provided are tactical stepping stones to long-term solutions, particularly to structural or systems based problems.

In summary, place-making today is a relatively unstructured practice, defined more by the individuals that coin the term than any universally understood definition. In the beginning, it was about valuing the distinctive attributes of a location, then about adding the participation of the local community in both decision and place-making. Over the last decade, it has further evolved to include the economic benefits of both creating unique places and engaging communities in building feelings of ownership and belonging. These are all valuable and valued attributes of the unique process we think of as place-making.

 

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