Have you come across a pathway lined with trees that cradle a pathway with colorful park benches below? Or noticed a road that somehow made you feel more at ease and comforting while walking? Perhaps there’s an intimate tree grotto or busy street that you like hanging around in but you can’t seem to place exactly why.
Placemaking is important as it gives people a sense of community and belonging to a place. This effort in turn makes people care about their surroundings more, producing a safer and cleaner environment. In providing a beautifully designed public space, it attracts more people boosting economic activity for the area as well as providing security in people naturally surveilling the place.
What is Placemaking?
Placemaking is the idea of designing spaces for people rather than cars and malls. This movement grew in the 1960’s in the U.S. Jane Jacobs put out the idea of “eyes on the street”, the theory that more foot traffic translates into “natural surveillance” or natural security. William H. Whyte identified the key elements to enliven the public realm. (1)
By integrating the people into the planning process for a space, this activates the community by having a say in what they want and need, all while knowing that this place was designed for them.
“Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value.” – (1)
What’s amazing about “placemaking” strategies is that you can bring immediate change with temporary, small, quick and cheap solutions to test an idea before fully investing in infrastructure. For example a city survey was taken and people would like to have more benches along this busy avenue. The city can put makeshift benches and widen the sidewalk by narrowing the road with paint or planters to test the idea first.
This is a great way to see whether the benefits are brought to the people and see if the idea is effective without putting much money and time as typical city projects would. The key to placemaking is involvement of the community in the planning process. This is a big shift from the typical “top down” approach of an architect or planner figuring out what the city needs to a “bottom up” approach, wherein the design brief stems from the people themselves. This is a new wave of thinking that planners, architects and developers are beginning to adapt to avoid underused areas and maximize land value within communities.” (1)
It is a form of planning and urban design that integrates several trains of thought and different approaches to managing public spaces. Placemaking is focused on how to maximize a community’s potential be it in talent, profit or addressing the people’s everyday needs such as a playground for the kids, wider sidewalks or bike lanes. (2)
Plazas, courtyards, fountains are places we flock to for peaking our interest. Natural to human instinct, if there are a lot of people in an area, our brain tells us, there must be something fun and interesting happening there. Urban designers and landscape architects are often tasked to design the spaces in between buildings to create a pleasurable outdoor environment.
“This was based upon a school of thought that said ‘while we are good at putting up buildings…we are bad at making places.” (2)
What are the Benefits of Placemaking?
The best thing about placemaking is its ability to vary in scale. The proposed changes for public spaces can be enforced in an entire district or start in a small portion of a street, such as replacing a parallel parking slot with a parklet. (3)
When creating a lively public space, the immediate community discovers it and spreads word. Eventually, more people who live beyond the area will eventually hear of it, gain interest and flock to your place. This would bring economic growth to the commercial establishments by natural increase of foot traffic.
This could also encourage local artists to experiment in painting parking lot walls or streets, which in turn would boost the placemaking efforts and collectively add to the tourism picture of people coming over, spending some time, buying a drink or snack while they’re there and using the area’s transport. In this way we give livelihood to new talent while increasing sales for existing establishments, while becoming a magnet for new businesses to come over and set up shop.
“They found that communities where people felt most connected, were also communities with the highest GDPs per capita. This is because when people feel connected to their community, they are more likely to spend money in local businesses and take care of their streets.”
Several modern security strategies have risen from the idea of placemaking. When a community feels connected to their environment, they will feel the need to care for it and their neighbors.
“Broken Window Theory” is a heavily researched study that a broken window along a street leads to more crime and danger in the area. Meanwhile, if buildings are maintained well and kept clean, the vicinity is more likely to be safer and respected by its people. (4)
“Eyes on the Street” refers to Jane Jacobs’ concept of natural surveillance. If there are several people outside and on the street, a criminal will think twice before trying anything with so many witnesses present, ready to shout and report.
A common example illustrating both principles would be Times Square in New York City post World War II, which was crime filled with drugs and prostiturion. Later on in the 90’s it was completely transformed to switch out the dodgy businesses into family friendly establishments, and was later pedestrianized in 2009 to be the beloved place it is today. (4)
The Transformative Power of Placemaking
The biggest challenge in placemaking is the architect, planner or designer almost “losing control” to the public. It’s something that needs to grow organically to see if the people naturally resonate or relate with a place — if they like it, or not.
It’s a tricky role as the architect to produce a design prediction that the people can feel proud about. As a New Yorker identifies with Central Park and the Empire State Building, these places have become an added pride to the people that live in them, while giving them a link to the place’s history. (5)
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain is a phenomenal piece of architecture designed by Frank Gehry. There are several studies that refer to the “Bilbao Effect”, stating that after this structure was built, several people flocked to the sleepy quiet (almost dying) town of Bilbao to see the architectural masterpiece, which revived its tourism and economic state.
There were other factors going on in the city’s improvement by their government. Bilbao was cleaning the river, added a transportation system of trolleys and a subway and other big projects such as conference centers and music halls — all of which greatly added and solidified Bilbao’s road to fame. The magnificent work of Gehry must have sparked interest around the world and made viral the great initiatives of the local government. (5)
“Placemaking can be used to preserve, restore and improve historic urban form to help contribute to the character of important historic buildings or structures.”. (4)
What Designing Places is All About
Placemaking is beautifying a city’s open spaces while bringing numerous benefits to its people. It attracts and encourages people to linger, giving the area a natural security and economic boost. It gives image recognition and acts as markers of wayfinding for visitors.
Places are enjoyed and used by the public, open to all. Places have benefits beyond those that serve the building inside. Perhaps the facade could be beautiful to look and gawk at, or designed with air cleaning properties.
Perhaps the ground floor has an arcaded walk that can shade passerbys, or provides a patch of green garden as a respite from the concrete jungle. This could expand into a greater public service by having benches with bike racks to serve people in the day or lit bus stops to provide safety at night.
Give people a place to play! A few benches, plants and a life size board game could revive a sleepy town!
Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl famously said, “People attract people.” We like to see life happen. Just take the Shibuya Crossing at Tokyo Ginza, the place is completely unrecognizable without the scramble of people crossing those streets.
- PPS. (2007). What is placemaking? RSS. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://www.pps.org/article/what-is-placemaking
- Hunt, B. (2020, January 31). The importance of placemaking. Preim. Retrieved April 2022, from https://preim.co.uk/developers-about/the-importance-of-placemaking/
- Michigan State University. (2016, November 30). What are the benefits of effective placemaking in your community? Planning. Retrieved April 2022, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/what_are_the_benefits_of_effective_placemaking_in_your_community
- Macmillan, K. (2019, July 23). What is placemaking? (and why it’s so important!). PBJ Design. Retrieved April 2022, from https://pbjdesign.ca/what-is-placemaking-and-why-its-so-important/
- MBE, V. S. M. B. E. (2012, June 18). The role of architecture in humanity’s story. Thought Economics. Retrieved March 2022, from https://thoughteconomics.com/the-role-of-architecture-in-humanitys-story/