Is placemaking another urban fad or tool for change? Here are 5 questions you need to ask.

Lucinda Hartley, CoFounder and CEO @CoDesign Studio | CoFounder @Neighbourlytics | Urbanist | Designer | Keynote Speaker

What do you imagine when you think of placemaking: Astroturf? Milk crates? Food truck parks? If you do, then your first response is probably an eye roll, and probably to ignore it as just another urban trend.
I used to be a placemaking skeptic. It seemed to be full of what I considered lightweight projects (cue astroturf) and people who waved their hands around too much. But I’ve since learned that there is a much deeper story to tell, where placemaking is a process of building community connection and without it we’re left with generic places and disconnected citizens.
I’ve recently come back to Australia from a year in the Pacific and this month returned as CEO at CoDesign Studio. I learned some important cross-cultural lessons during my time away. And now in returning I am viewing and critiquing the role of placemaking (and place activation, tactical urbanism, lighter quicker cheaper and <insert planning jargon here>) with fresh eyes.

Since when did placemaking become pop ups and gimmicks?

‘Placemaking’ was first championed by William Whyte and the Project for Public Spaces as a way of ensuring cities remained (or became) equitable, an increasingly important challenge in the face of rapidly growing cities. It is intended to be a collaborative, inclusive process for building cities and shaping neighbourhoods. The Project for Public Spaces suggest “With community-based participation at its center, an effective Placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being”.
So why the recent proliferation of pop up crates and container bars? How did repurposed junk and other gimmicks become synonymous with placemaking?
Here are five questions I’m asking, to separate the sheep from the goats, and you might like to too:

Five questions to ask before you deliver your placemaking project

1. What problem is this project trying to solve?

If placemaking is the answer, what was the question? You don’t have to look far in any neighbourhood to find places that aren’t working – vacant shops, public spaces subject to illegal dumping, empty parks, places which (especially for women) feel unsafe, underutilised streets or even brand new places which just aren’t comfortable, or might feel exclusive to some groups.
Great, let’s bring in some astroturf and ping pong tables, problem solved. Seriously? Place activation has a role, but its usually far too simple a solution to what might be a very complex problem. The question we first ask is why isn’t this space working? The answers might be surprising.

2. What’s the long-term purpose of the short-term action?

I am incredibly encouraged to see a recent proliferation in urban experiments. Tactical urbanism initiatives which use short-term action to drive long-term change. Seeing the city as a canvas through which we can experiment, gain information, and learn before serious financial and political commitments are made is an incredibly sensible way to go about urban development.
But I notice that there are an increasing number of projects which activate for activations’ sake. Without a clear long-term focus, short-term projects can become gimmicky. Consideration of the long-term goals are so important.

3. How is success measured?

Placemaking allows you to user-test cities. Without planning for effective data collection and measurement, its hard to know whether a project has been successful, an whether it was worth the effort. How you measure success may vary project to project – whether its trialling a temporary bike lane where recorded increases in bicycle use then warrant the establishment of a permanent project, or measuring more intangible benefits such as whether peoples’ perception of safety changed as a result of the project or intervention.

4. Who Benefits?

Will this project play a role in building social capital? Will it help people connect around a common issue? Placemaking is most effectively used as a collaborative process that brings together a diver range of people around a common goal. In my view it should also be a citizen-led process, where the beneficiaries of the place or space are the people making decisions about what will happen there. Projects that launch into activating places without real consideration for local participation are not true placemaking projects.

5. What can this place be best in the world at (or at least in the suburb)?

Enough of helicoptering the latest River Seine-style beach to the centre of town. Just because it worked in Paris doesn’t mean it will work elsewhere. What can each project contribute to that neighbourhood or city that no other project can? What local stories can be uncovered? Local communities can no doubt best tell this story, and identify what’s requited to build a sense of belonging and connection to their neighbourhood.

Is placemaking a trend?

We have certainly seen a proliferation of placemaking projects in the past 5 years, and this is more obvious to me than ever having been overseas in the Pacific.
Astroturf and food truck parks are certainly a trend. They will (and should in many respects) fade as with any other urban trend. But these projects are not necessarily placemaking (given of course that there are some good examples fo very successful temporary plazas and food truck parks). Placemaking should involve collaborative processes for solving local problems and enable measureable results to inform long-term change.
The objective we need to focus on then is collaborative, evidence-based and flexible approaches to building cities and neighbourhoods. If creating a park can go beyond design and leave a community stronger and more connected than it was before the project commenced, then that is worth the effort. Placemaking can help us achieve this.