Placemaking: Kick-starting a Social Process

Hans Schlappa

By Hans Schlappa, on June 13th, 2014

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Placemaking connects communities, engenders public debate, promotes social inclusion and enhances the quality of life. The growing interest in placemaking as a social process calls for new approaches to urban design, planning and governance. URBACT’s Placemaking Four Cities (P4C) project focuses on the engagement of communities and the empowerment of citizens to take the lead in the placemaking process. An introduction to the methods used in a Practice Transfer Network between Dun Laoghaire (Ireland), Albacete (Spain), Eger (Hungary) and Pory (Finland).

Placemaking is a process, which draws on the ideas, resources and commitment of a local community to create places that they value. Once started, placemaking is on-going, with a community creating and developing the spaces where people pursue their business, recreational and social interests in a self- determined way. All too often, places are created which do not attract people and new skills which develop and empower local communities have to be learned, procedures and regulations which control public spaces have to be modernised and the norms, values and assumptions which make our urban spaces what they are need to be challenged.

There is a range of different approaches to Placemaking:

  •  Creating new spaces (community gardens, adopting grassland on housing estates)
  •  Interim uses (sport, culture, business)
  •  Animating spaces (events, fairs, festivals, meetings)
  •  Furnishing spaces (temporary, permanent, inviting activity, social interaction

URBACT’s Placemaking Four Cities (P4C) project focuses on the engagement of communities and the empowerment of citizens to take the lead in the placemaking process. The project’s learning process will include two steps. The first step is to study contemporary approaches to placemaking in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County, Ireland, where community led approaches towards placemaking have been practiced for a long time. In a second step, we will transfer these practices to Albacete in Spain, Eger in Hungary and Pori in Finland in the second half of 2014.

An extensive introduction to Placemaking is available in the project baseline studies’s State of the Arts, a recommanded read for those among us for which Placemaking remains a foreing, if engaging, concept.

Identifying Key Actors in the Placemaking Process

The drivers which create the dynamics associated with the ‘rise and decline’ of public places can be explored from a range of perspective. Two broad perspectives were discussed in Chapter 1 of the P4C baseline study: the top-down, expert led placemaking process and the bottom-up community led process of placemaking.

P4C considers that both approaches are relevant and that the particular placemaking objectives will determine whether there needs to be an emphasis on experts or communities in the process. However, public agencies are designed to pursue expert-led approaches to placemaking. Even on smaller placemaking tasks, such as open spaces on housing estates, public agencies seem ill equipped to facilitate an iterative, non-linear and community led approach to placemaking. When we put institutional structures, the need for accountability and the staturory and non-statutory obligations of public agencies to one side, we can see that individuals play a very important role in decisions on whether a linear or non-linear, a top down or bottom-up, approach is chosen.

Place in Context: Regulatory, Institutional and Cultural Drivers

Good practice transfer cannot be concerned with techniques of placemaking alone; the context and conditions in which placemaking methods are applied must be analysed. This is essential when trying to explain why particular placemaking approaches were chosen and, perhaps more importantly, why some methods worked and others did not.

PyramidPlaceThe P4C network will analyse the context for good practice transfer through a framework which starts with the ‘place’ and then attempts to explain its ‘nature’ by analysing the regulatory, institutional and cultural drivers which shape the place. The diagram  shows that the ‘place’ is conceived of as being the result of and subject to physical, social and economic actions. All the placemaking techniques referred to in the baseline study are aimed at changing the physical, social and economic features and functions of the place. However, these practical actions are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ because both place features and attempts to change them are embedded in regulations, institutions and cultures.

Those three drivers can be described as follow:

  • Regulatory drivers are formal rules which determine how a place is designed, used and maintained;
  • Institutional drivers are organisations with the power to impose regulations about how places are designed, used and maintained;
  • Cultural drivers are the values, norms, assumptions and traditions which determine how institutions are designed and how they interpret their responsibilities to regulate places.

 Different Change Paces

While the conditions created by regulatory and institutional frameworks have an immediate impact on the physical, social and economic dimensions of a place, they are also slow to change. Therefore it would be unrealistic to expect measurable changes resulting from this pilot project in the short or even medium term pertaining to regulations or institutions which impact on the physical, social and economic features and functions of the place.

Changing attitudes and behaviours of individuals, on the other hand, can happen comparatively quickly. We are therefore focusing on the way people who work in institutions change their behaviour to determine how a place is designed, used and maintained. This will enable us to develop a detailed understanding why some practices were transferred while others were not.

Defining good practice for transfer between P4C partners

In transferring good practice the P4C network will compare two approaches, the community-led bottom-up approach and the expert-led top-down approach. The emphasis of the transfer is on the engagement of communities because this is the reason why DLR was chosen as the providing partner in the P4C network. Relevant practices we want to explore include:

  • Place analysis
  • Visioning techniques
  • Options appraisal
  • How to build partnerships
  • Creating quick wins
  • How to do things with little or no money
  • Managing resistance to change
  • How to build consensus
  • Sustaining sponsorship and resources
  • Stakeholder group management
  • Stakeholder analysis
  • Stakeholder engagement

Documents on the practice trasnfer will be made available on the network’s minisite as the project unfolds, stay tuned! And on a final note: Conflicts of interests are part of the placemaking process. How to explore and manage these tensions is the topic of another, related URBACT network, called USER.

hans_schlappaBy Dr Hans Schlappa, Placemaking Four Cities Lead Expert


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