From Liveability to Lovability – The role of the placemaker in co-creating vibrant cities

Sally Kneeshaw

By Sally Kneeshaw, on November 7th, 2017

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Placemaking is a term that captures the collaborative process used to design and animate the public realm, and promote social and cultural life in the urban environment. Jan Gehl, the famous Copenhagen based urban designer, wrote about  ‘Life between buildings’, and how quality public spaces connect people to the places they share, and enhance happiness, health and well being.  The process of placemaking itself requires both ’hardware’ – landscaping, lighting, parks, planting, street art and ‘software’- the all-important programming of activity that attracts people to spaces and brings them to life.

The annual international Placemaking Week was hosted last month by a city well known for the quality and inclusiveness of its public spaces. Over 400 participants from 42 countries and every continent converged in Amsterdam to share concrete strategies to advance placemaking locally and globally. The event came at a moment of grief for the city itself, mourning the loss of a popular Mayor, Eberhard van der laan. His legacy of making Amsterdam such a welcoming and fun place is felt by citizens and visitors alike.

The Week provided insights into different approaches to placemaking, and what role city administrations and URBACT Groups can play in the process.

What makes for great places?

Fred Kent CEO of Project for Public Spaces, co-hosts of Placemaking Week, gave advice from many years of experience working with communities around the globe. The magic ingredients seem to be food, water, and seating. Nothing needs to be too fixed. The best places are flexible and leave space for improvisation, to see what happens in the space and allow it to evolve. Start simple, give the basic ingredients and see what people will do with it. parisplageHe gave an example of an expensive but poorly designed playground, with no-one there, compared to a mud pit with some tree trunks in the park, full of kids and parents sitting, climbing, digging together. The Paris Plages were held up as an excellent example of convivial, popular spaces along the River Seine, that change and grow each Summer, now not only with sand, seating and cafes, but libraries, events and swimming pools.  One participant commented that we   know a good space when we feel it, ‘It is 20% environment and 80% how it makes you feel.’ There is a perception in some cities that placemaking is ‘soft and fluffy’, and too difficult to measure. Gehl has said that an anecdotal measure of success is when people start behaving in public space like they do at home. Taking their shoes off, touching, smiling.

When cities are investing in public realm and placemaking they need to be able to plan effectively and evidence positive change. Several organisations have developed placemaking tools and PPS has codified them into a helpful Place Diagram. Nate Hommel of Philadelphia University City District spoke about a Study they had published in relation to the impact on vitality and on businesses of its  ‘parklets’- temporary seating platforms that transform parallel parking spaces into a place to sit, relax, eat and enjoy street life. They counted both usage and the impact on footfall and local retail. The evidence in the Study had persuaded local retailers to sponsor more parklets. Partners in the URBACT Retailink  network have exchanged on similar analyses of interventions used to animate the city centres of medium sized cities. Their indicators include increase in turnover, citizen satisfaction and visitor numbers.

What is the role of the city administration?

The role of the city administration and its relationship with community based placemakers can be fraught. Many of the placemakers present in Amsterdam were from community groups, food producers, cultural organisations and bottom up NGOs, and at times the city is perceived as disinterested, or even obstructive, when for instance citizens want to close streets for events, or seek protection of authenticity, heritage and specific building uses that could be at odds with the city’s security regulations, re-development or planning priorities.

parisplage2Practical ways to facilitate collaboration between the city and placemakers was presented by The Street Plans Collaborative in its guidance on Tactual Urbanism. They also partnered on a project with the San Francisco Planning Department to create a user-friendly system of how to get permits and permissions, communicated in a flowchart, that other cities can use as inspiration.

Eva de Klerk, urban pioneer and co-founder of the shipbuilding yard NDSM project in the north of Amsterdam, told the story of its redevelopment, now the largest creative and self-sufficient artists’ workspace ever, and the series of challenges they encountered around renovating a space, seeking investment, retaining ownership and the right mix of uses and tenants. She used a powerful metaphor to capture the tension of this relationship: ‘The kiss of the place maker’. ‘Does the city kiss back?’ she asked, and ‘If so what kind of a kiss is it? Is it a sweet embrace? Or might it be the kiss of death?

This is the context in which URBACT Local Groups can provide real foundations for good placemaking and in fact similar processes take place in most URBACT networks, whether they are dealing with resilience, mobility, temporary use, citizen engagement, innovation, food, or culture. The ULG can be a forum which brings together divergent perspectives, in which conflicts of interest can be explored and potentially resolved, where trust can be built and there is a better chance for practical solutions or compromises to be thrashed out. We see placemaking in our Action Plans in the form of re-designed, people oriented city centres, new spaces for innovation, walking and cycling routes, open air fairs, concerts, thriving markets, all of which can generate community connections and pride.

As Ethan Kent of PPS says: ‘Placemaking should not be dominated by any one sector, as a successful place making process strikes a balance between many different interests and perspectives. There is room for leadership in a variety of sectors and contexts, including government, business, civil society, and, of course, communities themselves. Too often, these projects are still about one sector providing a service for communities and not about creating a future with them

urbactAt Placemaking Week: URBACT was represented by the City Centre Doctor network in a panel discussion on how an integrated, participatory approach had strengthened place-making initiatives through inter-city learning. Drawing on examples from Heerlen, Netherlands and Petrinja, Croatia, Yvette Petit-Theuws and Marko Zlonoga presented their Local Group activities to revitalize the centres of these smaller cities. Yvette told the story of the Park Urbana and the contribution of street art, now an URBACT Good Practice. Marko reported that the Action Plan for Petrinja focuses on the ‘Green Heart ‘ connecting 10 open spaces in the city. He also highlighted how the participatory approach had helped to build much needed trust between citizens and local government in a country still recovering from the effects of conflict.

These examples show how participation in URBACT networks offers time, space and support for urban professionals to experiment with new methods, to frame and manage collaborations in different ways, and indeed, to learn better ways to fully embrace the kiss of placemakers.


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