“From placemaking to placekeeping?”

Maike Schmoch

By Maike Schmoch, on November 24th, 2017

> Read Maike Schmoch's articles

How to involve citizens in the long-term management of public spaces.

Public spaces are thought to positively affect the wellbeing of their users in various ways. These associated benefits are reason enough for local authorities to invest in the creation of such high quality places through place-making processes. Place-making means the creation and shaping of public spaces in a participatory process with their users, it is known to increase the value attached to those spaces by citizens. However, keeping the high quality of places over time can be a real challenge, especially in times of austerity. Place-keeping offers some solutions for local authorities to face these challenges.

Place-keeping has now become a key concept in urban design and planning. As Dr. Nicola Dempsey, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield writes in one of her articles about place-keeping: “It’s about ensuring that when place-making or place-shaping happens – e.g. when a new playground is built or an urban square is regenerated – the quality of that place is secured for the long term. You might think that this just happens – but in our experience this is often not the case. We have looked at a number of places around Europe and found that place management is not always carried out after place-making”.

The idea behind place-keeping is very simple: to create popular public spaces for a longer term, one needs to think about place-keeping right from the beginning. Otherwise, what’s the point of investing in their creation in the first place?

Public Spaces Enhance the Liveability of the City

Arbeiderswoningen_MoesstraatFundamental to both place-making and place-keeping is the belief that urban public spaces can have a positive impact on their users, or as the URBACT USER Network shows, that open spaces are crucial for the liveability of a city. Public spaces can enrich the social life and health of people by providing room for people to socialise, relax or get entertained. It is where people do sports and enjoy the nature. When a neighbourhood becomes more enjoyable, businesses might follow and improve its economical state. These benefits can be cemented through citizens’ involvement in place-making processes.

The broken window syndrome: when public spaces generate a downwards spiral for the neighbourhood

The management of public spaces lays traditionally in the responsibility of local authorities. With increasing shortages of public budgets, however, the maintenance of high-quality spaces might become a serious challenge for cities. Low maintenance can result in a loss of quality and value. It can easily become the starting point of a downward spiral. When damage adds up due to a lack of repair and maintenance, those places are likely to attract vandalism or anti-social behavior – a phenomenon known as the broken window syndrome.

How authorities can foster the involvement of citizens

“We were surprised to see that very simple measures can significantly change the way a public space is used” says a City Official of Riga, one of the cities involved in the USER Network. What if simple measures can also simplify the life of local authorities in terms of place-keeping?

In the article ‘The long-term prospects of citizens managing urban green space: From place making to place-keeping?’, Mattijssen et al. focus on the citizen involvement in the place-keeping of urban green spaces, such as parks and municipal gardens. Based on three European case studies they provide advice for authorities. In a nutshell they recommend to foster the citizen-management of urban green spaces by

  • Providing long–term rent contracts for the land: Local authorities tend to rent out land to citizen managed projects on short-term contracts like one year. This uncertainty does not help citizens, as the development of stable organization of such places by volunteers needs time.
  • Providing resources for place-keeping: While lots of money is spent on place-making of public spaces, significantly lower budgets are made available for the support of place-keeping activities. For maintaining parks or gardens very simple support like providing the right gardening tools might already help a lot.

The experience of Utrecht shows that stable conditions and the support of the municipality are important for successful long-term place-keeping of urban spaces by citizens.

The city Utrecht lies in the heart of the Netherlands, about 30 minutes away from Amsterdam. The city is situated in a densely populated region, with over 300 000 people living in the core of the city. The neighbourhood ‘Wittevrouven’ (‘Whitewomen’) is surely one of the most beautiful parts in Utrecht. It is known for its small streets and yards and those typical Dutch small brick houses rowing up. ‘Wittevrouven’ is a rather well-situated part of the city. The streets are tidy and adorned with green. It’s hard to imagine that there used to be business and industry here. However, those small houses were built as housing for the working and middle class and the court yards in between gave space for businesses. Between the 1970s and 1980s, the neighbourhood scape changed notably, when business and industry moved out of the city core, leaving behind empty courtyards. Some of them were contaminated and needed a clean-up before further use could be initiated.

RotterdamThe courtyard which now accommodates De Bikkershof, one of the oldest self-managed gardens of the Netherlands was one of them. Until the 1970s, the court yard was used by a garage and a dairy factory. When they moved away, the municipality of Utrecht bought the piece of land and cleaned up the contaminated ground. But when it came about to decide what to do with this ‘new’ piece of land, the municipality and the inhabitants of the surrounding houses had very different ideas about the future use. While the municipality wanted to keep it simple – pavement with some green – the inhabitants dreamed of an ecological garden. Eventually, the municipality could be convinced and agreed to try it – De Bikkershof officially opened in 1986.

Today De Bikkershof offers space for different activities and types of gardening: from vegetable gardens, to natural gardens, a meadow with fruit trees, small animals and a playground for children. What is special about the garden is the strong involvement of its users. Not only did they contribute to the place-making itself, they are responsible for its place-keeping: While the ground belongs to the municipality, the garden is maintained by a group of people living in the direct neighbourhood. Starting in 1986, De Bikkershof was one of the first projects in the country where the management and maintenance of a public green space would lie entirely in the hand of citizens – successfully, as the garden’s 30th anniversary this year is proof for.

  • How does it work?

The good news: it’s quite simple. The group has a board of 4 people, keeping an overview of the garden’s overall management. Inhabitants of the surrounding houses are dividing the tasks among themselves: from common gardening and maintenance activities to feeding the animals and taking care of opening and closing the garden every morning and evening. A few times per year everyone meets for common working days, in which they tackle ‘bigger’ tasks like pruning the plants or winterizing. Some of those working days are accompanied by an external gardener payed by the municipality. The external gardener is not supposed to take over gardening tasks, but to support the group of citizens with sharing his gardening knowledge, answering technical questions and giving general advice on how to proceed with the garden. Next to this financial support, the project was also able to access different subsidies over the years. The rest of the project is financed by renting out bicycle sheds at the entrance of the garden (something very valuable in the Netherlands) and individual allotment gardens.

  • And the municipality…?

… was brave enough to try this model. Over the time, many similar projects have popped up in Utrecht and the municipality is supporting these activities officially. For example, it is stated in the city’s policy that citizens should play a role in the design and management of public spaces. The “how” and “how much” is still based on case-by-case negotiations.

If you are interested to know more about place-keeping, you can visit the homepage of the place keeping group, where you find many examples and more information. All information about De Bikkershof and other green projects in Utrecht (NL) can be found in a publication by Parlevliet et al. (2008).


Leave a Reply