On placemaking

An anthropologist’s perspective by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman

Placemaking. It’s been called everything from a buzzword to a movement. It even comes in varieties like “creative.” And, depending on who you ask, it’s two words and not one. But what is it? And furthermore, what makes it such a hot topic?

Defining placemaking has been one of its biggest issues from day one. Taken at face value the term sounds fairly self-explanatory—a place is being made. But what place? And how? Is it being physically created? And what was it before it became a place?

The current urban planning and design viewpoint will tell you this: Placemaking acts as a stand-in for what could otherwise be called (albeit more clumsily) best practices in public space design. This could involve planners, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, developers and so on, but is done so in cooperation with the community involved in the space that’s being created or altered—that is, before it becomes a place with its defined set of meanings, activities, and associations.

This top down (planning) and bottom up (community) coordination is what makes placemaking sing. As a process, it was created in response to the status quo of the post-industrial, and primarily auto-dominated planning periods of the mid-to late 20th century. During the height of it in the 1960s, entire neighborhoods were razed to make way for the modern highways and housing complexes for the betterment of urban dwellers everywhere. Without consulting the communities affected, planners wielded seemingly unending control over peoples’ quality of life. Whether intentions were for the best or not, the actions of a few created less-than-ideal urban environments which would last for decades even after we realized our mistakes.

Even today, with the success stories and awareness—thanks mostly in part to the activists and researchers who came before us—there is still need for reform.

Some of these spaces were parks and plazas, otherwise public spaces meant to be havens of nature and civic activity in the urban jungle. Today we can imagine Bryant Park in New York City for example, and see how successfully it provides a myriad of activities for New Yorkers of all ages, or just simply gives them a place to sit. A few decades earlier, however, and it was essentially left to ruin. With no one to manage it, it quickly became the overgrown haunting grounds for drug dealers and homeless populations where few would dare to tread—a story all too common for many parks then and now.

Plazas had their own set of problems. Whether out of laziness or as a trade for higher building heights (and extra profit), plazas—especially those attached to buildings in the city centre—were barren, lacking any form of refuge from the demanding sidewalks adjacent. Or worse—they were indoors and subject to guarded scrutiny and hours of operation: semi-public to say the least. And let’s not get started on the painful determents still employed by ledge-owners even today. Streets—also crucial public spaces—are another story entirely, and one in which we’ve sadly only begun to scratch the surface of.

But the importance of these public spaces lies not only in the desire for a relaxing respite inbetween buildings, but also to our Right to the City as residents of these newly formed human habitats. If your only “piece of land” happens to be a 600 square foot four-story walkup in the lower east side, with only a fire escape out your window, the need for these so-called third places becomes a matter of health. With no backyard, you rely upon the amenities the city has for all of its residents. And as members of society we have a right to voice our opinions via public gathering—and not in a place that is closed after 6pm.

As an urban anthropologist, I also view this from a different angle.

Even today, with the success stories and awareness—thanks mostly in part to the activists and researchers who came before us—there is still a need for reform. Placemaking (or whatever you’d prefer to call it) is essentially just a solution to this ongoing problem. What it aims to achieve is a time before developer interests, top-down planners, and auto-oriented thinking: the time when cities were products of our natural needs.

Think about cities before long-distance commutes; before cars, and before millions of inhabitants was the norm. Cities were clusters of buildings, often walled, with a set of connected public spaces and streets to provide passage. Public markets were housed in these squares and spilled out onto the sides of streets. Your wares were sold where your residence was, and all kinds of people and vehicles could be found crisscrossing in the streets.

A city like this could be like Venice today—a place where only foot traffic and less-deadly forms of transportation are allowed within its medieval boundary. People still gather in squares to socialize, talk politics, or just take an evening stroll. While parks were not formalized at this point (due to proximity to the hinterlands surrounding the city) the concept is still strong—public spaces are needed to take care of the city’s inhabitants.

More than idle nostalgia, we’re gathering more and more scientific evidence that shows the effect of street trees on our health, for instance. Or, just how devastating a lack of exercise is for us normally active animals, and the need for building this activity into walkable cities and suburbs. When faced with creating our own environments by hand, as was the case with these cities of the past, we inherently created ideal urban environments that fit with our senses, social needs, and foot-powered transportation—true places.

Knowing this, we have the ability—unique in the animal kingdom—to create the environment that we want to live in. And as homo urbanus, with over 50% of the world’s population urbanized for the first time in history, it is imperitive that we get behind whatever method unites us in a better way of creating new places and undoing our past mistakes—whatever you want to call it.

Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman is an urban anthropologist forever fascinated by the way people interact with the urban environment. Her experience comes from multiple studies conducted on public plazas, neighborhoods, and a month-long ethnographic project at the Occupy Portland site. She is currently the Communications and Outreach Manager at Project for Public Spaces and writes on urban anthropology at her blog Think.urban.
Illustration by Bernat Solsona

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