Why My Twitter Stream is Singing about Placemaking

This blog originally appeared on myurbanist.com and is reposted here with permission. 

Photo Credit: Chuck Wolfe
Photo Credit: Chuck Wolfe

My Twitter stream is alive with the sound of placemaking.  While those are not the exact Sound of Music lyrics we remember, I am as guilty as anyone for hyping Placemaking Week in Vancouver, British Columbia (which begins September 12), using the increasingly popular twitter hashtag, #placemaking.

Three initiatives, under the umbrella of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), will come together this week for overlapping conferences (including the PPS Placemaking Leadership CouncilFuture of Places and ProWalk/ProBike/Pro Place). The common themes address how to create accessible urban places that are useful, meaningful and enjoyable to a full range of residents and visitors alike–qualities that help people decide where they really want to live.

Food trucks and human scale, sit-able places (consider the chair interventions that we now see in public spaces around the world) are just part of the focus.  Another is breaking free of the car and walkability.  Most clear is a spirit of empowerment in how the public realm develops, always contrasting with “starchitecture,” rigid design or top-down plans.  For PPS, a carefully studied, bottom-up approach is often the secret sauce of successful urban places.  This long debate about managed design versus the verbiage of democratic placemaking recently reached a zenith with a controversial essay on “bogus placemaking” by architectural critic James S. Russell last year, and the illuminating comment chain that followed.

However, like imposed urban design, conference agendas also impose a direction and control, which is ironically anathema to a bottom-up approach .  So, hearing that over 1000 people will attend (and preparing for my Future of Places presentation), I’ve been perusing the program and schedule for the week’s Placemaking Leadership Forum,  full of creative, equity-centered language and ideals, in direct preparation for the United Nations’ Habitat III Conference, which follows in Quito, Ecuador in October.

Photo Credit: Chuck Wolfe
Photo Credit: Chuck Wolfe

The placemaking movement is hitting stride, and its principles are embraced by a number of professional organizations—from architects, to planners, to new urbanists—under different labels but with similar livability goals.  I’m not so interested anymore about who owns the ideas, or whether a design professional is needed to implement a livable city.  While not a design professional, I am more concerned—but without Russell’s biting prose cited above—that a place-based approach remains more than pablum, and truly honors the latent needs of urban inhabitants and the findings of those well-versed in the academic discipline of place-attachment.

For some years now, I have also focused a critical eye on the role of spontaneity and authenticity in successful urban outcomes. I examined a city of celebration—with new, shared uses of closed streets and vantage points—amid the “placemaking lessons learned” as 700,000 people watched the 2014 Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl Parade.  I mused about, and wrote a book surrounding the “urbanism without effort” experienced in neighbor-generated, summer evening “alley movie nights” behind my house.

My conclusions usually stress that authentic “placemaking” with a purpose is often best, how one-time events can help crystallize potential alternative uses of urban spaces and how real neighborhood experiences offer a meaningful gloss on how to make cities better and increase shared places for all.

Because I think success often emerges from urbanism that we already have–which is readily observable, and already there to be nurtured—I’ll be going to Vancouver with an informal metric in mind: how many of the panels, proceedings, talks and strategies avoid immediate prescription without critical analysis?  Will they remember to look first for what people have, want and need?

If nothing else, the overall program looks diverse, interactive and sensitive to the Vancouver locale.  Just outside, Vancouver will provide the perfect sort of people-centric observatory at the heart of the #placemaking song.

Images composed by the author in London and Vancouver. © 2009-2016 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved.Do not copy.

For more on using urban observation as a tool to affect change, Seeing the Better City will be available by early 2017 from Island Press, through local booksellers and Amazon.