The Not-So-Simple Art of Placemaking

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It’s a familiar word, but there’s a good chance you’ve never heard it. It’s not a complicated word, but there’s a better chance you can’t define it. It’s a term. It’s a concept. It’s a “process and a philosophy.” It’s being taught in schools. It’s reshaping our communities, our place in them, our sense of space, and our identity. It’s helping the new world to become just a little bit more like the old, channeling primal notions into modern ideas. It’s placemaking, and it’s making a place for itself in the planning and development of our cities.

Via Flickr Commons

Hot Tub Parklet, Vancouver, Via Flickr Commons

A conceptual approach to development of public places, placemaking “capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.” Owing to the ideas put forth by writers Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte in the 1960s, placemaking is deeply connected people and their sense of place, asserting that for a community to feel comfortable and connected to their community space, it must first be designed for the people, and not just for cars and buildings. An “eyes on the street” concept of ownership, as Jacobs put it, drives this central tenet of placemaking: a place must be built so that it maximizes the public good, and the good of public life.

The 1970s saw the expansion and adoption of Jacobs’ and Whyte’s ideas. Citing the elevated efficiency of design, construction and theory at that point in the course of urban development in the 20th century, Bernard Hunt, noted architect of the era, lamented that certain elements—simple elements—of the process had been lost, or perhaps more accurately, dismissed. “…What seems to have happened is that we have simply lost the art of placemaking; or, put another way, we have lost the simple art of placemaking. We are good at putting up buildings but we are bad at making places.”


Campus Martius Park, Detroit, Via Flickr Commons

Danish architect and urban consultant Jan Gehl echoed this as well as the sentiments of Jacobs and Whyte, saying, “First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works. In a Society becoming steadily more privatized with private homes, cars, computers, offices and shopping centers, the public component of our lives is disappearing. It is more and more important to make the cities inviting, so we can meet our fellow citizens face to face and experience directly through our senses. Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life.”

And it works. We have enjoyed it for decades in Broad Ripple (although things change), years on Mass Ave. and in Fountain Square, and more recently in growing areas like Garfield Park, where activist groups like Big Car Gallery & Collective are working to reunite, revitalize and reinvigorate through these not-so-simple and not-so-cheap concepts, the latter of which is the principle hurdle.

Listen Hear, Big Car Collective, Indianapolis, Via Curbed

Listen Hear, Big Car Collective, Indianapolis, Via Curbed

Placemaking is not about the money. Yes, that’s a tough pill to swallow, but the benefits of improving not only the strength of a community, but it’s quality of life, health and level of happiness is immeasurably valuable—spiritually, physically and financially. A happy community is more often a clean, prosperous and inviting one. Pride, a sense of place, a sense of ownership and identity—these are invaluable community traits, but they don’t always come with a hefty price tag, and while a complete community overhaul is an expensive, and admittedly evolving and unending, undertaking, a little goes a long way.

An important but oft-overlooked tenet of placemaking is “lighter, quicker, cheaper.” While this may sound exactly in conflict with what makes placemaking effective, it’s not, and it counterbalances the expense. Making simple, fast, and inexpensive improvements to public spaces is a proven and effective way to introduce some of the basic elements that allow them to thrive. But unlike a fresh coat of paint, it doesn’t end there.

Pocket Park, Fishers, IN, Flickr Commons

Pocket Park, Fishers, IN, Flickr Commons

Like anything else, it’s a process. One that needs attention, tending, patience, understanding. One that needs enthusiasm, involvement, action, connection. There’s a reason placemaking is a gerund. A place must be made for people, and people must make that place. It doesn’t just happen. It’s not that simple. It’s an art.

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