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More Than Buildings

We kicked things off last month by talking about density (if you missed it, check it out here), but cities are made up of a lot more than mixed-use apartment buildings and missing middle housing. Let's be honest, places are more than buildings. The practice of creative placemaking asks: what about the public realm?

By public realm, I mean everything other than privately owned buildings: parks, playgrounds, streets, public buildings like libraries--anything that collectively belongs to all of us. The fact is, the design of public space has a huge impact on our health and well-being (check out this article from Project for Public Spaces for an in-depth look). Creative placemaking, at the intersection of design, public art, advocacy, and community engagement, is concerned with the design of these collectively owned spaces.

Creative placemaking takes many different forms, but at its core it's scrappy and nimble by nature. By grouping projects together in categories, we can start to talk about how you can plan and execute such a project and what types of issues you can address in your community. Here are some of my favorite examples, broken down by category:

  1. Guerrilla placemaking, also referred to as tactical urbanism. This category of placemaking activities is generally grassroots and frequently unsanctioned, often in order to draw attention to a particular space or issue. Pop-up bike lanes and crosswalks are some well-known examples. For more resources, check out the materials guide for Tactical Urbanism by Street Plans Collaborative, and for some general inspiration, be sure to take a look at Candy Chang's compelling "I wish this was..." project if you haven't seen it.

  2. Temporary/semi-permanent - there's a lot of overlap here with what might be considered tactical urbanism, but some placemaking strategies are designed to be installed for a period of a few months or years. City Repair has developed a strategy for painting intersections that began as a guerrilla action in South Portland, and now is a semi-permanent strategy. The Richmond (London) Pop-Ups by make:good are another example of a temporary installation that went a step beyond guerrilla. Team Better Block began by organizing guerrilla pop-ups in Dallas and their work has since evolved into a comprehensive strategic approach.

  3. Larger scale/permanent - The decision to close Times Square to cars (completed in 2015) is probably one of the most ambitious large-scale placemaking projects in recent history, at least in the United States. Other examples of larger scale, more permanent projects include things like pocket parks (my city of Richmond, VA is full of them) and woonerfs. These spaces that visitors can "discover" and linger in are what make for truly memorable urban experiences. Many of these projects began as guerrilla placemaking initiatives (filling in a vacant lot with plants and benches, or making a street car-free for a day).

To be honest, designing public space is harder than simply improving your own property or designing a building. Generally this type of work involves pulling people together, navigating bureaucracy, and finding creative ways to fund it. It almost always takes far longer that it feels like it should. However, each of us knows through our own experience of the world that the design of public space is what makes our special places truly unique.

One additional thought - Last year at the ACD Conference I heard Justin Garrett Moore use the term "placekeeping," and it really resonated with some unarticulated thoughts it turned out I'd been having. His point was that "placemaking" implies that there was not a place already, which is almost always not true. In the same way that referring to parts of the city as a "frontier" does, place-making discounts the experiences of the people who have lived in a place all along, when all that place needs is some love and attention. Something to think about.

More Reading: Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg - a closer look at the vital nature of our shared spaces, particularly in our current times. Also, Ben Hamilton-Baille, the architect and designer who championed woonerfs passed away earlier this year; his obituary in the Guardian has a lovely summary of his work and approach. Is there a placekeeping project you're dreaming about? Comment and tell me about it!

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