Discussions about planning and urbanism are awash with talk of “placemaking” but the term remains strangely and troublingly opaque, writes Reinier de Graaf.
UK housing secretary Michael Gove is backing the creation of a new “School of Place”; the city of San Francisco has adopted a placemaking ordinance called “Places for People”; Edinburgh Council has invited the public to participate in a “placemaking consultation”. Vancouver organizes a “Placemaking Week”; Bangalore has a “Placemaking Weekend”. New York City promotes “creative placemaking”, Ontario, “neighborhood placemaking”, while Auckland connects placemaking to “Aroha” – the Mauri word for love for all things, living and otherwise.
I have a confession to make: I have no idea what “placemaking” is. The more I hear the word, the less I understand it. What is placemaking? The word, for one, does not feature in any English dictionary and, until recently, was underlined by Microsoft Word as a spelling mistake. Entering the term into the Oxford English Dictionary delivers no match, neither does the Cambridge Online Dictionary, while Thesaurus.com politely offers the help of a grammar coach.
The more I hear the word, the less I understand it
The first internet site that comes close to attempting a definition is Wikipedia. “Additional citations or verification” are needed, but placemaking, I learn, is: “A multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. It capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being.” The explanation continues: “Placemaking is both a process and a philosophy that makes use of urban design principles. It can be either official and government-led, or community-driven grass roots tactical urbanism, such as extending sidewalks with chalk, paint, and planters, or open streets events such as Bogotá, Colombia’s Ciclovía.
For more information the page redirects me to pps.org, the official website of Project for Public Spaces, “a cross-disciplinary non-profit organization that shares a passion for public spaces”, otherwise defined as a “Project for Sunday afternoons, walking your dog, running into friends, people watching, and losing track of time”. The website helpfully includes a page titled “What is Placemaking?”, but the answer – identical to one above – has me caught in a causal loop. The note of caution on the Wikipedia page was there for good reason.
The lack of an unequivocal meaning has hardly been in the way of the term’s popularity. Proper definition or not, placemaking appears to be the ideology of choice both within the public and the private sector.
In the UK, real-estate agents like Savills highlight the “importance of placemaking” as the prime feature valued by homeowners. Similarly, JLL offers their insight into what shapes the “meaningful places we all value”. For developers, placemaking is the perfect business formula – a suitably cost-effective mode to maximize the return of new developments. Creative Placemaking: Sparking Development with Arts and Culture, a 2020 paper by the Urban Land Institute, identifies placemaking as “a differentiator that can produce distinctive and successful real-estate projects and can turn developments into destinations”.
The explanation of how exactly this works is as elaborate as it is vague: “Development that demonstrates best practices in creative placemaking provides models for public/private partnerships, creative financing, and return on investment for a wide range of projects, from low-cost pop-ups that create a buzz for future development, to larger mixed-use projects ranging from US$250 million to US$1 billion in value.”
What most attempts at describing placemaking disturbingly have in common is that rather than tell us about placemaking, they mostly seem to argue for placemaking, without ever properly revealing why. The object of worship finds its legitimacy in the worshipping – and we have no choice but to go along.
Like a virus, placemaking seems to be able to develop mutational strands
Already placemaking is a major part of the nomenclature of urban governance, reflected in the titles of an ever-larger number of public officials: “head of placemaking”, “director of place”, “placemaking officer”, “chief placemaking officer”, “placemaker”, “principle placemaker”… As the job descriptions multiply, the expertise proliferates. Like a virus, placemaking seems to be able to develop mutational strands over time: there is healthy placemaking, creative placemaking, strategic placemaking, tactical placemaking, digital placemaking as well as Afrocentric placemaking.
For all the apparent enthusiasm, placemaking doesn’t always err on the side of logic: Bryant Park in New York City, “a place for people”, prohibits riding bicycles, feeding pigeons, sitting on balustrades, selling goods, or organizing demonstrations; the “place-centered revitalized” downtown Detroit belongs to one man and the “non-place urban realm”, of Milton Keynes, is meanwhile overseen by a Strategic Placemaking Committee.
I too, have done projects under the guise of placemaking. Mea culpa. I’ve sat through hours and hours of planning sessions dedicated to the subject, featuring equally in the objectors’ arguments as it did in their rebuttal. Placemaking proved a term that can be levelled for and against projects – at once a voice of criticism and support. How wonderful! I wonder if that perhaps is the whole point – a lack of definition that enables a consensus between opposing interest, one that frees people from having to see eye-to-eye and allows business to continue as usual.
We can read into the term whatever we want. Its meaning is a matter of private conviction. Like the existence of God, placemaking cannot be verified, nor should it. I still do not know what placemaking is; I doubt if anyone does. I wonder if anyone wants to.
The photo is by Krisztina Papp.
Reinier de Graaf is a Dutch architect and writer. He is a partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and co-founder of its think-tank AMO. He is the author of Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession, the novel The Masterplan, and most recently Architect, verb: The New Language of Building.
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