Street furniture, mixed-use spaces, pop-up art installations and guerrilla gardeners are all part of the mix as smart councils work more collaboratively with communities to create better places and spaces. By Patricia Moore.
Small towns to big cities are all prime for placemaking. It’s the practice of involving local communities in developing innovative ways to shape spaces for everyone to use and enjoy. Its opposite is merely hoping that solutions decided by city hall will appeal. As a group of mayors in the US puts it, it’s about “turning a neighbourhood, town or city from a place you can’t wait to get through, to one you never want to leave”.
Local bodies are increasingly turning to placemaking as they work to transform, reinvent and revitalise urban environments or put strategies in place to ensure new developments become genuine communities, not simply a bunch of dwellings.
“Placemaking,” says Frith Walker, manager place making for Panuku Development Auckland, “is a key tool in creating good healthy public spaces.” Innovation, she says, is “central to the need to continuously grow places in ways that identify with the people who use them”.
Actions can be as simple as providing chairs that enable people to sit and enjoy existing green spaces; as complex as providing the year-round programme of cultural and socialising events which have turned the Lawn on D in Boston into a city icon.
Closer to home, placemaking has transformed Adelaide from Australia’s ‘wallflower’ to ‘wicked-sexy city’.
The term ‘placemaking’ is not always fully understood. Adele Cubitt, strategist at Fresh Concept, says after seven years working in the area, it’s only in the past few years people have stopped thinking they supply hardware.
“Placemaking is a process, a strategy, bespoke, with no one way of doing things. The methods, and who is doing it, are evolving innovatively,” she says.
“It’s no longer viewed as just a public sector responsibility because any shared space is ripe for placemaking. Commercial property, brands, business associations and private developments are all looking at it as a way to draw people in, to provide a holistic experience and connect with people.”
Frith says that both technique and approach are important. “Digital tools including social media are central to the advertising of a space. Social media is also a great way to receive and analyse feedback, then adjust and adapt plans.
“Our approach is to let a place speak for itself and plan around that, creating plans to allow for adjustment and development that caters to the growth and change of an environment or space.”
Isthmus Design director Duncan Ecob says innovation can be found in many parts of urban design and placemaking. He cites recognising and designing the urban environment as a multi-layered, integrated system, as an example.
“This will push innovation to deliver better value which is not confined to economics or exchange but encompasses use and efficiency, identity, and environmental, cultural and social value.”
Frith suggests that ultimately this should mean less call on government resources across the board. “Placemaking is a mechanism that is based around the art of collaboration between the people, government and developers. More holistic, direct interactions will mean less dependency, happier people and good, liveable cities.”
Adele Cubitt agrees councils don’t have to regard placemaking as something they do alone. “They can enable, encourage, facilitate and / or partner with different sectors for better public outcomes.”
She points out this already happens in a number of ways. “It can also be key in growing and shaping communities. Councils should look more to the long game – what change really looks like, what they can do or influence, and who can help.”
Local bodies may need to be more flexible with the processes they have in place if they want to enable communities to take the lead.
Duncan notes collaboration will be a new mind-set for many, “embracing opportunities and seeing how they can be delivered by acting as facilitators with partners, rather than being required to deliver the outcome”.
He says small-scale pilot projects, which enable measurement of outcomes, are proving a successful approach. “Being nimble and recognising pilots to be scalable will be a significant challenge.”
In Auckland, Smales Farm is taking a placemaking approach to creating a new way of working and living; the Christmas Tree Forest in a reused silo on Auckland’s waterfront was a successful activation, and major infrastructure works in the city have seen pop-up events boosting activity and vitality as closed roads became basketball courts or temporary parks.
“Art events,” says Duncan, “either one-offs or on a more regular basis, meet with large levels of participation. The Serpentine Gallery pavilion in London is a good example as is the biennial Waiheke sculpture trail.”
Adele believes the coolest ideas are the bespoke ones. “That’s what placemaking is about – what works in that space, for that community, like the guerrilla gardener in Los Angeles who planted vegetables in vacant lots, traffic medians, along the kerb, in an effort to offer an alternative to fast food in communities where ‘drive-thrus are killing more people than drive-bys’.”
But these are parts of a whole, she says. “It’s not about putting lipstick on a gorilla. Placemaking is about real change so there needs to be an end goal and ongoing assessment.
“People want more from their lives; ironically, social innovation through placemaking is really about people bringing things back to their roots, creating a village, a community where they can live richer lives.”
This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.