Places in the making

In the past, remaking cities has been the stuff of big visions and product-focused interventions. Now, as cities try to rejuvenate themselves, there is a new approach: bottom-up, flexible, temporarily and interactive. 

This regeneration of urban planning, called placemaking, is not focused so much on architecture or public works, but as making sure spaces actually work for city residents. Rather than build more buildings, placemaking is a street level way of bringing activity to downtowns and neighborhoods. It is the gradual turn from “what makes a good place?” to “what – and who – makes a good placemaking process?” Or as Fred Kent, founder of the Project for Public Spaces says: “Placemaking is an act of doing something. It’s not planning, it’s doing. That’s what’s so powerful about it”. Ranging from local actors testing new concepts at low cost for local planning challenges (must read: Tactical Urbanism, vol. 2) to a developer’s deliberate and decades-long transformation of a neighborhood.

This week a interesting research on placemaking was released from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT in Boston). The paper, entitled 'Places in the Making', explores the current state of placemaking and offers some exciting insights into what is happening in the field, as well as recommendations for moving forward. It highlights the importance of people in defining and designing public spaces (lived city), a critical aspect that is all too often forgotten by those responsible for the planned city.

The research team delved into the literature, looked at ten case studies in the United States, and interviewed over 100 practitioners, community members and leaders in the field. The cases show a number of trends, among them the forefronting of a solid plan for the ongoing programming of spaces (the making is never finished); the rise and influence of tactical urbanism; and the prevalence of public/private partnerships (users became makers). All of these trends rely fundamentally on a strong, strategic and inclusive foundational process. As a whole, they suggest that successful placemaking has become more iterative and more interactive.

The whole move to what we call lighter, quicker, cheaper has been in response to a number of things,” says Susan Silberberg, the author, in a interview with Forbes. “It’s a response to top down, regulation heavy environments where it was difficult to make changes. And, it’s in response to constrained resources.” The idea of less money to make big changes is actually providing a variety of new opportunities, built on making smaller changes, and involving residents and community groups, and to creativity, she says. “There’s no pressure that ‘we have to get it right, it’s going to cost millions of dollars.’ There’s less at stake, nobody is going to lose their job over it. That has just opened up the field to a lot of wonderful things.”

Sources and who wants to read more:

Susan Silberberg, Katie Lorah, Rebecca Disbrow & Anna Muessig (2013) Places in the Making. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Micheline Maynard (2013) Light, Quick And Cheap: The Big Shift In Urban Planning. Forbes.

Photo: Central Park (New York) by Gerben Helleman