On Placemaking: An Anthropologist’s Perspective

Placemaking. It’s been called everything from a buzzword to a movement. It even comes in varieties like “creative.” And, depending on who you ask, it’s two words and not one. But what is it? And furthermore, what makes it such a hot topic?

Defining placemaking has been one of its biggest issues from day one. Taken at face value the term sounds fairly self-explanatory—a place is being made. But what place? And how? Is it being physically created? And what was it before it became a place?

The current urban planning and design viewpoint will tell you this: Placemaking acts as a stand-in for what could otherwise be called (albeit more clumsily) best practices in public space design. This could involve planners, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, developers and so on, but is done so in cooperation with the community involved in the space that’s being created or altered—that is, before it becomes a place with its defined set of meanings, activities, and associations.

This top down (planning) and bottom up (community) coordination is what makes placemaking sing. As a process, it was created in response to the status quo of the post-industrial, and primarily auto-dominated planning periods of the mid-to late 20th century. During the height of it in the 1960s, entire neighborhoods were razed to make way for the modern highways and housing complexes for the betterment of urban dwellers everywhere. Without consulting the communities affected, planners wielded seemingly unending control over peoples’ quality of life. Whether intentions were for the best or not, the actions of a few created less-than-ideal urban environments which would last for decades even after we realized our mistakes.

Pull Quote

Some of these spaces were parks and plazas, otherwise public spaces meant to be havens of nature and civic activity in the urban jungle. Today we can imagine Bryant Park in New York City for example, and see how successfully it provides a myriad of activities for New Yorkers of all ages, or just simply gives them a place to sit. A few decades earlier, however, and it was essentially left to ruin. With no one to manage it, it quickly became the overgrown haunting grounds for drug dealers and homeless populations where few would dare to tread—a story all too common for many parks then and now.

Plazas had their own set of problems. Whether out of laziness or as a trade for higher building heights (and extra profit), plazas—especially those attached to buildings in the city centre—were barren, lacking any form of refuge from the demanding sidewalks adjacent. Or worse—they were indoors and subject to guarded scrutiny and hours of operation: semi-public to say the least. And let’s not get started on the painful determents still employed by ledge-owners even today. Streets—also crucial public spaces—are another story entirely, and one in which we’ve sadly only begun to scratch the surface of.

But the importance of these public spaces lies not only in the desire for a relaxing respite inbetween buildings, but also to our Right to the City as residents of these newly formed human habitats. If your only “piece of land” happens to be a 600 square foot four-story walkup in the lower east side, with only a fire escape out your window, the need for these so-called third places becomes a matter of health. With no backyard, you rely upon the amenities the city has for all of its residents. And as members of society we have a right to voice our opinions via public gathering—and not in a place that is closed after 6pm.

As an urban anthropologist, I also view this from a different angle.

Even today, with the success stories and awareness—thanks mostly in part to the activists and researchers who came before us—there is still a need for reform. Placemaking (or whatever you’d prefer to call it) is essentially just a solution to this ongoing problem. What it aims to achieve is a time before developer interests, top-down planners, and auto-oriented thinking: the time when cities were products of our natural needs.

Think about cities before long-distance commutes; before cars, and before millions of inhabitants was the norm. Cities were clusters of buildings, often walled, with a set of connected public spaces and streets to provide passage. Public markets were housed in these squares and spilled out onto the sides of streets. Your wares were sold where your residence was, and all kinds of people and vehicles could be found crisscrossing in the streets.

A city like this could be like Venice today—a place where only foot traffic and less-deadly forms of transportation are allowed within its medieval boundary. People still gather in squares to socialize, talk politics, or just take an evening stroll. While parks were not formalized at this point (due to proximity to the hinterlands surrounding the city) the concept is still strong—public spaces are needed to take care of the city’s inhabitants.

More than idle nostalgia, we’re gathering more and more scientific evidence that shows the effect of street trees on our health, for instance. Or, just how devastating a lack of exercise is for us normally active animals, and the need for building this activity into walkable cities and suburbs. When faced with creating our own environments by hand, as was the case with these cities of the past, we inherently created ideal urban environments that fit with our senses, social needs, and foot-powered transportation—true places.

Knowing this, we have the ability—unique in the animal kingdom—to create the environment that we want to live in. And as homo urbanus, with over 50% of the world’s population urbanized for the first time in history, it is imperitive that we get behind whatever method unites us in a better way of creating new places and undoing our past mistakes—whatever you want to call it.

This article originally appeared on the Peeps Forum.
Illustration by Bernat Solsona

Travel Blog: East Coast Public Spaces

I recently had the pleasure of traveling back to the East Coast and exploring a few major cities I had not visited since becoming an urban enthusiast. Being a public space aficionado, I of course made it a point to investigate as many public spaces as possible. Starting in Pittsburgh, I made my way by train to New York City and Philadelphia, before embarking on a cross-country train ride back to Portland (with a quick stop in Chicago). I visited some spaces new and old, and was delighted to see such infamous improvements for myself.

Continue reading Travel Blog: East Coast Public Spaces

Park Portrait: PARK(ing) Day PDX

This is the third in a series originally published on Parksify of brief spatial ethnographies intended to provide a snapshot of one public space, for one day, in Portland, Oregon. Armed with a camera and a watchful eye, I observe the social behavior in relation to the built environment. The profiles are based on research methods used in my masters thesis in Urban Studies and are inspired by the works of William H. Whyte, Setha Low, and Jan Gehl. 

This Park Portrait is admittedly not about a permanent park, but a parklett that I helped create for a single day in downtown Portland. On September 20th, we took part in the PARK(ing) Day event with hundreds of other public space enthusiasts around the world. On an entire block of Southwest Stark Street we converted ten parking spaces into a greyspace plaza for a day.

Continue reading Park Portrait: PARK(ing) Day PDX

Livable Portland? A New Plan

There’s something brewing in Portland, and it’s probably not what you’d expect. As we speak, planners and stakeholders are currently working on arguably the most important planning document since 1988: the Central City Plan 2035. Technically open to the public, the planning process has been comparatively quiet. After the charrette process, it has now transitioned into monthly meetings with primarily stakeholder involvement. The process itself is fairly standard: the floor is open to public comment (limited to two minutes), there is a summary of the progress thus far, presentations for the topic at hand, followed by stakeholder debate. At the moment, there’s also voting on several nearly finalized “layers” of the plan, specifically for the West Quadrant (Downtown, Southwest, Old Town, the Pearl, and the uber-cool West End, where we recently held our PARK(ing) Day event).

Continue reading Livable Portland? A New Plan

Poor Placemaking in Five Easy Steps

William H. Whyte said “It is difficult to design a place that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” Indeed, walking the streets one can find a myriad of terrible places simply because of the design itself. And make no mistake, they are designed, they’re just designed poorly. When discussing urban design, thankfully, the tone increasingly is that of good design – 20 Minute Neighborhoods, New Urbanism, True Urbanism, Placemaking, Walkability, 8 to 80, Transit Oriented Design, and on and on, each with their core concepts and design standards pushing for more livable cities. But with the myriad of options to choose from, it almost seems easier to instead highlight the other side of the spectrum – poor placemaking – summarized here for your convenience in five easy steps.

Continue reading Poor Placemaking in Five Easy Steps

Park Portrait: The Urban Center Plaza

This is the first in a series originally published on Parksify of brief spatial ethnographies intended to provide a snapshot of one public space, for one day, in Portland, Oregon. Armed with a camera and a watchful eye, I observe the social behavior in relation to the built environment. The profiles are based on research methods used in my masters thesis in Urban Studies and are inspired by the works of William H. Whyte, Setha Low, and Jan Gehl. 

What better place to start than with my first real observational project: The Urban Center Plaza. Located on Portland State University’s urban campus, it is a combination of green and grey space that intersects major destinations for students and members of the neighborhood. It is technically a privately owned public space as it was made by the University. However, the goal of the space was to be a community space where the local residents could relax, eat lunch, and interact with the student population.

Continue reading Park Portrait: The Urban Center Plaza

Pittsburgh vs. Portland: May the Best City Win

There is a competition mentality that plagues our conversations about cities year after year, here and abroad, that can be both the source of joy or scourge for mayors and citizens alike. What is the best city to start a business in? Where should I move to for a great nightlife? Which one tops the list for raising a family? The list goes on and on. Find your preferred publication and pick your flavor of competition. But are these really so important? A lot of time and money goes into attempting to top these lists, not to mention gathering the data to create them. And some people seem obsessed by the notion that one city would be more popular than another when clearly, this underdog city deserves more attention (and new residents). So why the popularity contest? Or more specifically, why the recent emphasis on the battle between Pittsburgh and Portland?

Continue reading Pittsburgh vs. Portland: May the Best City Win