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

Looking Beyond the “Western World”

We in the so-called Western World, and the U.S. especially, have a tendency to think of the (so-called) modern world as originating with the Roman Empire. After all, democracy was created within the great Greco-Roman society of old and their cities were modern wonders, still influencing the architecture we have today (you can check your local civic structure for those iconic columns, for example). This kind of thinking however, is misguided and completely inaccurate. Cities have existed around the globe for a lot longer than just the fabled Rome, and in many ways actually embodied the idea of “civilization” far earlier than Pax Romana. At the same time, by not looking back at the ways that even Rome did things, we miss a lot of extremely valuable information that can affect our cities today.

Continue reading Looking Beyond the “Western World”

Four Lessons from the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference here in Portland, Oregon. This year’s theme was, “reshaping suburbia into healthy communities”, a rather hot topic these days and one which has finally become a focus for more places than I had previously expected. Many cities have up until recently famously emphasized the revitalization of their downtowns, a point of contention for those concerned with the exurban regions. Where once the urban core was the dangerous home of (so-called) ghettos and the suburbs were the epitome of the (again, so-called) American Dream, the reverse is quickly becoming reality. It’s a startling trend – housing prices are rising in downtown regions whereas suburbs are in the decline, increasingly occupied by the disadvantaged populations previously living in the now-popular urban apartment blocks.

Continue reading Four Lessons from the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference

Urbanism is Weird

From economics to urbanism, I believe every contemporary topic can be looked at through the lens of human history (which is why I prefer to retain the “Anthropologist” part of my urban title). After all, what better way to start discussing human systems (i.e. cities) than with humans? While anthropology is the study of man, it must include our origins – namely our evolution from our fellow members of the animal kingdom. In fact it is often crucial that we remember most importantly, when it really comes down to it, we are animals. As much as we’d like to ignore this fact sometimes, it is indeed our reality, and has significant implications for the way we create our built environment.

Continue reading Urbanism is Weird

Urban Green Space: Past, Present, and Future

Turkey’s ongoing developments in Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul could not be more pertinent to my personal research, but also have important ramifications for all of us and the future of urban design. Two years after the Arab Spring events we are witnessing another similar uprising in a large urban plaza filled with protestors of varying backgrounds seeking potentially disparate outcomes but gathering in the same place nonetheless. The difference with this situation, however, is the root cause of the demonstrations: a top-down redesign of one of the most important green spaces in the city.

Continue reading Urban Green Space: Past, Present, and Future

Carless Urban Design

Along with the recent discussions on developments without parking spaces, it was news this week that Los Angeles has approved a plan for a district without any mandatory parking requirements (you can read the full Streetsblog.org report here). Other auto-related news has surfaced recently regarding the heart of the matter – not only the space that automobiles occupy in the urban environment, but the impact they have on the rising number of pedestrians flocking to city centers and the lack of responsibility placed upon the drivers involved in these “accidents”. While Streetsblog.org calls this “motor vehicle violence” in their Weekly Carnage coverage, The Urban Country describes the absurdity of putting the blame on the pedestrians who may be wearing dark clothing or listening to headphones.

Continue reading Carless Urban Design

The Politics of Cities

[Originally written by Jason King]

An interesting OpEd in the October 9 issue of the NY Times, with the somewhat blunt and provocative title – “Republicans To Cities: Drop Dead” by Kevin Baker – showcases the focus of the campaign, particularly those on the right, towards suburban and rural issues, even with a specifically anti-urban bias.  The long and short of that isn’t necessarily that of a lack of urban agenda, but could be more closely related to class and race issues – the typical far of the urban issue.  As mentioned in the article – the shift to cities began in the Post-WWII era, with the shift away from the suffering of the Great Depression, to a new urban renaissance in the middle of the century which also galvanized the connection between urban issues and democratic politics.

As mentioned, “The cities, which had been places of horrible suffering during the early years of the Great Depression, became alluring again, attracting the dynamic if volatile new mix of rural poor, black, white and Hispanic. By 1950 almost two-thirds of all Americans lived in urban areas.”  This shifted again with deindustrialization, white flight (and even black flight), and the pendulum swinging back to cities as loci of social and environment dysfunction.  The republican agenda had been galvanized in the suburbs and hinterlands of the United States.

We are again seeing the resurgence of cities, as “the American economy began to reinvent itself in cities, as they became cleaner, greener, safer, more prosperous, more fun.” leadng to over 4/5 of the population living in urban areas, and at least 1 in 12 people living in cities over 1 million people.   So in a contentious election, one would think this major bloc of voters would garner the attention of more than one party, but it seems difficult for Republicans to understand, even tough for them “the national Republican Party still can’t seem to get past its animus toward the very idea of urban life,” as Baker mentions.

So do the Democrats have an ingrained edge due to a legacy of focus on urban issues?  Pretty much.  As Baker mentions, there doesn’t need to be an explicit urban agenda from the Democrats, because they “embody” the urban agenda.   This doesn’t exempt critical analysis of either side regarding the neglect of cities, the irony of the Republican abandonment of the urban votes, is that there still has been a fair amount of criticism of Obama, perhaps the first truly urban president, and his inability to thrust urban issues into the limelight.  Many have been disappointed with the results, and the titles of the articles mirrored as “Obama to Cities: Drop Dead” – (a familiar refrain, no?).  While maybe the focus on cities has not been a sharp as predicted, the implication that the Democrats are inherently pro-city is reflected in the fact that cities are places of diversity, which is right in the wheelhouse for Democrats, but something Republicans still have a hard time coming to terms with and more importantly, engaging in a meaningful dialogue with young,ifemale, and non-white citizens.

The urban agenda perhaps is complex – and that makes it difficult for either side of the political sphere to parse – but we’re going to have to be able to elevate this to a more vital plank in the platforms or talking points in debates, because the shift is inevitable.  Cities are here to stay, and the urban political agenda will be more and more common, as Baker concludes: “…as urban areas continue to grow, they become more and more intertwined with what were once distance suburbs, making ‘urban’ issues all the more pertinent to everyone.”