Vitality for urban open spaces throughout the year
Placemaking is the art of creating public spaces that draw and sustain community life. In the 1970s, the term was coined to describe a movement in urban planning that prioritized engaged neighborhoods. When people engage with each other and the environment at street level, there is a vitality and personality that creates local pride and culture, and makes people feel engaged and at home. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, suburban buildout left some formally vital urban environments depleted, and public space started being seen as transportation corridors for people otherwise tucked into cars and private buildings. Reclaiming and rebuilding modern cities was the focus of ‘60s urbanists like Jane Jacobs, who described a healthy neighborhood as having a “a unit of errands,” allowing people to do their daily business on foot. Over the subsequent years, interest in the street-level life of neighborhoods has led to research in placemaking, with new strategies and solutions being developed and tested again and again.
Clearly, place arises out of a community, not just a series of actions taken by a planner, but there are things the city or architect can do to encourage community involvement. Creating human social habitat makes it more likely that people will be active there.
An aspect of placemaking currently under exploration is the seasonality of space. Areas can have shifting use depending on climate, seasonal shifts in demographics, and the changing needs of the community. A place that’s a huge draw for tourists in the summer months can have a deleterious effect on the community if it goes dark in the winter, suddenly becoming unwelcoming, unused space. Placemaking projects increasingly include seasonal variances, so that open urban space is vital and attractive all year long.
Principles of placemaking
One of the ways to begin to construct place is to observe what is already happening. A savvy planner learns what people like and dislike about a space. Interviews can help uncover common, unaddressed needs and wishes, allowing efforts in placemaking to build organically from the needs of the community. Over time, and with engagement from citizens, businesses, city amenities, and other organizations, places can be transformed from dead-zones to areas of activity and community support. It takes vision, sensitivity, and time.
The Project for Public Spaces, a placemaking organization, talks about using the Power of Ten when constructing a placemaking vision. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but rather a general guideline to have planners consider what cluster of activities and engagements draw people to interaction, and how to mobilize a range of users. For example, a park might draw families if there is a children’s play area in the park—and be enhanced if it is near to a library offering infant story time, or a community center with children’s programs. In this park, amenities could be aimed at different ages and stages of life foster a more complex, rounded community engagement. Is there something for seniors? For singles? For youth?
Placemaking amenities might include:
- gardens, trees, lawns
- a coffee shop
- a deli
- an ice cream parlor
- public tables and benches
- public art
- a food truck
- a bike lane
- a gym
- a fountain
- a stunning view
- regular buskers or other entertainers
- an outdoor class
- a public basketball or tennis court
Having ten amenities that cater to a range of individuals creates movement and activity. People come, meet, talk, and engage. Places encouraging face-to-face interaction create community. From tables that hold family picnics and seniors playing chess, to basketball courts with benches to encourage a pick-up game.
It is clear that aesthetics are an important part of placemaking. Parks and gardens draw people in, inviting people to stroll, play, or rest. Trees provide shade in the summer. Expansive views, gorgeous architecture, and captivating art bring people into an area and invite them to stay.
On a beautiful sunny day, it is easier for people to enjoy the aesthetic and activities provided by place. How does this understanding of place work as the months get cold and grey?
Seasonal placemaking projects
In seasonal climates, summer is the time of tourism, of music festivals and farmers’ markets, of fireworks displays and street performers. As the city street comes alive in summer, so can it fade away again in wintertime, while people cozy indoors to wait the season out. Yet there are opportunities for a neighborhood in the winter. In tourist areas, winter is a chance for residents to claim the streets for themselves.
Seasonal placemaking must be aware that the attractions in an area may change depending on the time of year. A perennial “Power of Ten” may require different attractions in the winter than in the spring. Just as a garden can be planted to be beautiful at many points throughout the year, so can place adjust activities and use of space with respect to weather, people’s habits, number of visitors, and need for shelter.
Cities can support events as part of their efforts in community support over the course of the year. The City of Portland offers placemaking grants to the community, and in 2018 gave grants to fund projects that wrapped the calendar, including a Southeast Asian New Year celebration in April (as the sun enters Aries), an Autumn Moon Festival, and several grants for multiple months’ worth of activity in public spaces. These special events can help advertise a revitalized location and bring people to street level in all seasons. During the summer, community festivals and fireworks are popular, but autumn leaves and harvest markets are big draws. Ice cream gives way to pumpkin spice and mooncakes. Winter is often celebrated with light displays. Snow and freezing temperatures bring skating and sledding, ice sculptures, and hot chocolate.
However well special events and entertainment engage a community, place is created by having an atmosphere that allows people to connect to one another and make their own fun. Encouraging people to create their own life events, large and small, makes a neighborhood come alive.
In Toronto, updates to Market St., in the quaint St. Laurence Market, have added removable bollards to create a pedestrian space in the summer that transforms to parking space in the winter. Market St. sees high tourist volume in summertime: in winter, allowing more car traffic helps keep the street vital for more local trade.
The City of Vancouver recently engaged in the first step toward comprehensive projects for seasonal placemaking, asking pedestrians what could keep them engaged through Vancouver’s rainy winter season. The answers showed a willingness and excitement to be outside through the cold damp days. Heating, covered spaces, bright colors, and attractive lighting were recognized as needs to make that possible: no one volunteers to stand outside getting chilled to the bone. An uncovered area might do well in the summer, as one of an area’s 10 most prominent attractions, but fade into disuse as the days shorten and grow dark: instead, a nearby shelter or cheerful lights might be more of a draw. Transportation needs change, as well. Pedestrian trips will be shorter, and more people on transit or in cars. Some open areas can be transformed into parking spaces, to allow people to arrive closer to their destination.
Benefits of placemaking
Many benefits are observed with a well-constructed sense of place. The most commonly mentioned benefit is that of public health. The World Health Organization lists “Healthy Settings” as one of its focus goals, noting that “health is created and lived by people within the settings of their everyday life; where they learn, work, play, and love.” Pedestrian places encourage people into daily activity, a preventative against modern diseases caused by too much sitting.
However, there are also economic and civil benefits that accrue from vibrant human spaces. Increasingly, business associations are becoming involved in placemaking efforts to draw people in, knowing that tourism, retail, and food service businesses are served by an environment that encourages people to stroll and linger.
Safety is also enhanced by having many eyes on the street. Research shows that clean and cared for public spaces, bustling with activity, are a source of “spreading pride” that help combat nuisance crimes like vandalism or petty theft. Crowded pedestrian spaces can be a target of vehicle accident or attack, so planning for security in landscape design should include protecting these areas with bollards, berms, fences, planters, and other site furnishings that help guide traffic away from pedestrian spaces.
Year-round placemaking for urban vitality
A city is made of interconnected neighborhoods, kept healthy and alive by their street level engagement and sense of community. Placemaking pays dividends in public health, economics, and safety. When planning projects to nurture and encourage this placemaking, it is important to consider a site’s year-round use and engagement. Traffic patterns and user needs change as the seasons roll through the year, and so spaces might be reimagined with the weather. The goal is to create space that invites individuals to make the streets their own. Events can encourage civic participation—but it is the engagement of residents and other members of the community that really make a place come alive.