'The Australian Art Curator blog': Talking Placemaking & Community

It’s a fact of life that’s so obvious it sounds vaguely unhelpful: people avoid some places, but not others.

You’ll take the longer route through the sunny park where your friends hang out, rather than go the quicker way that would mean crossing two roads of busy traffic.

But have you ever asked yourself what is it within these spaces that give us these impulses?

Public placemaking asks these questions and attempts to heighten our positive associations with place. It’s is a fascinating practice that has in recent years taken the design world by storm. It can incorporate elements of design, architecture, artworks and events planning.

Celebrated by some as a creative way to reinvent and reconnect the community, and condemned by others as a method of gentrification, placemaking can be divisive.

But just what is placemaking?

Placemaking is an increasingly popular term for the holistic practice of designing and capitalizing on the character of public spaces in order to promote inter-connection, interaction, wellbeing and social identity.

It intrinsically relies on local identity and what is already there, and is a holistic practice. You must consider the space as a whole; not just focusing on one part.

Yes, you could plonk an art installation into the centre, but it needs to interact with the elements already in the space, particularly the community that is already there.

But it can be used to deter antisocial behaviour in certain spaces, like local hotspots known being a drug dealer hangout: an action that alienates others from the community from the space

 Byrant Park, New York (Image Credit: Travel Digg) 

Byrant Park, New York (Image Credit: Travel Digg) 

One notable work that was undertaken to reduce crime rates was undertaken by Project for Public Space at Bryant Park, New York. A park once known as a drug dealer hang out became much more sociable after placemaking efforts. Taking a holistic approach, the space was opened up by removing hedges that were contributing to constricted viewpoints, while food kiosks were added to encourage socialising.

It’s this consideration of the dynamics of the space beforehand that is vital. Placemakers should ask themselves, what do people come to the space expecting, and should this be changed.

For example - does the space itself already feel safe? Are there an equal amount of women and men in the space? What are the interests of the demographics of the area? And perhaps most importantly: how can we address this in a sustainable and ethical manner?

Sometimes the best approach to placemaking is simplicity. Or at the least - the placemaking doesn’t have to be overly complicated.

While recently attending a Placemaking conference in Europe, I was walking down a quiet Utrecht street with some relatives, when we came upon a group of children going to town with utensils on some pots and pans. They had been hung up by in the square by an artist on a metallic structure as part of a community engagement project.

 Children play in Utrecht

Children play in Utrecht

Provided with utensils, the kids had a freedom that terrifies me as a parent - to make as much noise as they could! The effect (besides an almighty din) was that children and by extension, their bemused parents, had a welcome opportunity to loiter in the sun.

While the swarming and excited children were distracted, parents were relaxing: talking to each other, and getting to know their community that little bit more.

Groups of people stopped and interacted within the space, rather than passing through it; providing a rare and unexpected opportunity for ‘play’ in a world that is all too serious.

The simple addition of the pots and pans made the street not a thoroughfare - but a destination!

Which leads me to my next point: placemaking doesn't have to be expensive. As The Project for Public Spaces points out, less costly options can make a placemaking project not only just as good, but better.

Less costly, temporary and/or smaller scale installations can act as community research; gaging what works for larger projects down the track.

This temporary work was not only sustainable in terms of recycling, but in terms of ensuring the vitality and effectiveness of placemaking attempts by allowing budget for future projects.

If done well placemaking has the power to bring once disconnected people together on common meeting ground in what is an increasingly disconnected world.

This could even be needed in spaces that already have a strong cultural heritage. For one placemaking project I worked on in Five Dock, Sydney, we drew heavily from the large Italian community already living in the space.

Alongside the artist Marta Ferracin, we decided to use the Italian oral storytelling tradition to highlight the heritage of the area.

Collecting local stories, the artist made recordings in Italian and English that were looped from speakers inside tall, coloured, clustered sculptures.

 Marta Ferracin's work at Five Dock

Marta Ferracin's work at Five Dock

The setup was designed to encourage people to sit in, interact with, and take a moment of rest in Fred Kelly Place where the speakers stood. Here, strategic placemaking gave the community a rare moment of rest and reflection.

But like anything, placemaking has its critics. Some placemaking efforts have been likened to ‘Art-washing’, which suggests that that cultural development via activities such as public art projects leads to financial gains by developers through gentrification.

While to some, gentrification is welcomed as a ‘cleaning-up’ of suburbs, to other it is simply a sign that rent is about to go up and minority groups will be forced out by rising costs of living.

Clearly this is a complex issue, as encapsulated by urban critic Matt Yglesias in this ‘Project for Public Spaces’ article - “[While concerns about people being priced out are not] crazy, it is crazy that this is the kind of thing people need to worry about in urban politics. ‘Your policies will improve quality of life in my community’ should never be a complaint about a policy initiative.”

It leads to the question, just who does the public space belong to? As people move more and more from their roots, community lines can become more malleable; individuals more isolated in unknown environments.

I would argue that this should give greater incentive to strengthen community ties in the areas. Instead of always trying to create new culture, great placemaking projects are the ones that strengthen the existing culture as well as foster new ties and being socially inclusive.

As placemaker Cara Courage says, ‘Conversations happen in hyperlocal’. It is well thought out placemaking that has the power to trigger these conversations.