#1 Reflectie Atelier: Placemaking - Shifting Perspective

Door Michiel Schwarz - Sustainism Lab en onderzoeker Straatwaarden project

As we first enter a place, say when we’re driving from the countryside into a built up area, we cannot really tell where we find ourselves. In a single street of houses amidst the pastoral landscape, at the outskirts of a village, or are we seeing the beginning of a city? We don’t have maps, mental or otherwise, to make sense of the place. Even when we see a road marker or street signs, they will not tell us where we are in any meaningful way. What is this place? Is it a place? How could we know? And, what is our sense of this place?...

Places are made

Shifting from ‘designing space’ to ‘placemaking’ implies a different perception of how we conceive our living environment. It takes us from the traditional spatial-planning conception of a street or city, with its functional and physical characteristics, to the more grounded idea of how people view and experience a place, with all its connotations, meanings, emotions, histories and day to day encounters. We all realise that the coordinates or physical infrastructure of a particular location, are something quite different from a ‘sense of place’. A space doesn’t make a place, like a house doesn’t make for a home.

Going from ‘space’ to ‘place’ is not a rhetorical trick. It changes everything, as it implies ¾ literally ¾ a different point of view. As the writer John Berger reminds us, ‘seeing goes before words’. Our change in vocabulary reflects a shift in perspective. A different perception of how we view our surroundings and our role in it. The idea of ‘placemaking’ takes our living environment into an active mode, where people create the meanings and identity of a place. A place – whether a street, a neighbourhood or a city – only becomes a distinctive place in the (often unconscious) process of placemaking. In other words, the idea of placemaking questions the conventional view of predefining a place in geographical and physical terms, and turns the tables: places only become places because people make them into places.

Such a perspective also brings the idea of ‘heritage making’ and placemaking into the same frame.

Mapping place

Planners and urbanist have long embraced the idea that spaces acquire their form and meaning through architectural interventions, thus creating different kind of spaces (and places). In the architects’ and planners’ perspective we would start with a spatial map onto which we subsequently project functions and utilities, such as houses, roads, shops, offices and parks. The placemaking-perspective turns this perception on its head: it tries to chart all kinds of social processes that give meaning and form to a particular environment, as a way to make visible how places become places. And to gauge what give them their identities and meanings

Hence, rather than taking the geographical map of an area as a given, and adding social, cultural and human elements onto it, in the placemaking perspective the challenge is to ‘map’ the social and human flows, relationships and perceptions that define a place from the point of view of the people, their relationships (with each other as well as with the physical and natural environment), and the qualities that they value.

The verb ‘to map’ is written in inverted commas here, as it is likely that the ‘maps’ that we will yield in such a placemaking perspective, will look quite different from conventional geographical maps. Of course that doesn’t mean that the data that is gathered in such an exercise cannot be mapped onto geographical maps (as is done, for example, by the HvA Citizen Data Lab, and the ‘Measuring Amsterdam’ project, including the so-called Knowledge Mile).

Qualities and relationships

At their core our maps, as I see it, are to capture relationships and social qualities. First, we can chart various relationships that (different groups of) people have with their living environment, and the different ways they engage with it. Such engagements involve qualities and values which make a place meaningful. As a way into such concerns, we have brought up the idea of ‘maps of engagement’.

So what are we actually looking for in our ‘placemaking maps’? It would be pre-empting the exploratory design approach taken in the Atelier to come up with a clear-cut answer. What we can do, however ¾ by way of opening the discussion ¾ is to point at the kind of sensibilities (think here of the term ‘sense of place’) and values that we may refer to as we bring social qualities of place into our ‘maps’.

Here are some qualities that people/communities may value in a street, a place, a building, a common space, making these locations meaningful:

  • meeting
  • sharing
  • conversation
  • homeliness
  • engagement
  • togetherness
  • safety
  • diversity
  • familiarity
  • hospitality
  • conviviality
  • intimacy
  • freedom
  • rootedness
  • nearness

 It’s a beginning.



1 reacties

  1. Debbie van der Molen
    10 augustus 2016 11:28:12
    Hi Michiel Schwarz,

    You used my picture without asking… i don't think thats correct. can you do something about that?


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