Amongst other placemaking-related news this year, the Boston Society of Architects’ Placemaking Network celebrated its 10-year anniversary by launching the Placemaking Manifesto in November. Co-authored by Christina Lanzl, Robert Tullis, and Anne-Catrin Schultz, the document set down six key ideas: “quality of life,” “sense of place,” “community identification,” “collaboration and communication” between “individuals of all backgrounds, interests and talents,” “inclusivity” and “greater civic engagement,” and “awareness of tradition with an embracing of new and emerging technologies.” While the basic principles that placemaking espouses are often hard to question, this manifesto in particular begs one question: Is placemaking understood and defined clearly enough for it to be a useful tool for urbanists?
In the past decade or so, place making has gained considerable momentum, spewing forth an array of approaches, countless lists of best practices (including, in essence, this new manifesto), and complicated sub-categorizations. It is simultaneously a much-lauded global movement, an academic discipline, a field, discourse, process, and tool, but is also, among other charges, heavily criticized for being an “ill-defined buzzword.”
How, then, are we to begin to make sense of it? What is placemaking? According to Pier Carlo Palermo, “There is not a single, shared answer to this question.” And as Kylie Legge asserts, “Like a mirage it can change to reflect the desire of the viewer, and this is why it so attractive to so many.” See for example Mark A. Wyckoff’s article which sets out to define placemaking, and explains it further through four different categories: standard, creative, strategic and tactical. While the presence of multiple definitions does not alone call for an urgent redrafting, it does point towards other important aspects of the placemaking debate that need questioning and rethinking.
In 2015, James S Russell’s blog post sparked a chain of discussion by declaring placemaking a “rhetorical gimmick spreading across the urban development wonkosphere like kudzu.” While placemaking, as Russell asserted, may be fast catching on as something “trendy,” by dismissing it as “bogus” and calling it something that “could only gain currency because our building and development processes create so little that is inviting and memorable” he reinforced the rather unproductive architecture vs placemaking divide. If, as he lamented, “America’s default is to assemble standardized real-estate products along roads engineered for auto throughput, and call it a day,” then isn’t that—as the comments section on the post highlighted—something that architects and placemakers both already stand against?
Project for Public Spaces (PPS) founder Fred Kent’s earlier “smackdown” with Frank Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2009 brought forth a similar argument—later put into perspective by a reader comment: “What a pity that an opportunity for productive discussion on the topic of iconic architecture and public space was lost to the audience (and to us) just because the personalities involved had something to prove to each other.”
Part of the debate is the assertion by architects that architecture isn’t at all averse to the idea of “sense of place” and that meaningful design is possible without subscribing to place making rhetoric. Similarly, place makers have come under fire for setting themselves apart from the architectural community, or (particularly in Fred Kent’s case) “for having an ego as big as any architect’s.” The issue, clearly, is anything but one-sided. Place making now seeks an autonomous position, so much so that the Pratt Institute launched a brand new Masters degree in Urban Place making and Management in 2015. In an interview published on PPS’s website, John Shapiro, one of the program’s creators, mentioned how “the main challenge was that every other program professor and chair thought that Place making was within their purview,” likening it all to the parable of the blind men and an elephant. This raised another concern: If place making encourages collaboration and interdisciplinary work, how useful is it, really, for it to branch out as a separate discipline?
The matter forked further in the comments section with one architect stating that “Landscape Architecture is Placemaking”, only to be met with a counter-argument claiming that “part of the issue with asserting that Landscape Architecture is Placemaking is that it assumes Placemaking is a design-first problem. Landscape Architecture is taught as a design process, not as a human process.” Far from being rare, these kinds of exchanges speak of a great degree of impatience and intolerance. Why is it that, without fail, disciplines find themselves caught up in a game of one-upmanship and finger-pointing?
Meanwhile, backed by ruthless real-estate developers, and often driven by economic or political gains, numerous projects masquerade as placemaking schemes. This kind of vacuous “placefaking” either leads to reductive, short-term “solutions,” or worse, gentrification. In a succinct essay, urban planner and native Harlemite Karen Abrams discusses Harlem through the lens of developer-led placemaking, and asserts that the only way to prevent this kind of unjust, top-down approach is, to begin with, “to remove ‘placemaking’ from the urban design lexicon.” To sum up Abrams, how can one placemake a place that has already been “made”? Harlem’s example is also a reminder of Sacramento, where instead of the developer vs locals rift, disputes have developed into battles between “old-school Sacramentans” vs“neo-locals”: “as if they [neo-locals] know what’s best for the city, as if Sacramento hasn’t been “placemaking” for decades. As if we’re not already great.”
Similarly, Catherine Fennell and Daniel Tucker discuss how placemaking, despite its merits and successes, is a slippery territory. Deliberating over prominent projects like New York’s Bryant Park and Chicago’s The 606, Fennell asserts: “’Vibrant for whom and toward what end?’ need to be questions we ask of all placemaking projects.”
It is these aspects that the BSA’s well-meaning manifesto is a reminder of. Placemaking has, no doubt, garnered much appreciation, it has produced countless successful examples, but somehow, to delve more deeply into the process and outcomes of the placemaking movement is to find oneself in a mire. If, as Fred Kent noted, 2016 was “the year when placemaking went global,” and 2017 was “the year it got organized,” does 2018 call for thorough introspection before anything else?