This week, Stockholm played host to The Future of Places conference, a three-day international forum of academics, mayors, architects, and others. On the agenda: fleshing out urbanism’s latest “it” word – placemaking.
By no stretch is this a new concept. You can trace the school of thought back to William H Whyte, who was the first to study how urban spaces he’d planned actually worked after they’d been built. This was 40 years ago. It was also around then that the Project of Public Spaces was established, still placemaking’s greatest proponent and still run by its founder, Fred Kent.
The idea is that cities should, at least in some part, be grown through the work of self-organised community groups and projects. With too much top-down organisation and too many professionals, the very specific needs of a neighbourhood are washed away or distorted.
So why is this decades-old concept gaining new ground?
Of course, part of this has to do with the general lifecycle of catchphrases. Civic leaders who want to seem ahead of the game often grasp for them, even if it means reaching back into the past.
Beyond that, you can link it to another new city obsession: quality of life. This is also far from a new idea: various indexes measuring liveability have been around for a long time – and Monocle has published its own survey since the magazine was launched in 2007. But as the so-called millennials – those in their late twenties and early thirties – start taking top jobs and setting up businesses, quality-of-life competiveness is reaching new heights.
In contrast with the past, more people are choosing a city before choosing a job. Where you live means more than what you do there. And attracting the best and brightest is just as much about making a city that is easy and fun to live in as it is about providing subsidies for start-ups or corporate tax breaks. Improving your city’s liveability is an economic booster. The sunny beaches of Tel Aviv have been enough to draw in sun-starved tech geeks from around the world, even if they do have to deal with excessive visa restrictions. Placemaking is about just that.
Though placemaking may not be a cure-all (New York has certainly benefited from the Bloomberg administration opting for a more design-focused, big-project approach) its core philosophy is seductive. Cities should be about building strong, successful neighbourhoods where residents care about what happens on their streets and get involved. Peter Smith, self-styled placemaker and CEO of the Adelaide City Council, is one who’s taken on this idea at full throttle. His city’s crisis, he says, is that its citizens are apathetic. The ideal is to encourage investment in the “place” that you live and building an identity around it.
Making neighbourhoods that people feel attached to means that entrepreneurs will do whatever it takes to keep their address. It means that City Hall can take a step back and focus on big ideas, while communities do the work of making sure there’s enough to keep themselves vibrant and attractive. Things then get lighter, quicker and cheaper, a placemaker would argue. And that’s a good thing.
David Michon is managing editor for Monocle.