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March 28, 2015

Placemaking---What Exactly Does It Mean?

A commons-based approach to planning that looks to the community as the experts

Local residents were involved in the creation of the Campus Martius square in downtown Detroit, and they've embraced it as one of the city's favorite places. (By Michigan Municipal League under a Creative Commons license.) 

Placemaking is an evocative, inspiring word heard more and more these days to describe grassroots efforts to revitalize public spaces. And the term creative placemaking is emerging to describe the growing role for the arts in urban redevelopment. 

Unfortunately some developers and designers also apply the word to lifeless new projects or soulless architecture-for-architecture’s-sake monuments in the hopes of hoodwinking people into thinking their misguided work will enhance the local sense of place.

Placemaking is a powerful idea, much bigger than development or design by itself. Embodying the commons principle that the places we live, work and play belong to us all, placemaking emphasizes that citizens must be involved in all aspects of shaping projects in their communities. 

Urban theorist William “Holly” Whyte and Project for Public Spaces began using placemaking to describe their work in the 1970s but the word itself has been around since at least the 18th Century, according to architect critic Witold Rybczynski.  In his biography of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, A Clearing in the Distance, Rybczynski traces the word back to Lancelot “Capability” Brown, a designer of English country estates celebrated for his skill in working with existing topography to fashion comfortable and natural rural retreats.

Although Brown’s work was almost entirely for private clients (public park design barely existed at the time) it’s fitting that he should be counted among the ancestors of today’s Placemaking. He moved away from the formal designs of English gardening to work with “the natural advantages of a site,” as Rybcynski puts it. 

Now two centuries later, modern-day placemakers follow a similar path by rejecting the rigid dictates of 20th Century planning in favor of following their own knowledge and imagination to create communities by working on the “natural advantages” of a place.