This paper is effectively about the smart use of Social capital, bureaucratic organisations understand and use that term frequently. But many would argue that social capital and grass roots ownership of processes are far apart.
What I am explaining here is how that gap can be bridged in a way that truly empowers and values communities. It is not a generic process but is based on the complex characteristics of the individual area, socially, geographically and economically. It looks at individual precincts within cities, at their heritage and culture, customs, traditions, even language and place names.
It is about listening to the conversations and the micro-conversations that occur in local areas and provide insight into people’s hopes and dreams.
It also is a wonderful and gentle tool for municipalities and planners to use to move from what is often an adversarial relationship between people and governments to genuine partnership and respect. By its very nature the process informs the direction of community ventures and developments and benefits everyone involved in it.
If you ask your favourite search engine for a definition of place making you will likely get a definition like this,
“Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalises on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being.”
I would like to expand on this definition by adding the word narrative. This is the story the community tells about itself. Every place has a founding history and a story that tells who it is, why it is and where it is going and every place has people with opinions who are willing to tell their bit of the story.
This facet of place making is known as civic mapping and both are partly art and partly science that when properly undertaken ensures a particular new development or a retrofit of an existing building is authentic to the local environment, is vibrant but also resilient, attracts visitors and most importantly is valued by the community.
This requires a degree of collaboration with governance authorities but there is nothing controversial in the process and when planners / developers understand the process they will embrace the social and the economic opportunity it provides.
Placemaking / civic mapping is a holistic approach in developing places that involves understanding the culture of place, its history and the wisdom of its people. It is consultation at its best engaging the existing local community and prospective community members; it includes a variety of stake holders collaborating and shaping a plan and vision for the place that is both artistic and culturally, geographically and historically appropriate. The value of the goodwill this process engenders is inestimable and the benefits extend to investors, developers, owners and neighbours.
It is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. Ultimately we want to live in places where we have the capacity to support ourselves, where family are welcomed, where we feel we belong and where the sense of community can thrive.
The sheer process underpinning developments that follow this technique means that they will be distinct, unusual and they will have a quality that is appealing and easy to notice rather than the bland sameness that characterises most contemporary developments. Equally, incorporating the powerful narrative of the place means the building fits comfortably into its place, like it belongs there, with minimal impact to the local environment.
It will be a place where people will want to gather and to interact with each other.
How to Start As previously stated placemaking / civic mapping are both art and science. The art involves a skilled facilitator who can listen, can build the whole narrative, story by personal story. The narrative cannot be imposed, it must unfold and it must include the story of all of the people who have ever lived on that land.
Despite strategic plans and policies stating that consultation is a key to success, it rarely happens in ways that the local community actually appreciate. Invariably developments are imposed on communities after numerous and fruitless community meetings and the reaction is often the NIMBY.(not in my back yard)
This process is the opposite of how developments are usually structured, with the community angle being built in at the end, almost as an afterthought.
In our scenario the facilitator creates an enabling environment where people know their views and their story are held as important factors in creating an environment for change. This way people feel they are part of something bigger. They also will have an emotional attachment to the place which in turn will make them more likely to want to participate in the ongoing maintenance and beautification of the place.
Once the stories have been collated, the narrative of the place is reflected upon shared and endorsed; the facilitator’s role is finished. The story remains powerful in the telling and re-telling. It helps to define the place. One of the best things about this whole process is that once started it gets legs of its own. No-one actually owns it but everyone, different people with different interests and backgrounds work together for a common goal.
The science of placemaking is to avoid the generic default position of most developments, the industrial age thinking; instead the built form should be distinct, transit connected, digitally connected, water and energy efficient and disaster resilient all the while having a low impact on the surrounding environment and a significant positive impact on the people living in that place and on the entire neighbourhood.