The 5 features of placemaking and how it empowers communities to design their neighbourhoods

Matt McNally

Matt McNally

Enabling Community to design project outcomes through a Placemaking approach.

What is placemaking?

The term placemaking has been around since the mid-1960s but became more of a buzz word in the 1990s. Since then, placemaking is now synonymous with creating new spaces and reinvigorating existing areas.

Placemaking is described as transforming public spaces to strengthen the connections between people and place.

When we mention placemaking, it’s important we know that the entire process is rooted in people, what they envision for their future, locally and personally.

When looking at what contributes to a great environment for people to thrive, there are multiple key factors to consider: sociability; uses and activities; comfort and image; and access and linkages.

Feature 1: The Stakeholder Mapping Approach and a Community Representative Panel

When considering a placemaking exercise for a new space, it is critical to ensure you have the correct community members sitting around the table. This is best done through in-depth profiling and research to identify that the right community members are involved, or at least provided the opportunity to be involved with the process.

When organising a community representative panel to undergo a placemaking exercise for a new space, it is important to ensure the governance structure is a true reflection of the community, allowing diverse views to be heard. Importantly, people who are well known and understand what the community needs and wants, while also being someone that can proactively represent the process and promote the project, are invaluable during the placemaking process.

Understanding the importance of wider community consultation during the placemaking exercise is key, as the community is the end user of what is going to be implemented. Ensuring all views are heard, and what the result could be, is key to understanding if the project is going to be successful in creating a vibrant and desirable space for the community.

Feature 2: Understanding the location

Fully understanding the space before undertaking a placemaking approach is imperative before actively engaging with the community and stakeholders. Understanding what the space is currently used for is crucial to being able to open conversations with the community. Understanding the space in detail helps inform your engagement strategy for the area, aiming to identify the community you are working with, how they like to be engaged and what would make the locals interested in the process.

Once a solid understanding of the space is formed, you are then able to craft the engagement strategy to be specifically suited to the area, including being able to ask questions around connection to community and community needs. By taking this vital step, you show the community you understand the area and the way it is currently being used. As a result, the community will be more open to engaging and being part of the process because it is shaped for, and by them.

Feature 3: Enabling and empowering the community

Creating a supportive environment where community can activate ideas is the ultimate goal we all aim for. There needs to be trust built within the community to make this possible. A placemaking strategy “lighter, quicker, cheaper” is an example of growing momentum and trust with the community when undertaking a placemaking exercise.

A great example is a project from 2014 in Brunswick, which created the now vibrant and active Jewell of Brunswick. An under-used section of road was identified, and work began with the local community to identify what could be made of the space. The community worked on DIY seating and a street mural as part of the placemaking exercise.

Following this success, the local Council undertook public consultation and received an overwhelming amount of support for the permanent change in the public space. The Council then decided to implement what the community had recommended, and it is now an active space used by many community members for activities such as markets, food trucks and cultural performances.

Feature 4: Beyond Physical Infrastructure

It is important to always consider broader economic and sustainable goals and whether they can be incorporated into the space being created. This means considering if the space can used as an area for a local farmers market, or can greenery be increased in the area by planting native species, for example.

Feature 5: Using technology to make it a reality

Now for the fun part! When creating this new space, always look for ways to bring the space to life before works begin, including virtual reality tools. This helps build support and excitement in the community, while also showing community members what the space could look like. This takes the grey, underutilised, and unknown community space into a colourful, vibrant and active space that brings community together.

Always remember, ensuring a long-term strategy for the new space is key to maintaining it as an active and vibrant space. When ideas are raised for changes in look, feel or use of the space, take onboard what the wider community wants, small changes can ensure the longevity of a space.

The time is now to look at ways we can activate unused spaces to build community strength and connection. To bring people of all cultural backgrounds together, creating a space we want to live in now and in the future.

The 5 features of placemaking and how it empowers communities to design their neighbourhoods
Matt McNally
December 2, 2021
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