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Neighbors in Toronto collaborate on a cob structure in Dufferin Grove Park / Photo: Chris Orbz via Flickr

PPS President Fred Kent was recently in San Diego to speak to Placemakers there about plans for the revitalization of an area of their downtown district. While in town, Fred visited the Mingei International Museum, and was struck by the similarities between the traditions of folk art and craft, and the process of Placemaking—a sort of architecture/urban design equivalent to the informal artistry on display at the Mingei. The museum’s mission statement contains several key points that we think Placemakers can learn a lot about their “craft” from:

Mingei International Museum preserves and exhibits folk art, craft and design from all eras and cultures of the world. Mingei celebrates human creativity, and the belief that everyday objects and materials that often serve a useful purpose can also be objects of beauty. Art can happen anywhere… in any culture, in any place, created by any person.

Below are three lessons that Placemakers can take from this concise but potent statement.

  1. Placemaking foregrounds the beauty of human activity and interaction: The idea that useful, everyday objects can be objects of beauty reflects one of the core concepts of Placemaking: that the beauty of a public space comes not just from design, but from the mix of human activities that takes place within a space—what Jane Jacobs famously referred to as the “sidewalk ballet.” PPS mentor Holly Whyte perhaps said it best when he noted that “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” As social creatures, human beings love to watch, to perform, to interact. We like to see and learn from what other people are doing. Placemaking’s focus on activities and uses is not merely about making a place seem busy; it is about finding beauty in use. A space full of life is more beautiful than any award-winning building or pristine landscape. The people make the place, both literally and figuratively.
  2. Placemaking can (and does) happen anywhere: As many of the people who have taken the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper mantra to heart have proven, great places can be created in very unlikely spaces. Placemakers have transformed unused lawns and fenced-off lots into vibrant community spaces, turned austere museum lobbies into hives of activity, and re-thought forgotten corners as bustling city squares. Placemaking can happen anywhere because it is easy for people to understand. You don’t need a formal education to become a Placemaker—you just need energy, determination, and a sense of humor. You don’t need to wait for a lot of money or a “perfect” site to open up so you can build a postcard-ready square or sylvan park; if you think of Placemaking first as a way to build up  your community through the making process, anything from a storefront window to a front lawn can become a great local gathering place right now.
  3. Placemaking is part of a much larger creative tradition like folk arts: While Placemaking has gotten a lot of great attention lately, and can seem to some people like a newfangled trend, the practice has actually been around for ages. And while the term “Placemaking” has, itself, only been in use for recent history, the process of communities working together to shape their spaces iteratively, over time, in a way that reflects local customs and values is a timeless art. This is something that we’ve moved away from as more top-down, expert-driven processes of city-building have taken root. But based on our work in communities all over the world, we believe that momentum is starting to build. In much the same way that craft and artisan traditions have been making a comeback, more and more people are being inspired to become Placemakers, and to re-build their communities through collaborative, place-driven processes. As Christopher Alexander put it, “Most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects, but by the people.” Placemaking isn’t a shiny new fad—it’s a deeply human tradition that our society is just now re-discovering.