“Placemaking” enters the language, capturing new ideas about design and management of public spaces

Long used by Project for Public Spaces to describe its work, phrase now widely heard in conversation

You won’t find it in the dictionary yet, but the word “placemaking” is sliding off more tongues every day. PPS has promoted the term for years in describing its work, and now, in a sign of the term’s growing use, Wordspy.com, a popular website that practices “the sleuthing of new words and phrases,” recently added “placemaking” to its lexicon.

“We use ‘placemaking’ to describe our work because we help communities turn their lifeless and unwelcoming spaces into great places where people want to be.”

Wordspy.com defines placemaking as “Designing a building or area to make it more attractive to and compatible with the people who use it.” The website names PPS in its first citation of how the word is used.

“We use ‘placemaking’ to describe our work because we help communities turn their lifeless and unwelcoming spaces into great places where people want to be,” said PPS President Fred Kent. “The term captures our belief that people gravitate to public spaces that convey a sense of place, and that the people who use a place are the ones best-suited to shape its design, uses, and activities.”

In much the same way that “environmentalism” entered the language in the ’60s, referring to new streams of thought about the relationship between people and nature, “placemaking” is poised to signify a fresh way of thinking about how people design and use public places.

Placemaking represents the next logical step, making public input an integral part of the design process from the very beginning.

Other organizations have recently embraced the term as PPS has defined it, including the Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation, which launched a “Transportation and Placemaking” awareness campaign this July, and the City Repair Project, a non-profit from Portland, Oregon that uses placemaking techniques to involve local communities in urban design decisions. The New York Times quoted a public official in southern California using the term as recently as July 14.

PPS first used the word in the 1997 publication, The Role of Transit in Creating Livable Metropolitan Communities. Since then PPS has applied the term to describe improvements to every aspect of the public realm, from street corners to playgrounds. No other group has so consistently used the term over such a long period of time.

The term implies a distinct evolution from the prevailing “project-based” approach to planning and development. The project-based approach usually involves a small cadre of developers, designers, engineers, and public officials who determine the parameters of a new building, park, or street, then solicit feedback on their design in a process of public review. The inclusion of public review grew out of the preservationist and environmentalist battles of the 1960s. Placemaking represents the next logical step, making public input an integral part of the design process from the very beginning.

“What comes out of the collaboration between users and designers is consistently quite wonderful and surprising.”

“The problem with the project-based approach is that it inevitably leads to the handful of real decision-makers trying to ram their project down people’s throats, so you end up with confrontation, NIMBYism, and a mediocre result,” said Kent. “But when you have ‘place’ in mind from the beginning, at every step of the way you get ideas from the people who know the area’s needs best–the people who will actually use what’s being built. What comes out of the collaboration between users and designers is consistently quite wonderful and surprising.”

Asked for examples of placemaking in American towns and cities, Kent cited Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, a former parking lot that is now among the most widely-used civic squares in the nation, and Bryant Park in New York, which became one of the city’s most beloved places following its restoration in the early ’80s. “These are the types of places that you can expect much more of in the future, as the economic and social desirability of placemaking becomes widely apparent,” said Kent.

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