Is Your City Design-Centered or Place-Centered?

Mar 27, 2012
Dec 14, 2017
Here's an interesting puzzle for you to ponder... / Photo: PPS

When an opportunity to develop a site in your city comes up, what kind of approach do the people leading the process take? Do they treat the site as an independent piece of real estate, to be interpreted by architects and planners first before involving any of the local residents? Or do they reach out to people to find out what needs already exist in the area around that site, and then begin devising a plan with the community?

We call the former of these two a Design-Centered approach, and the latter a Place-Centered approach. One of our 11 Placemaking Principles is that it is critical to remember, in any project, that you are creating a place, not a design. While good design is important to creating great places, it is but one tool in your kit--not the driving force behind good Placemaking. When a community is involved from (or even before) the start of a design process, that process serves the site and the people who will use it, instead of serving the designers' own interests. This creates places that are accessible, dynamic, and inclusive--the kind of places that are central to building strong neighborhoods and cities.

To move toward an Architecture of Place, we must all advocate for our cities to take a Place-Centered approach to creating new buildings and public spaces. Below, we break down how these two approaches take on various elements of the Placemaking process. Most projects are a mix of the two, and some start with one approach and shift to another part-way through; there's certainly a lot of gray area, but go take a look below and see if you can divine whether your city is more Design-Centered, or Place-Centered.


A Design-Centered Approach: 

...is project-driven. The site is treated as an independent pedestal on which a bold, "innovative" building is to be set. Only the needs of the immediate site are considered during the design process.  

...is discipline-based. References are drawn from within the architecture community. Theoretical ideas are more likely to be applied than any actual input from the people who live and work around the site.  

...focuses on architecture as the attraction. The novelty of the finished design is the main reason for people to visit the site. Eventually, the novelty wears off, and the design becomes a white elephant--or worse, a place to avoid, a hole in the urban fabric. 

...relies on the lone genius (or "Starchitect") to interpret the site and determine how it should be used. 

...takes an all-or-nothing approach. Designs are implemented all at once through massive, expensive construction projects. Once the project is complete, if the new design doesn't work, it's an automatic boondoggle.  

...relishes in the glory of the grand opening. Critics rush to laud or lampoon the new design, local news teams jostle for a good shot for the evening news, and tourists flock to snap photos of the shiny new thing.

...creates places where the "look but don't touch" mentality is in force. In order to maintain a space that is "neat, clean, and empty," excessive rules are implemented to protect the design, which ironically leaves them pockmarked with "Please Don't..." signage.

A Place-Centered Approach:

 ...is place-driven. The current uses of buildings, spaces, and streets surrounding the site are observed and considered before any design work starts. The site is considered as an important node in a larger system.

...is community-based. Since the people who live and work around the site already know what problems and strengths the area is dealing with, they are the experts, and their knowledge is seen as the most important resource for determining how the site will be shaped.

...lets attractions shape the architecture. The design highlights what's great about the buildings and spaces around it, and draws its own strengths from how it enhances its surroundings.

...starts by looking for partners from the community that can provide a basic knowledge of how the site is already used in order to ensure that the design is inclusive and accessible to the people around it.

...starts small and builds up through an iterative process. Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper strategies are deployed to test ideas out before they're writ large in stone and steel. 

...accepts that the design of a successful place is never really finished. Communities change, uses shift, and places need constant attention in order to stay useful, relevant, and attractive to the people who use them. Remember that Placemaking is 80-90% about good management. 

...creates places that are accessible and inclusive. Form supports function, so creating a "cutting edge" design is secondary to ensuring that the site will actually serve the people who use it. People who do use the space feel a sense of ownership, which leads to self-managed and self-programmed spaces.

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