This article was first published in Progressive City. Reproduced with permission.
By Annette Koh (@citykoh)
What would placemaking look like when Black lives matter? Washington D.C.’s director of planning illustrated the racial limits of DIY optimism, stating, “I’ve told my staff that PARK(ing) Day is really nice. But if five black males took over a parking spot and had a barbecue and listened to music . . . would they last 10 minutes?” Who gets to “disrupt” the public space paradigm, and who gets arrested for disturbing the peace? Twenty years earlier, Oakland-based landscape architect Walter Hood pointed out the irony that “congregating on corners implies illicit activities and trouble” in inner city communities, while in other areas of the city, it is encouraged and seen as a sign of vitality and community spirit. How much have things really changed?
Placemaking as a policy is no longer a flash in the pan fad. These projects to “collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces” run the gamut from DIY pallet furniture to multi-million dollar park renovations. A flurry of foundations, private and public, now offer placemaking grants and dozens of American municipalities have embraced pop-up plazas and parklets as low cost ways to increase livability. Placemaking has captured imaginations because it emphasizes the active over the static, the small-scale intervention over the mega project and creative engagement instead of passive provision. The bottom up nature of placemaking lends its street cred and the participatory process avoids the contentiousness of public hearings.
Given the planning profession’s track record of spatial discrimination dressed up as urban panacea – Exhibit A is urban renewal – this speedy popularization of placemaking has also prompted criticism and reflection. Last year, Project for Public Spaces issued a call to planners and designers to formulate a placemaking code of ethics. Guideline #7 reads: “We will actively promote inclusion in all of our projects. We know that place is a common denominator for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or income, and we will not engage in projects that discriminate against any community or individual.”
The intent is laudable. But “inclusion” doesn’t undo existing injustices. In particular, viewing place as “common denominator” runs the risk of erasing major differences in the ways people experience place and public spaces. In the United States, these major differences cleave along racial and class lines.
Persistent inequalities and decades of discrimination mean a code of ethics isn’t going to cut it. We need an actual politics of placemaking. Our naiveté borders on negligence if we don’t explicitly address how the very presence of certain bodies in public has been criminalized and the color of your skin can render you automatically “out of place.” Stop-and-frisk policies have criminalized an entire generation of Black and Latino youth in the name of public safety. What kind of places are we making in American cities where a 12-year old kid is shot in his own neighborhood park?
"Persistent inequalities and decades of discrimination mean a code of ethics isn’t going to cut it. We need an actual politics of placemaking."
The fundamental problem with placemaking as currently popularized is that it does not challenge the logics that undergird discriminatory policies such as broken windows policing. Urban design arguments for the activation of public space still take “disorder” as a neutral category, rather than one shaped by legacies of vagrancy laws and Jim Crow. As the murder of Alton Sterling revealed, the idea that “public space and culture should belong to those who produce them” does not apply to all.
When placed in the context of ongoing struggles, placemaking’s proverbs take on a sinister tone. Jane Jacobs’s injunction that neighborhoods need “eyes on the street” has been embraced by placemaking advocates as a beneficial outcome to increased attention to public spaces. We should ask ourselves if those eyes are attached to a person socialized to see non-white people as inherently dangerous. Having more “eyes on the street” might only result in more calls to the police about “suspicious behavior” or worse yet, armed vigilantism.
Saying that “great places benefit everyone” and will connect all residents, rather than divide or displace, is unrealistic given deeply embedded racism and classism. When we say a park is under-used, we should qualify that by saying “underused by middle-class professionals” if what we are objecting to is the presence of poor and homeless people who cannot afford to purchase a cappuccino as “rent” for a coffee shop table. When we talk about “activating public space”, we should talk about who is already active in those spaces—people who in fact may have nowhere else to go. The ability to define an activity as desirable or undesirable, or define a “great place” or a “sketchy place” is a form of power that planners exert unthinkingly.
Quality of life and livability are not value-neutral concepts. As planners and urban designers, we render and enact particular visions of the good life that are often coded in racial and class terms—sipping a craft cocktail at a sidewalk cafe versus brownbagging a forty on the corner. William H. Whyte’s work on the social life of small urban spaces is a touchstone text for placemaking advocates. But while we remember the importance of people-watching perches, we pay less attention to his insistence that we must welcome the weirdos and the bag ladies too. Whyte argued that public space is for “controversy, soapboxing, passing of leaflets, impromptu entertaining, happenings, or eccentric behavior.” Placemaking must make room for politics because public space is inherently political. Some uses and users will be controversial.
"Quality of life and livability are not value-neutral concepts. As planners and urban designers, we render and enact particular visions of the good life that are often coded in racial and class terms—sipping a craft cocktail at a sidewalk cafe versus brownbagging a forty on the corner."
Oft-repeated mantras to “activate under-utilized space” skirt perilously close to Manifest Destiny justifications that indigenous peoples weren’t properly improving the land that colonists wanted to control. Underutilized was deployed by a University of California official in the People’s Park struggle to delegitimize the presence of protestors and homeless campers nearly 30 years ago: “The park is underutilized. Only a small group of people use the park and they are not representative of the community.”
After the killing of Philando Castile during a traffic stop, one transportation planner called for colleagues to “advocate against slippery measures that are used as pretext in racism.” The article on Vision Zero on Progressive City is another example of how a seemingly uncontroversial pedestrian safety program might make New York City less safe for many residents.
Placemaking promises resident-led urban revitalization instead of top-down urban renewal. Instead of taking a meat ax to the Bronx, we are invited to practice urban acupuncture to revive neglected neighborhoods and stimulate investment. But the racial and spatial inequalities of American cities shape placemaking possibilities in ways that undermine good intentions. Street food and multimodal streets are celebrated as the future of urban livability, but depending on who and where, the same activities morph from good ideas to criminal behavior, e.g. permit violations and jaywalking tickets. When we talk about livability, we need to talk about how livelihoods have been criminalized. Making ends meet in a post-industrial America can put you in jail for misdemeanor violations or worse. As Eric Garner said just before his death, “This stops today.”
Planners need to grapple with the reality that placemaking can and does replicate inequalities and exclusionary practices. We should constantly examine best practices and concepts such as accessibility and livability for implicit bias. In my most optimistic moods, I imagine placemaking as a gateway concept to the right to the city. But we need to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions and make a pointed political commitment to ensure it doesn’t become an aesthetically pleasing fig leaf for the exclusionary policies of the 21st century revanchist city. A first step would be to adopt the Movement for Black Lives policy platform. Placemaking for all is impossible to achieve with the over-policing of communities of color.
Annette Koh is a Ph.D candidate in urban and regional planning at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She is co-organizing the inaugural Decolonizing Cities symposium in Honolulu.