At a recent conference on The Art of Placemaking at NLA, London, the air was thick with talk of “branding” and “curating” real estate and "programming" opportunities in the built environment for people to socialise.
The event was timely, since the making of successful places is a key objective of recent reforms to the planning system in the UK and key feature in an high-profile review in to the future of the High Street, or Main Street.
The National Planning Policy Framework emphasises establishing a strong sense of place to create thriving local economies.
And the Portas Review promotes the imagining of new social places that give a sense of belonging and trust to a community.
Now no-one, not even a caveman, could contest the value of public gathering spaces to human experience, but there are issues that stand in the way of delivering the inclusive, life-changing experience and collective meaning that the idea of place implies:
- most landowners prefer to screen out undesirables from the property that they own or manage
- convention is that public spaces are designed by professionals who then offer it to the public for adoption, and
- corporate profit tends to favour behaviours that are predictable and disciplined
Problem is it is the very unplanned-ness of a space and its unintended uses that often generates delightful, memorable and meaningful pleasure.
What's more, the principle of exclusion is at odds with popular culture in an age of internet economy, which maximises opportunities for people to share, like and make their own spaces, relationships and experiences.
How to create places in towns and cities that overcome these issues and develop a real estate that engenders the culture of the virtual?
Several strategies just now seek to address the question.
In the urban designer’s toolbox, there's the animation of public spaces by creating community facilities, green spaces, places to grow food, market days, nights and work hubs.
Progressive urban planners suggest more diverse use of the built environment, including the decommissioning of Main Street as a retail centre and its re-commissioning as a social one - a return to the idea of an Agora which inspired the ancient Greeks and urban professionals in the U.S.A. in the 1970s in their revitalisation of downtown districts.
While experts in retail markets look to the recasting of the real and virtual through experience shopping or click and collect, a place in which “Shops will become glorified showrooms”, according to Jeremy Newsum of the Grosvenor Estate in a recent article in Property Week (£).
One strategy that we are committed to in our work - and is featured in the new book The Temporary City, a collection of thought-provoking new creativity in placemaking from around the world - is to apply to the built environment some of the techniques that make online spaces 'sticky' for millions of consumers, and approach the creation of place as interaction design.
Another is to borrow from the playbook of documentary media producers, who create a framework for a story, populate it with content and then edit and re-edit intended and unintended content to arrive at an experience for the public to enjoy - and then, if they want to, codify as a brand or franchise.
Both approaches feel appropriate to an age of ubiquitous content, of increasing consumption of increasingly customized personal services via smartphones, and technology that changes constantly our relationship with everyday products and services in ever complex, interactive ways.
What's telling is that if you apply a more interactive, content-led approach to the built environment, you quickly arrive at some pretty traditional, lo-fi ways to turn a hum-drum space in to a place.
Here are three random inspirations and ideas.
Take a look at Chicago's Waste to Profit Network, a virtual facility which helps businesses identify by-products and waste from one business that can be used as inputs by another. It establishes a public space as a network hub for production and consumption that takes place in diverse geographies.
What if we created an equivalent experience by networking activities, cultures and tastes across the dispersed geography of a city?
What if we took the public spaces of a major world city and turned them in to the venue for a *giant* Silent Disco, with different spaces in different neighbourhoods acting as different 'rooms' or 'servers' for different sounds?
Then take a look at fashion designer Marc Jacob’s Facebook page.
Last year, Jacobs, a passionate owner of two Bull Terriers, invited subscribers to his page to upload pictures of their dogs, some of whom accessorised their pups with his products.
Not a big deal, but makes me think: what if we created public places which invited people to bring something to the space and leave it there?
Not exactly a new idea, I know: think notes left on devotional statues in places of worship or in the cracks of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
Then take a look at U.K. broadcaster Channel Four's award-winning TV series Hugh’s Fish Fight.
This was an old skool story of investigative, campaigning journalism that exploited diverse media platforms to cultivate - and more importantly be able to project itself - as a successful movement for change.
The popularity of this, and other media causes, begs an obvious, naive question: how about creating places with the express purpose of enabling human expression, Urban Commoning and Occupation, spaces that support collective socialising, rather than deter it?
To create place, we need to provide opportunities for people to exchange goods, services and emotion.
Some of this is to do with built infrastructure and deregulation. Some of it is to do with central programming of things that we can enjoy communally.
But if we are to look to public space to generate bigger social returns of belonging and trust, we need to maximize opportunities by which people can call public space, even privatised public space, their own.
This is in part about nurturing and nudging informal uses of public space - about making them 'sticky', not controlling them, about finding ways in which users can generate and manage their own pleasure.
It could start to look like the faeces-out-of-the-window existence of eighteenth century England - and note the pastiche design of the current vintage window displays of London department store Harvey Nichols.
There's an equivalence in the disorderly personality of the multi-coloured townscape of a place like Guanajuato, Mexico or Willemstad in Curacao.
And architecturally, there's inspiration in John Kormerling's Happy Street in the Dutch Pavilion at Expo 2010 Shanghai.
This is an idea of place that's not defined by hygenic, brand-directed, open plazas but the richness, complexity and excitement of the present - the experience of NOW.
This is a dimension to the Art of Placemaking - and you know what, it's (kind of) artless.
Images courtesy of: 1. Immo Klink, Disturbing Factors (2007) via Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art 2. Candy Chang 3. American Airlines via Trendwatching 4. Yvan Rodic (Paris, December 2010) 5. Jan Chipchase 6. Dean Ayres 7. ce matin, un lapin 8. unknown 9. Style Crusader