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Making one’s own place, continuously

Su Lim and friends
7:40:22 14 May 2024
37°48′51″S 144°57′47″E


In the spirit of its subject, the following article is not mine, at least not in the usual sense of what might be understood as authorship. Following conversations had on the placemaking street, it started with a short opinion piece, posted on Linked-in. It was deliberately provocative, beginning: ‘Placemaking. A term that is being widely used to mean all sorts of things from the sublime to the ridiculous and increasingly seems to prompt a lot of eye-rolling.’ The below is simply my attempt to organise the (lively, wise, stimulating) conversation that followed. Unless mentioned in the body of the text, my fellow ‘authors’ are namechecked at the end.   




I have developed a love-hate relationship with the term ‘placemaking’. At its very best, it is what it set out to be when first coined in the 1970s, an inclusive and adaptive antidote to top down silo-addicted urban planning, one that:


  • Shares the (design) pen with the end user.


  • Places in the name the greater good an emphasis in collaboration between often wildly different stakeholders.


  • Is hyper-focused on the public space as the nexus for everything that makes for the sorts of places people like to live, work, and play in.


At its worst, however, it is a ‘single impact’ brief gone horribly wrong, where top down profit-seeking is the primary motivator for a given development, everything else a tick box exercise in tokenism, and nothing in the design to suggest the development has the capacity to flex with a change in need and want.


Mostly, mention and use of the term’s a bit like taking multiple hits of gas-and-air to cover the planning pain of a given intervention – engage stakeholders (hit), local community groups (hit), and publish your evidence-base (hit) for moving forward. Truth is, to push the analogy a bit further, the intervention either runs out of drugs or they just stop working. Given this, it’s easy to see how initially enlightened placemaking can suffer over time, the capital expenditure afforded its planning and development replaced by paltry place-management budgets, the once high level of community-led input compromised by short term contracts, and its relative success leading to gentrification and so to the eventual exit of the very communities the original development was supposed to benefit.


If our placemaking is going to do everything it has historically and continues to promise, then we need to take note of, design for, and put serious money into the notion of ‘placekeeping’, a term introduced, as far as I know, in relation to the stewardship and managing of placemaking developments in Sheffield (UK) in the late 2000s. Broadly speaking, placekeeping takes up the much-neglected reins of long term place management, thereby ensuring, as academics and practitioners Nicola Dempsey and Mel Burton say, ‘that the social, environment and economic quality benefits the place brings can be enjoyed by future generations’. To which I would add two things:


  • Those benefits are not always or necessarily realised by an original or ongoing (re)development. Rather, they are the result of an intervention that – either from scratch or as a means of course-correcting the gentrifying effects of development – seeks to engage the community and its representatives as both the primary stewards of the stories and culture that make a given place what it is and also the primary long term managers of that place.


  • This shifting of long term management of place to the community (in a way that serves different people in different ways for futures that it is impossible to be certain of) will require that we – policy makers, planners, designers –  are much more humble when it comes to our placemaking design intentions. We need to plan in our placemaking for multiple futures, and so make space for all those unknown unknowns.




Bearing in mind the somewhat polemical nature of the provocation as form, I’m aware that the above is very top line in terms of breadth and depth and that it’s sweepingly assertive. The aim, however, was not to write a paper, but rather to spark a debate that would result in some practical takeaway thoughts. Here they are, a beta-manifesto for place(making-keeping):


1. Design for change


It’s clear that when it comes to (master)planning for places, the idea, as architect and urbanist Ming Cheng says, that a ‘masterplan will be implemented without changes, over a long period, is frankly laughable.’


Clearly, we need to shift from the idea of the finished product to that of an ongoing process.  ‘The designed experience,’ write Adam Scott and Dave Waddell, ‘is not a product, at least not in the finished sense. It is an ever-evolving platform for collective action(s).’*  When speaking of planning for the long term, therefore, we understand a given intervention as being a dynamic process. Expecting change, we build redundancy or affordancy into the design, and we invest in frameworks, teams, and tools capable of adapting to and empowering facilitators of that change. 


This isn’t easy, admittedly. It requires that we designers think, as digital urbanist Daniel Onrenn Latorre advises, in verbs not nouns, that we are prepared, to bastardise a writerly dictum, to design for the death of our darlings, and to do so by continually ‘starting now’, a process (well-funded and supported) predicated on designing through action.


2. Go beyond the physical


Designing for change means designing with time and culture, for what urbanist and researcher Ensiyeh Ghavampour and architect and academic Brenda Vale call ‘the intangible character of place’.


Unfortunately, the emphasis we place on the physical design actively works against identifying and being led by the intangible. Thinking ‘about urban problems in physical terms’ means – inevitably, inexorably – thinking about urban solutions in physical terms, a ‘model of causality’ that so complicates the task of placemaking as to require a small, usually external, and so-called ‘expert’ set of designers armed with a clutch of internationally-recognised benchmarks and universal templates. All of which both disempowers the real expert – the indigenous, the local, the ‘end user’ – and mistakes the act of creating stories between people and place for the relationships between people and place. We are, argue Ghavampour and Vale, in the ‘placemaking-place branding’ stage in the evolution of urban design thinking.  


I’d warrant we all recognise ourselves somewhere in the above. However, if we are to think beyond physical design, then we need as a matter of urgency to move, to paraphrase designer, writer, and creative-community advocate David Engwicht, from a customer to a citizen-based model of placemaking, from habitually ‘outsourcing civic responsibility’ to taking ‘responsibility for the vitality of [the] neighbourhood and town’. This empowering of the citizen or end user not only adds (the task of ‘designing’ for) meaning and behaviour to our notion of placemaking, but also sets the conditions, to bastardise a phrase by urbanist and writer Kelvin Campbell, for its ongoing and long term stewardship. 


3. Think place-continuum


To advocate for going beyond the physical is not to rub the planner, architect, or engineer out of the placemaking equation. Rather it is to widen the knowledge and correlating skillsets required to deliver on both the tangible and the intangible, wherein the physical design is, as writer and municipalist Kevin Kitchen says, ‘but one of a number of actions within a place-continuum, a continuum that ultimately de-colonises practices and systems related to space and place’. You will, no doubt, have your own examples of Kitchen’s place-continuum in action. If not, I’m finding the following useful:


  • Plans for the revitalising of Onondaga Creek (New York, 2009), an early-stage tables-turned model of how a highly diverse community group expert in itself and the place it calls home engages the third party ‘professional’, socialises science, and fully involves First Nation participation (a first in the county). 



  • The city of Ballarat’s emergent strategy for becoming a ‘creative city’ (Victoria, Australia, 2019 ongoing), which places art and culture front and centre of its programme, employing creative strategies for the occupancy of empty retail and commercial space, and funding grassroots-driven community take-back projects.*



  • Dhun.live‘s seemingly impossible regeneration of a ‘dead’ desert neighbourhood (Jaipur, India, 2013, ongoing), a now thriving bioreserve providing for the economic, social, and environmental wellbeing of the community that helped restore it.    



Though very different from one another in terms of sponsor, scale, and scope, each shares a number of place-continuum characteristics:


  • They’re based on ongoing end user involvement and ownership. 


  • Advocating for practices and systems born of the relationship between (local) people and place, their uncovering and / or reviving of the intangible character of place challenges our notions of what it means to ‘make’ a place. 


  • There is in their process a distinct absence of the disconnect between those that physically ‘make’ (or own) and those that ‘keep’ a place and so too of the disconnect between the objectives and the success criteria that tends to characterise standard placemaking.


In a word, the ‘community engagement’ line item in Pre-design on a Gantt Chart is now – ought to be – the main deal, with said community doing all the engaging (of designers and architects).


I’ll stop here, though I’m aware that I’ve barely begun, especially vis a vis gentrification, which historically has been the long term de facto success criteria for a piece of placemaking. Nonetheless, we’ve covered some good ground. We began the discussion around the meaning of placemaking and the possible lack therein of long term management (keeping) of place, and have discussed three ways where we might act on the deficit: that is, by designing for change, going beyond the physical, and thinking of placemaking in terms of a continuum.        


It’s clear from the discussion that most of us aren’t against the term ‘placemaking’ per se. Rather, our concern is more about how it’s been emptied out of its original meaning. Hence the call for a compensatory language and process, a way of ensuring that placemaking is also place ‘management’ or ‘keeping’, which might mean worrying less about the term, says protagonist and consultant Wendy Geitz, and more about ‘calling out the briefs that really are not placemaking’, and so ‘hold people to account’. Anticipating Kitchen’s ‘number of actions’ in the continuum, she speaks of ‘greenhousing’ as the embedding and activation of place, and of ‘thriving’ as being its deep rooted meaningfulness and flexibility.      


Following on, much of what is missing in present day interpretations and manifestations of placemaking is what human geographers call a sense of place, where ‘placemaking’ is less about making a place, and more about the making of one’s own place – socially, culturally, economically, continuously.  As Tim Cresswell says (as quoted here): ‘Place is constituted through reiterative social practice’ and so ‘made and remade on a daily basis’, and as such ‘provides a template for practice—an unstable stage for performance’. It’s a regenerative process and what, I think, we’re all getting at, and what town planner Katrina Hill means by ‘place un-making’.


More on all this at another time. For now, let’s keep the conversation going. I’d love to meet more formally, and dig into the nitty gritty of planning for making one’s own place, raising funder literacy, how we might invest beyond ‘community engagement’, what it means to successfully measure and incentivise, and whether it is indeed possible to hold people to account. Much to discuss.

Place strategist and change facilitator, Su Lim is Managing Director of FreeState. As well as those already mentioned, thanks to Richard Mullane, Ethan Kent, Angela Skandarajah, Anupam Yog, Daniel Knight, Paul Clement,  Sue Wittenoom, Rebecca Norton, Janet Martin, Diseree D Powell, Cathy Parker, Chee Yung Kuan, Tanya Sorrell, Vinite Dhume, Elizabeth K, Tom Wild, Rahul Mittal, and Kendra Nelson for getting stuck in. Looking forward to many more conversations. 


*Full disclosures: One, Adam Scott and Dave Waddell are colleagues. Two, FreeState was commissioned by the city of Ballarat to work on the vision for Ballarat Bridge Mall.


Image credit: Masthead illustration by Raphael Arthur


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