Tracing the link between placemaking and sustainability

Updated: Aug 6, 2018

By Dima Yankova


[TL; DR] This post explores the connection between the placemaking movement and the urgent need to reshape our public spaces. It provides a brief explanation of the core principles of placemaking and how they translate in real-life city planning. I elaborate on a specific example of public space transformation from my work at La Marina de Valencia and I argue that placemaking has the capacity to inform and inspire a more resilient and sustainable urban environment.



Suggested reading: A leading force in the global placemaking movement is the non-profit organization Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and their materials were used in writing this post. Further information on placemaking and the methods of analyzing public space use can be found on the Gehl website and in many of Jan Gehl’s books, more specifically “How to Study Public Life” and “Cities for People”. For more about the strategic plan of La Marina de Valencia and other transformations taking place at the waterfront, visit their website.

WHAT IS PLACEMAKING?

Placemaking is an innovative approach to the way we perceive, organize and manage public spaces. It favors collaborative, participatory and transdisciplinary processes in reshaping our urban environment. Hence, the concept of placemaking should not be narrowed down to mere improvements in design. Neither is it limited to the construction of a single building or park. Instead, placemaking looks beyond the individual components and treats our shared public realm as a living and breathing organism. In the field of placemaking function trumps form. Places are seen as entities with complex cultural and social identity. In other words, the way people understand, interact with and use public spaces is just as important as the physical space itself.

Of course, measuring and evaluating people’s intricate connection to their surroundings is not an easy task, but it is certainly worth looking into. By observing and collecting simple data on people’s movement, interests, habits, behavior and engagement in the public realm we can build a more comprehensive picture of the functionality of a given place (not just its static physical characteristics). We can thus reshape and rescale it in ways that respond better to the common needs and activities of the end users. The idea is to spot, conserve and nurture the organic life that public spaces naturally foster and use that as a basis for any future interventions.

AN EXAMPLE FROM LA MARINA DE VALENCIA

The conceptual framework of placemaking is perhaps best understood through practical examples. In this post, I will focus on the ongoing public space transformation which has taken place in La Marina de Valencia (LMdV), the old harbor of the Spanish city of Valencia. LMdV is a vast 1million square meters waterfront which was marked by the legacy of a few white elephant projects in the early 2000s, including several editions of America’s Cup and the F1 Grand Prix Race. Both events attracted large-scale investment, fueling rapid infrastructure and real estate growth, but none of this so-called development could compensate for the chronic lack of strategic long-term planning. When the big projects ended and the financial crisis hit, the waterfront was left with idle and vacant installations deprived of meaning and purpose.

In the past two years the new management team at the harbor, guided by the core principles of placemaking, has been drafting plans for revitalizing the deserted spaces. Before deciding how to repurpose the idle installations in the new context of post-crisis urban recovery, the team chose to first study the natural evolution of the spaces since they were abandoned. One of those forsaken spots is an old open-air industrial shed, called Tingado 2. It was used by fishermen in the past, repurposed during America’s Cup and the F1 Race and then subjected to almost a decade of institutional neglect (photo from 2013). By doing on-site observations at different times of the day the team collected quantitative data on people’s use of Tinglado 2, which was then supplemented by qualitative information from one-on-one surveys and conversations with the visitors.


What the data revealed was that the space had nurtured its own kind of social scene and was welcoming some quite specific groups of visitors. Its smooth floor, for instance, attracted skaters, cyclists, athletes, and even dancers who were using the space to practice and exercise (photos). The study also showed that local musicians have started showing up spontaneously for open-air rehearsals. Since Tinglado 2 is situated right by the water and far enough from residential areas, bands can play without fear of disturbing the neighbors. In fact, their rehearsals often draw an audience and provide casual entertainment for both locals and tourists.


Ultimately, the space was regaining its vitality and was already serving the interest of multiple stakeholder groups. Hence, the approach of the management team was to gather more ideas from the current users and work together with them and the local community in order to introduce the improvements they wished to see in Tinglado 2 (proposed transformation). In other words, the physical rehabilitation plan for the building was guided entirely by its actual function. The idea was to reverse the traditional process: instead of first refurbishing the shed and then seeking potential uses, contractors, privatization alternatives, etc., opt for the opposite, whereby the functionality of the space dictates its physical transformation. I think that this kind of community-driven intervention, which rejects the rigid technocratic ideas of urban planning and construction, embodies perfectly the core principles of placemaking.

SO HOW DOES THAT RELATE TO SUSTAINABILITY?

I wrote this blog post out of concern that sustainability is too often associated almost exclusively with innovative technological solutions. We champion green construction projects, new buildings with solar panels and green roofs, and without a doubt those are important, but all of this technological development means nothing if we don’t consider the end users and the specificities of our urban environment. In the end of the day, no matter how low the ecological footprint of a particular building or installation is, it is still not sustainable if there is no actual use or need for it.


These principles are equally important in the context of refurbishment and redevelopment work (like Tinglado 2) as they are in the case of brand new construction plans. Of course, in the latter, it might seem more difficult to collect data on previous use since the project usually starts from scratch. Yet, it does not mean it exists in a vacuum. New interventions must be well woven into the existing urban fabric. This involves examining the relationship of the physical space with its immediate environment, its potential connection with nearby places, its spatial “permeability”, especially for pedestrians and cyclists, and most importantly its impact on residents and/or identified user groups. Engaging with the community in the early stages of planning is fundamental to the success of any urban intervention.


Ultimately, the placemaking movement is calling for us to prioritize the functionality of our public spaces above their physical and technical characteristics. It is this kind of strategic thinking which I think is vital to developing a more resilient and sustainable urban environment.


As Phil Myrick, the Senior Vice President of PPS wrote in one of his articles, “we can try to outsource our problems to a new generation of green engineers, designers and architects, but will only see broad, lasting changes when the people inhabiting these communities create a vision for the future and lead the process for change”

The Causal Loop

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