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Placemaking: Lessons for London from around the globe

The pandemic has led many of us to reflect on the places that we spend our time in. What can London learn from cities around the world to make our public spaces better?

United States

In the brief stretch of relief between 2021’s vaccine rollout and the rise of the Delta variant, the PlacemakingUS team embarked on a 60+ city tour “Roadtrip for the Recovery,” across America to see how cities and towns were faring after being eviscerated by the pandemic, economic shutdowns and racial strife over the last year.

Meeting with placemakers in cities as big as New York City and towns as small as 300 residents in an outpost of New Mexico, we learned that American communities, governments and local businesses bound together and could report favorable results in their efforts to ride out this upending and turbulent epoch.

Possibly in American “can-do” spirit, it seemed like most we visited were “doubling down,” “selling high” or “buying cheap,” and rarely did you hear about folks “going bust,” unless of course they’d passed away. That enthusiasm was contagious, and the resiliency sounded nice, but beyond the unmasked optimism across the board, we did pick-up on a few themes worth sharing for London’s own investigation of the post-pandemic metropolis.

Opening up public space is key

Liberalizing outdoor dining uses during the pandemic was a lifeline to the restaurant industry. In recent surveys, 90+ per cent  of respondents are supportive of continuing outdoor dining programs which have added vivacity to streets and created a new public way of life for auto-dominated American cities. In somewhat conservative Michigan, a new law allowing “social zones” created whole outdoor districts where visitors can drink alcohol outside. Alternatively, healthy public space uses like allowing a gym to operate on a public promenade shows a diversity of outdoor offerings and not just turning every outdoor space into a plein air beer hall or padded seating for a “tres chic” gastropub. The uncharacteristic way municipal authorities backed away from stringent permitting and allowed local businesses to experiment with their adjacent public realm was award worthy. Self-regulation ruled the day with businesses figuring out clever ways to share space and even furniture, with no bureaucrats were harmed in the process.

Placemaking connects deeper with wellbeing and mental health

The crossovers between wellbeing, health and place became more apparent during the pandemic. As social isolation became a pandemic of its own, local governments sought ways to stimulate local, healthy activities and they found that public open spaces like parks, squares and streets were the places that these interactions could occur most safely and equitably. In Los Angeles County, one of the densest and most diverse urban megaregions in the country, $2,000 mental health grants were distributed to connect mental health activities, artists and local food ecology. A grant recipient in a food desert area used the funds to build a farm stand with a local artist and the community and then open that farm stand every other week to sell donation-based fruits and vegetables to neighbors. These types of activities might not have been thought of as ‘placemaking’ before. Often, placemaking is equated with colorful furniture and consumer-based places, but the mental health and wellbeing lenses are helping to show that placemaking is more holistically about making places with people.

Rise of the essential workers

In the US, we learned about the “creative class” from Richard Florida and “first responders” from 9/11, but the pandemic raised our awareness of another frontline class of citizens referred to as “essential workers.” Essential workers kept cities running while many of us worked from home and it became more obvious that certain place-based considerations were not always taken on behalf of this group who we now relied on much more visibly. In Oakland, California, the rollout of their “Slow Streets” program impacted essential workers from being able to get to work such that home-based workers could be privileged with an easily accessible place to go outside and exercise while socially distancing. The municipality listened and created a new “Essential Places” program with hopes to help essential workers move easily from places of residence to places of work. These types of population balancing acts became much more fluid during the pandemic and we hope that population needs will continue to be identified and adapted to here and abroad.

Ryan Smolar, the Initiator of the PlacemakingUS network, has generated transformative ideas and approaches for municipal governments, business districts, visitor bureaus, schools/colleges, and arts/food nonprofits. Ryan’s work helps build local economies, expand local networks and enable community change. He started the PlacemakingUS Network to bring together placemakers from US cities and around the world. PlacemakingUS is a regional network organized in coordination with our global partner PlacemakingX and sister networks in Asia, Europe, Latin America, Australia, Canada and beyond.

Barcelona

Barcelona is one of the densest cities in Europe where the need to provide public space for citizens has been even more evident during the pandemic. At the same time, citizens are increasingly demanding, as shown by social movements, a city with less pollution and noise. For these reasons, the city of Barcelona is determined to adapt public space and mobility to achieve a more liveable city.

The Barcelona Superblock program aims to recover part of the public space currently occupied by private vehicles for public use, while also gaining new places to spend time, increasing urban greenery, and putting people at the centre of the transformation. The superblock projects in the Poblenou and Sant Antoni neighbourhoods, both set up between 2016 and 2018, are proof that this model can be implemented efficiently in the orthogonal, wide streets network of the Eixample district. Today we are working to scale the program up across the entire city. Superblock Barcelona represents a vision of Barcelona’s future.

In the well-known Eixample – the central district of Barcelona, there is also an opportunity to update the Superblock program, taking into consideration new social and environmental requirements while creating new environmental infrastructure through 21 new green axes and 21 new squares. Our priority is to achieve, through joint work with citizens, a healthier, greener, fairer, and safer public space that promotes social relations and the local economy.

Superblock projects are carried out in a structural way as well as with tactical interventions. We believe that tactical urbanism is a good formula for rapidly changing the use of public space, adapting to new mobility and to a new way of living. These include streets with colourful stripes, furniture and planters that can be removed if necessary, painted games on the floor, and more. These can be seen on the streets of Barcelona and have been applied during the COVID pandemic, to create more space for people and for walking and cycling.

We are also protecting schools, transforming the public space surrounding them by removing space for cars and giving it to kids, parents, and neighbours, while widening spaces for stay and play and making them safer and healthier.

We are working to reprogram Barcelona, in a systematic way, to make a city for living, with high quality public spaces, greener, more sustainable, and with the involvement and commitment of all citizens.

Xavi Matilla is an Architect/Urban Planner graduated from ETSAV-UPC, born in Terrassa (Barcelona) in 1975. He is currently the Chief Architect of Barcelona City Council. He has developed his professional career in different offices of recognized prestige in the field of urban planning, having won several awards and recognitions. He is an associate professor at the Department of Urbanism and Spatial Planning (DUOT) at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya UPC_BarcelonaTECH and at the Master Metropoli in Metropolitan and Urban Studies, The Barcelona Institute of Regional and Metropolitan Studies (IERMB).

Singapore

For the past five years, placemaking has been one of the key words in Singapore in various sectors. An industry in continuous growth and evolution, born as a simple activation of public and private spaces through the planning of activities, and today considered as a strategic element in the creation and transformation of entire districts and neighbourhoods. In the last few years, public agencies and private developers have finally begun to engage placemakers from the early stage of their projects’ development. This is an important signal that shows the full understanding of the potential of placemaking, allowing for the creation of more human places, instead of having to just “fix” the built ones.

The Marina Bay area in Singapore can be considered one of the first, and a constantly evolving, placemaking project. Connectivity, pedestrian friendly spaces, and all sorts of programmes and activities for all, are key factors in the creation of such a vibrant area.

LOPELAB plays a key role in promoting and demanding the use of placemaking principles in Singapore. For instance, in the last five years LOPELAB has contributed to transform Keong Saik, the former red-light district in the Chinatown area, using a tactical urbanism approach. The project Urban Ventures – a series of temporary road closures with the aim of showing the potential of car-free roads – was born in 2016 by tapping onto the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) programme “Streets for People“. Its success, with more than 50,000 participants since its first edition, has indeed contributed to the Keong Saik neighbourhood being mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide in 2017. In 2018 the project grew into the Urban Design Festival, a true urban festival taking place in the indoor and outdoor spaces of the same neighbourhood. Beside lectures, workshops, and events, the temporary installation of eight interactive and playful urban furniture teased and attracted children, adults, and older people in the neighbourhood.

The pandemic has only temporarily stopped the journey, which continues until today. In fact, this year, LOPELAB introduced to Keong Saik the semi-permanent transformation of parking lots into Parklets, “green islands”, taking the place of cars in front of the shophouses that line the street, and open to everyone. The parklets have supported the bars and restaurants during such trying times, bringing life to the area by creating mini parks in the street and providing more outdoor space for the public. Since their installation in April 2021, the requests for these mini-parks have constantly grown and hopefully, we see more and more similar spaces across Singapore.

Lorenzo Petrillo started his career in Italy in 2005, developing cultural projects for public spaces. In 2008 he moved to Asia and in 2015 he founded LOPELAB, a design consultancy agency, marrying urban design and social ideas to create more enjoyable and sustainable places for people to reconnect with the city.

Nairobi

Placemaking has been deployed in Nairobi as an approach to revitalise public spaces, test design, and programming ideas, crowd-source ideas, and take public participation in visioning processes closer to the people – in situ. This concept was initially introduced in Nairobi by UN-Habitat and Project for Public Spaces (PPS).

Since 2012, the Placemaking Network Nairobi, a network of public, private, and civil society actors, have been organising placemaking initiatives, one of which is Placemaking Week Nairobi. Placemaking Week Nairobi is dedicated to celebrating Nairobi’s public spaces and community-led activities which are revolutionizing the use and experience of public spaces and the city at large. The annual event is guided by an overarching theme of ‘Partnerships for Places’ and aims to heighten awareness of the need for and importance of public spaces and the potential of placemaking in the whole urban governance discourse. It is often organised around multiple themes including streets as places, art and culture, and walking and cycling. The guiding objectives for Placemaking Week Nairobi are to: activate public spaces through a variety of low-cost high impact interventions; celebrate the city’s public spaces, raise their profile and create awareness about their importance; promote cross-sector dialogues about quality of life in the city; and advocate for a healthier, safer, more inclusive and creative city.

One of the recent examples of placemaking-led interventions is the regeneration of Luthuli Avenue. The design process employed an array of creative methods over the course of a year led by the i-CMiiST project team. The process drew the interest and support of other organisations including UN-Habitat who lobbied for the designs that were created during the process to be implemented. The process provided an opportunity to experiment with short-term action for long-term change to “hack the city” and “disturb the order of things” in the interest of change, and to remodel the place of the public participation in urban regeneration.

The regeneration has transformed the street into an inclusive and vibrant retail corridor and a driver for urban regeneration. It has become a kick-starter for the regeneration of the East of Tom Mboya Street and continues to influence urban regeneration projects in the city. The process is now integrated into the Nairobi River Life Project, a joint flagship project of the government of Kenya and UN-Habitat.

Mark Ojal is an Urban Designer and an advocate for placemaking. Mark loves championing unlikely alliances. He connects ideas, people and places – bringing together policymakers, professionals, civil society leaders and community groups to a collective understanding of shared ambitions and overlapping agendas. He helps build consensus, inspire action and bring ideas into reality. His interest areas include places for people, urban risks and urban futures.

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