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placemaking - a trend or a tool?

I am a proud and loud fan of placemaking. I believe in the principles, I understand the approach, I wish we could bring the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) to Bermuda. And yet, every now and then, there is whispering in the background saying it's "just a trend" and won't really resolve any community issues.

Now I can understand the hesitation if you believe it should (will?) always be a catalyst for economic (re)generation of an area. Sometimes, it might be about that and it might fall short. On the other hand, it could just be what it says: creating places where people want to be. And that's a good thing.

Given the quite sincere, 'do good' approach of the team at PPS, I was surprised to read this one-step-above-diatribe authored by James Russell, Enough of Bogus "Placemaking". It seems to me, Russell is confusing design with use. PPS is all about helping communities live better in, and make more use of, the spaces they have. Design is needed but it is there to serve the community's wishes.

Russell's view is more about the aesthetics of the space. Which is how the Salk Centre, pictured below, becomes a public space he describes as "arguably one of the greatest public spaces in the world". Visually, maybe, but I'm not sure I want to spend a lot of time there.

 salk center - james russell

salk center - james russell

On the other hand, Fred Kent at PPS wants to create places and spaces which people use, whether for working, relaxing, playing, reading - anything really. He eloquently makes his case in the article, Whom Does Design Really Serve? I suspect Russell would consider Dufferin Grove Park, pictured below, a wee bit of a disaster. Where's the esoteric visual focal point? Not where the neighbourhood market is being held, that's for sure.

 dufferin grove park - fred kent

dufferin grove park - fred kent

Which gets me back to the point. Placemaking is a tool, not a trend. PPS is has been honing these skills for decades, building on the work and observations of that wise gentleman, William Whyte. In the world of placemaking, the aesthetics are very important - who's going to sit and relax in ugly? - but how the space is used is likely more crucial.

In any case, both Russell and Kent are right, in different ways. Yes, there is a niche for the almost sculptural making of places, which win wonderful awards, even if no-one uses them. A version of art for art's sake - a sentiment I endorse with enthusiasm. But, on balance, I lean towards the mix of practicality and design that Kent espouses because I favour money spent on places that serve people and help build the community.