Placemaking, urbanism and the future of public open spaces

This article was originally published in Portuguese on the Placemaking Leadership Council in Brazil (Conselho Brasileiro de Lideranças em Placemaking). This version has been translated from the original publication.


The strongest tendency of contemporary urbanism is perhaps the rescue of the human scale lost in the modern urbanism era. Besides producing walkable cities, where people like to spend time, in recent years the focus of urban action – related to climate adaptation, resilience, sustainability, and security, for example – has been upon communities’ needs. In other words, urban solutions are adopting a ‘bottom up’ instead of a ‘top down’ approach[i][ii]. For these actions to be successful, it is necessary to create ‘places’ and avoid ‘placelessness’, as it is part of human nature to look after places when somehow we become attached to them[iii].

In the classic book Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph[iv] identifies three components of place: the physical space, the activities that happen in that place, and its meanings. Relph emphasises that from these three components, perhaps the most difficult to be understood is the meaning, and still, it is of vital importance. Meanings take time to be developed, and spaces need this time to be turned into a place, as Tim Cresswell[v] explains:

Space, then, has been seen in distinction to place as a realm without meaning (…). When humans invest meaning in a portion of space and then become attached to it in some way (naming is one such way) it becomes place. Although this basic dualism of space and place runs through much of human geography since the 1970s it is confused somewhat by the idea of social space – or socially produced space – which in many ways, plays the same role as place.

Re:START, in Cashel Street. Temporary project for post-earthquake  Christchurch (New Zealand)
Re:START, in Cashel Street. Temporary project for post-earthquake Christchurch (New Zealand)

The fundamental difference between place and social space is that as long as there is meaning places always exist, with or without social activity. On the other hand, social spaces only exist when there is social activity happening. Place is usually the result of significant interventions in the urban design and planning scales. Places need strong and planned urban connections, they need to become part of daily lives, to have qualities that people appreciate, so they become attached to these spaces, squares, corners, no matter what shape or size they have.

That is where placemaking becomes both the solution and the potential problem. Activating spaces is extremely important, as it is important to have life and vibrancy in public open spaces. But it is also important to realise that, in the vast majority of cases, activation of space is needed in the first place because the urban design failed. Activating spaces through events is the generation of a social space, and in most cases, when the event ends, so does the spaces’ life. Place creation, on the other hand, is a more profound and permanent phenomena.

For the construction of a sense of place[vi] permanence is necessary. It is important to give time to communities to develop and recognise places’ meanings. A possible alternative to ephemeral spaces is to plan social activities for a sufficiently long period of time. This way, these social spaces can be the anchor for both community and authorities’ attention and investment. Sense of place refer to what a space has that is unique, not replicable[vii], and it is the urbanists role to understand who are the users of the city, how they live, what they like doing, what are the differences between one community and another, and then translate these aspects of city life into an efficient and permanent urban design solutions. These dimensions have to be incorporated into public policies and taken into account since the beginning of design and urban planning process, through place-led development.

Finally, placemaking has to be thought and approached “as both an overarching idea and a hands-on tool for improving a neighborhood, city, or region”. Then the temporary activation of public open spaces can serve as laboratory and experimentation. But to construct places, urban design and planning are fundamental. Permanent activation of a space disconnected from the urban fabric is infinitely more complex than activating spaces that are part of daily lives, the way to work, the supermarket, school, or the university. This way, if we are understanding the message right and taking the opportunity of learning with today’s laboratory, then activation of public open spaces will be increasingly unnecessary, as we will have more and more successful urban designs. Ephemeral and small scale projects are powerful to test urban solutions, but they are not the solution or the ‘end’ in themselves. A deeper impact on urban comfort[viii], transforming spaces into permanent places, requires both urban design (regarding qualities of space) and urban planning (e.g. uses and connections). Strong connections with the surrounding areas, active façades through commercial use in the ground floor, indoor and outdoor connections, accessibility and tranport, sun and wind control, are some fundamental aspects of place consolidation. Placemakers, urbanists and government have to work together, test and understand solutions, to then translate these solutions into permanent ones.



[i] Smit, B., Burton, I., Klein, R. T., & Wandel, J. (2000). An Anatomy of Adaptation to Climate Change and Variability. Climatic change, 45(1), 223-251. doi: 10.1023/A:1005661622966
[ii] Vallance, S., & Perkins, H. (2010). Is another city possible? Towards an urbanised sustainability. City, 14(4), 448-456. doi: 10.1080/13604813.2010.496217
[iii] Meyer, E. K. (2008). Sustaining beauty. The performance of appearance. Journal of Landscape Architecture, 3(1), 6-23. doi: 10.1080/18626033.2008.9723392
[iv] Relph, E (1970). Place and Placelessness. London, UK: Pion Ltd.
[v] Cresswell, T. (2004). Place: A Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Wiley.
[vi] Tuan, Y.-F. (1977). Space and Place: The perspective of experience. Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press.
[vii] idem
[viii] Urban comfort combines aspects of urban sociology and environmental comfort in public open spaces. This approach is based upon human adaptive capacity to diverse urban microclimates as a cultural product, instead of a purely physiological one. Urban comfort considers that humans adapt to microclimate when in urban spaces, as long as they have a reason to do so. This reason, however, is variable across cultures and dependent on past experiences. The urban comfort theory was the focus of the author’s doctorate thesis at Lincoln University (Christchurch, New Zealand)

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