Place·mak·ing (pleys-mey-king), v.
Like so many words in our internet-inspired lexicon, “placemaking” is a mashup of two perfectly good words that were doing just fine on their own. What is placemaking? Should we care? And if we just ignore it, will it go away?
At its best, placemaking can bring attention to forgotten, underserved or otherwise blighted corners of a city, and build a communal aesthetic that empowers residents and visitors to celebrate a neighborhood. However, it can also go awry: A recent attempt in Wichita, Kan. narrowed two lanes of traffic on a busy downtown street, converting the remaining section into a “pedestrian lane” — complete with a picnic area — in an attempt to make the area more pedestrian friendly. Hay bales and jauntily-colored circles painted on the asphalt designated the new third lane, and perhaps distracted picnickers from the metal deathtraps zipping past within inches of them.
In August, after 60 days, the city will determine if any Wichitan drivers actually slowed down in the face of randomly placed hay bales and human life. Placemaking, at its worst, is dead silly — or in Wichita’s case, potentially deadly and silly.
But at the core of the Wichita idea is the key to placemaking: Doing something different with a space that gets the people who use it to think about it differently. And no one need duke it out with a four-door sedan to make it work.
Sacramento’s Portal — a 12-foot by 8-foot digital archway that visually responded to social media messages or simply glowed, intriguingly — was built and temporarily installed on R Street by technicians from Hacker Lab last summer before construction was to begin at the nearby Ice Blocks development. Tre Borden, a local placemaker involved with Portal, says it attracted people to experience the space, the city and one another in an inviting way. Events like food trucks, yoga classes, dances and pop-up gardens all made appearances at the installation, he says, and it built excitement and interest around a development project that otherwise would have been “just another construction site” to neighbors.
So while placemaking may feel like another piece of millennial jargon whose time in the American vocabulary will pass quickly, it’s also worth considering why the term has become so popular and how it reflects what people want to see in their communities. There’s nothing wrong with sprucing up your neighborhood — although you might still want to avoid using human beings as roadblocks.
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