Placemaking and its role within the world of design.

In recent years and months I have committed a good deal of my time and energy to advancing placemaking and its role within the world of design. As defined by The Project for Public Spaces, “Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness and wellbeing.” It’s a process that involves exploring and understanding what place means to a community, and then creating a physical, cultural and social response that makes sense.

Due to my passion for placemaking, I was pleased to see the idea embedded throughout the Bloomberg BusinessWeek by Design Conference I attended in April. Placemaking seems to be building momentum in the design community and voices like James Corner, Helen Marriage, Ida Benedetto and more did a fantastic job showcasing it during the event. Billed as, “the conference to bring together the world’s top designers and business leaders to discover how design makes the world better, smarter, cooler and more innovative,” BusinessWeek’s event did not disappoint. The conference and its provocative speakers and ideas have stuck with me in the weeks since. They’ve further fueled my passion for placemaking and ignited new ideas in how we advance it within our firm’s design culture and work.

While the BusinessWeek event featured scores of speakers, there are a specific few that especially resonated with me and I’ve highlighted them below. I hope they help to inspire others’ thinking around placemaking and how it can enrich design and architecture.

James Corner: Reconnecting San Francisco’s Main Post

One of the stand-out speakers for the day was James Corner who founded and now directs his own landscape architecture and urbanism firm: James Corner Field Operations. The firm is widely recognized for The High Line in New York City and other signature projects around the world over. Corner and his team are now working to design the Presidio Parklands in San Francisco, a 13-acre park that will connect the former Main Post to the waterfront and Chrissy Field. The two distinct areas became separated by Doyle Drive that runs from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge and thus separating the Presidio’s connection to the water. Corner’s vision for the parklands and his site selection is inspiring and will drive powerful civic value for the city.

What stood out to me in listening to Corner was his focus on taking a defunct space and using a few, simple moves to create a place that attracts people, introduces safety and ultimately allows a community to take ownership of the place. That’s the success of The High Line. The success of his team’s work in San Francisco is also from some simple but powerful moves. The project is about ¾ of the way constructed and already you get the sense it’s going to stitch things back together on so many levels while offering some of the most dramatic views of the city skyline. It’s a visionary project that demonstrates how placemaking and design can best enrich one another.

lumiere london

Creating Ultimate Creative Placemaking Festivals with Helen Marriage

Helen Marriage and her firm Artichoke do fascinating work in regard to placemaking and she took the stage at BusinessWeek’s Design Conference to talk about the power and impact of creating massive disruption in people’s daily lives. She demonstrates this impact through innovative events like Lumiere London during which her team turned King’s Cross and London’s West End (one of the most trafficked areas in the city), including Leicester Square, Piccadilly, Regent Street, St. James’ and Carnaby into a magical pedestrian playground and encouraged Londoners and tourists alike to explore the heart of the capital and view it in a new light. The event drew more than 1 million visitors and allowed them to experience this urban space without traffic and truly transformed how they saw, used and valued the environment.

Another event Marriage and her Artichoke team pulled off was Temple in Northern Ireland. Essentially, this event brought together Catholic and Protestant followers that had been at odds for centuries to build a temple together they then burnt down. The idea was to empower people to, “leave a memory behind, let go of the past and look to the future.”

From my perspective, these events are fascinating. So much of our work as architects for the built environment allows us to bring people together to create permanent solutions. But, there’s something remarkably impactful about the temporary nature of Artichoke’s work. They bring communities together to create something and then in the end, there’s nothing left but the experience. I wonder if it’s not more impactful at times because it offers a realization that what we bring to our communities can be fleeting. It’s truly about creating connections with place, not just creating buildings.

Introducing Provocative Discussions with Ida Benedetto

The idea of experiential design came front and center at the conference when Ida Benedetto presented. Benedetto previously led a company called Sextantworks, which orchestrated adventures in places you aren’t supposed to be, and is now exploring the design components of transformative social experiences at the School of Visual Arts’ Design Research Program. She is a real provocateur that is always infusing taboo topics like death and sex into her work and it wasn’t uncommon for her events to be held at places like funeral homes.

Benedetto’s work is unique and the notion of creative placemaking and activation of underutilized public spaces for these kinds of intimate experiences with your community – is powerful. It’s a means to knock down barriers and have important dialogue. It pushes people literally out of their comfort zones and connects them on a human level. It pushes them to make decisions not for personal interests but for a common good they’ve identified after these intimate experiences. Her presentation was thought-provoking to say the least and she even pushed us out of our comfort zones by asking us to say hi to the person sitting next to us and then take each others’ pulse at the same time.

SFMOMA and Placemaking

As someone who lives in and loves San Francisco, I especially enjoyed hearing San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) Director Neal Benezra talk about the museum’s recent expansion. If you’re unfamiliar, the SFMOMA has transformed itself from an inward-facing destination to one that is powerfully connected and accessible for its community. The transformation features a new entrance along San Francisco’s Howard Street that is completely transparent. Inside, the entire 40,000 sf ground floor is open and free to the community and there’s a new, beautiful sculpture placed in the center. The SFMOMA is paragon of how architecture and placemaking can positively activate urban centers. It’s an example other museums and cities can follow around the country.

To be clear, the BusinessWeek BusinessWeek Design Conference was a fantastic look at the world of modern design. I am thrilled to see placemaking gaining momentum and influence in the design world and hope this continues to grow as we seek to create buildings, spaces and places that truly matter to our communities.