A Placemaking Reading List

Hi everyone, Lumpen is releasing our 125th issue, the Placemaking and Placetaking issue, next weekend. Here’s a reading list so you can know what’s up for the issue.

Compiled by Kyle Gaffin and Brie McGuire

We put together a list of books and papers that we hope will help serve as an introduction and guide to the subject of placemaking. Many (if not all) of the full-length books on this list do not have “placemaking” as their precise theme, and indeed, many of them were written before the idea of placemaking, much less creative placemaking, really began to cohere into a distinct movement. But they provide a sense for its roots and themes related to it – urban planning, public art, grassroots political dissent, etc. The five papers listed at the end are meant to give the reader an introduction to the most recent trends and issues related to placemaking.

Books:

1. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
50th Anniversary edition (New York: Random House, 2011).

Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

This lady started it all. Her fight to save Washington Square Park and the vibrant neighborhoods of Greenwich Village and SoHo during the 1950s from the destructive, automobile-centric schemes of the modernist “master builder” Robert Moses prompted her to flesh out her criticisms of the established frameworks for modern city planning. This led to the 1961 publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that sparked a renaissance in urban thought. Against the top-down, car-crazed, paternalistic, and “slum” gutting visions of mid-century urban theory, Jacobs argued that urban renewal projects ought to be done from the ground up, with real people and real places in mind. Indeed, what makes cities great, she says, are the people that occupy them and the vibrant places they organically create when in community with one another.

2. Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City.
(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1960).

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This little text on urban life was significant because the starting point of Lynch’s research was the perceptions that human beings form of the cities and the urban environments that they inhabit. The importance of this attitude is seen when understood in the context in which Lynch wrote – during the time of modernist master visions in which the perceptions and observations of the layperson meant next to nothing. The book is the outcome of a five-year study of these perceptions and the processes by which we form our images of the city. For Lynch, the experience of the city is the more rich when it has a kind of clarity or “legibility” – when we can easily see a place for what it is. And while this bespeaks the importance of a certain order and structure in urban life, Lynch is quick to qualify this by underlining the significance of the role that the perceiver – the citizen – plays in developing this image. Hence, what is needed is not necessarily a stringently fine-tuned order, but an “open-ended order” in which new forms of activity and urban life are allowed to emerge.

3. William H. Whyte, City: Rediscovering the Center.
(New York: Doubleday, 1988)

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Whyte, an urban sociologist, undertook what was called the Street Life Project, a sixteen-year long, in-depth study of what happens in the streets of a major city like New York. Whyte and his team spent hours observing, taking photos, and recording film of street life, and analyzing these for various phenomena, particularly the different types of interpersonal interactions that take place in the street. A kindred spirit to Jacobs, Whyte’s work emphasized the overwhelming importance of direct and sustained observation of actual city life in order to understand what a city might need in terms of development or growth, and what sorts of things make for a flourishing public place. Like Jacobs, Whyte often found that the dogmas of contemporary urban orthodoxy were entirely wrongheaded.

4. Roberta Gratz, The Living City.
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989)

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Gratz’s text is squarely in line with the ideas and attitudes of the preceding authors in its dismissal of the monstrous top-down urban renewal “projects” that were the mainstay of urban planners at the time. Instead, Gratz argues that more meaningful, effective and lasting change can be accomplished when it begins with citizens operating at the smallest levels of place and moving forward incrementally and organically. This is the central idea of the text, a notion she terms “urban husbandry,” which is the “care, management, and conservation” of the built environment by those that inhabit it and are thus most invested in it. The waste that occurs when sweeping, large-scale plans inevitably fail is avoided when smaller steps are taken. And as these small steps increase in number, radical and effective change occurs.

5. James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere.
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993)

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This is Kunstler’s indictment of the American suburban situation and his description of the “crisis of place” in the US. He details the history of the development of the suburbs and gives an overview of the modernist attitude towards urban planning and its problems. He highlights our society’s tendency to create “capitals of unreality” that we fly to in order to escape this crisis – think Disney World or Atlantic City. But Kunstler ends with some prescriptions for how he thinks we might make better places. He highlights the Pattern Language movement championed by Christopher Alexander, which encourages designers, planners, and placemakers to think about the interconnectedness of the different elements that make up one’s built environment, as well as the movement for “pedestrian pockets”, or places where people can meet easily, face-to-face, without having to closed up their automobiles to get there.

6. Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place.
3rd edition (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1999)

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The central idea behind this beautiful little book is that of the “third place” and its essential – but woefully neglected, at least here in America – role in the cultivation of vibrant communities and a thriving public life. Third places (the first being home, the second, work) are those settings of informal public life where one goes to relax, connect with friends, and engage in lively conversation. They are the main hubs of our social life – bars, restaurants, coffee houses, bookstores. Yet the value and viability of these vital spaces have been significantly diminished in post-War America, which tends to place a premium on the suburban life of privacy, the materialism of consumerist society, and the escape and easy entertainment that technology affords. All of these, for Oldenburg, are deeply alienating and contribute to a loss of community and a lack of concern for the common good. The antidote to these ills lies in renewed efforts at making and remaking these “third places.”

7. Sara M. Evans & Harry C. Boyte, Free Spaces.
(New York: Harper & Row, 1986)

Evans and Boyte highlight the political importance of those places that bridge the gap between public and private life – much like Oldenburg’s “third places”. They show how many of the oppositional democratic movements in America’s history – abolitionism, women’s liberation, and populist and labor movements – grew from seeds that germinated in these “free spaces,” independent places of voluntary association and communal life in which various forms of dissent could gain a voice. It is the face-to-face association that these spaces provide that catalyzes these democratic movements and encourages a concern for neighbor and community and a recognition of the need for active, participatory citizenship.

8. Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art.
(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001)

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This collection of interviews touches on a range of issues related to art in public spaces. It begins with a wonderful essay by the author, entitled “The City as Site,” that traces the course of the public art movement in the US and its development into something like what we’ve come to call “placemaking.” The interviewees come from a range of backgrounds, including artists such as Vito Acconci, Maya Lin, and Mierle Ukeles, philosophers and art historians such as Paolo Friere and Douglas Crimp, as well as architects, urban planners, and city workers. The interviews address controversies in public art, discuss the relationship between artists and urban planners, architects, and the art world, and provoke thoughtful questioning of the role that public art can and ought play in our cities and communities.

9. Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse, and Margit Mayer, eds. Cities for People, Not for Profit.
(Oxford: Routledge, 2012).

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A highly academic text to be sure, the impetus for this collection of essays was the aftereffects of the recent global recession. Hit with economic crises, cities the world over have struggled to come to grips with the attendant destabilization and restructuring. The book presents, in effect, an overview of the “Right to the City,” – a phrase made famous by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in 1968 – its theory and movements, and presents critical essays on many aspects of neoliberal urban theory. Stefan Krätke contributes an essay deconstructing some of the central theses put forward in Richard Florida’s now-famous The Rise of the Creative Class, arguing that the “creative cities” ideology tends to get hijacked by an elite “dealer class” that has no intention of respecting the people’s right to their city. Tom Slater’s essay highlights the significant problems of gentrification and displacement that tend to get sugarcoated away. The book should lead us to ask, “What happens when urban social movements – including placemaking – become too taken with economic profit?”

10. Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, Tactical Urbanism.
(Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2015)

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Hot off the presses, this the book is the brainchild of the duo behind the Street Plans Collaborative, a project based organization that seeks to better cities and towns through various interventions in street life. They are responsible for the growing popularity and importance of the practice known as “tactical urbanism,” a method of DIY activism in which small-scale, often temporary interventions are enacted in a public place in order to bring awareness to an issue. The hope is that through these interventions, dialogue about certain issues in public space can more easily be generated. The book explains what tactical urbanism and its ethos are and includes several cases studies that highlight best practices.

Papers:

1. Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, “Creative Placemaking.”
(2010)

This is the NEA’s white paper, written for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, and it has become a defining piece for what placemaking has become in recent years, i.e. “creative” placemaking. Essentially, the paper explains what creative placemaking is and supplies the basic argument for why it is worth pursuing. And the argument is essentially couched in economic terms: artists and those that contribute to the creative economy have a certain skill set that allows them to reimagine and revitalize certain places, and once these places have received this renewal through arts and culture, it begins to attract new business and revitalize the economy. Though we ought to be wary of a purely economic approach to placemaking – and Markusen and Gadwa do underline the fact that the benefits are not purely economic – the paper does highlight the important, transforming role that artists and creatives can play in the life of our communities.

2. Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, “Fuzzy Vibrancy: Creative placemaking as ascendant US cultural policy.”
(Cultural Trends, 2013)

This is Gadwa’s introduction to placemaking. She discusses how it differs from how the US has previously gone about arts funding: rapidly gaining attention and importance in the cultural policy world, placemaking has engaged a wider range of stakeholders and has placed greater emphasis on cultural capital and increased arts funding. But the most important feature of placemaking Gadwa addresses is “fuzzy vibrancy,” a barrier to placemaking’s greater influence in the US. Key placemaking concepts such as “livability” and “vibrancy” – “imprecise,” as Gadwa describes them – are under intense scrutiny. NEA and ArtPlace America have differing criteria for successful placemaking projects, but both are “fuzzy” in their own ways. An informative introduction to the placemaking movement and its biggest challenge, overcoming the imprecision of its language about outcomes.

3. Ian David Moss, “Creative Placemaking has an Outcomes Problem.”
(createquity.com, 2012)

This article goes farther in-depth than Gadwa in laying out placemaking’s dilemma: how to avoid making claims about the extent of its causal relationship with outcomes it is intrinsically interested in. Moss is not afraid to state the problems with “fuzzy vibrancy” and think about just why it is a problem. Placemaking, he writes, ignores the complexity of economic ecosystems, does not include criteria for project selection based on greater chances for success, and lacks tools for analyzing why certain projects did not work. This is just a sampling of the engaging material in Moss’ article, which is certainly worth reading for nuanced and practical ideas about how placemaking can address some of its weaknesses.

4. Roberto Bedoya, “Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging.”
(GIA Reader, 2013).

Bedoya, Executive Director for the Tucson Pima Arts Council, warns of a “blind love” that he sees as encroaching upon the creative placemaking movement. Though perhaps more timely when it was written two years ago, the essay highlights a shortcoming in placemaking discourse that remains an enduring concern. From the author’s perspective, creative placemaking initiatives, particularly those with establishment backing, are far too concerned with the spatial aesthetics and the promise of economic benefits of placemaking projects, at the expense of an awareness of the “politics of dis-belonging” that operate at a deep level in American society and that placemaking projects are always at risk of playing into. Creative placemaking ought to have social and spatial justice as a primary focus, highlighting the importance of the cultivation of a politics of belonging. See also “Spatial Justice: Rasquachification, Race and the City,” an essay which highlights methods of “placekeeping” in urban Latino communities as a means to counter gentrification and “the white spatial imaginary.”

5. Susan Silberberg, “Places In the Making: How placemaking builds places and communities.”
(2013)

Published by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, this paper argues that the activities involved in the making of a place are just as important as the place itself in the formation of healthy communities. That is to say, the creative process that goes into placemaking plays a crucial role in the development of the social capital that the place is meant to foster. Silberberg’s thesis, supported by several cases studies of recent placemaking projects and urban interventions, is that placemaking projects are the more successful when community members are deeply involved in the implementation and creation of placemaking – when they are themselves their own placemakers – rather than simply being passive recipients of the design visions of some placemaking “expert.” When the making is foregrounded, this invests the place with meaning even before the project is completed. Moreover, she argues that the “making” of the place needs to be continually renewed through programming that engages the creative agency of its community.

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