Against Generic Placemaking

'Placemaking,' the process by which cities and developers supposedly create appealing public spaces, is in a crisis, writes critic James Russell. Too many "made" places are generic and lack true relevance to the cities that build them.

April 13, 2015, 5:00 AM PDT

By Josh Stephens @jrstephens310


Sunset Plaza

Kenneth A. Wilson / Flickr

The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces has, for years, championed the creation of plazas, parks, public markets, and other outdoor spaces that invite activity and make cities more appealing. They have been involved with as many as 3,000 projects to date. While "placemaking" may pursue lauadable goals, archtiecture critic James Russell cautions that some placemaking efforts are as generic as the dead cityscapes that they aim to improve. 

Russell is particularly concerned about sense of place—the unique attributes of a city—rather than formulaic notions about amenties. He writes on his blog, "After you hack through thickets of slogans and vagaries, Placemaking seems to comprise a community-driven process for designing public spaces (streets, sidewalks, plazas, squares, campuses, parks, and so on) that are mixed use, host a variety of activities for diverse audiences, and are well-connected to the larger city or town." 

Russell blames PPS—but not entirely: 

"Placemaking could only gain currency because our building and development processes create so little that is inviting and memorable. America’s default is to assemble standardized real-estate products along roads engineered for auto throughput, and call it a day. Placelessness is so ubiquitous and such second nature that it is actually hard to think about what it takes to make a building or streetscape that’s appealing, that feels as if it belongs."

Russell offers a few examples of what he considers successful, unique places—including Seattle's Glassworks, La Jolla's Salk Center, and New York's Broadway Apple Store—and a few that represent what he considers tired New Urbanist retreads. 

Friday, April 10, 2015 in James S. Russell

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