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Pocket Guide 2

Building Capacity for Placemaking

Alan Mee
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Capacity for placemaking in Irish cities is related to the complexity inherent in Irish urban places. Places which are most enjoyed and appreciated tend to be developed over time; well managed; and attractive to live in or visit. Social, economic and environmental aspects of these places need nurturing and overseeing. This involves many types of capacities, skills and resources, from bottom-up as well as top-down: community and leadership capacity, for example, organisational, governance and professional skills, and resources – such as time to organise, as well as meeting spaces and funding.

The need for building capacity in placemaking in Ireland is recognised by this initiative of the IAF, to make a Pocket Guide. Although official guidance for urban design exists nationally, and very clear recent guidance on design of Irish roads and streets is welcome, many groups feel disconnected from the processes and the technical jargon of placemaking in Irish cities, which often seems to be exclusionary. Building capacity for placemaking in Ireland therefore brings specific challenges. For example, the political boundaries of urban areas in Ireland tend to divide communities instead of encouraging urban collectivity, so the official edges of placemaking in urban Ireland often need to be challenged from the ground up.

    Placemaking primarily involves the public realm, but also closely relates to the rest of the urban designed environment, which some believe is increasingly privatised in Ireland. Placemaking could extend to threshold and public space overlaps, and mixes of uses in the urban fabric generally, alongside legally public space. It also needs to consider intangibles like whether people feel safe, and the sensory aspects of a place, like noise. Placemaking in contemporary Ireland is also increasingly a public and private health issue, with high stakes, risks and opportunities.

    The question of which group or community in the city should lead placemaking is still very open in this country. Expertise in placemaking relies on the interactions between disciplines, populations, communities of interest, owners and others, and as a process, it should be kept as open as possible, and skillfully managed. Placemaking is best focused around a community which feels connected to a shared spatial and social understanding about a place.

    Step 1

    Know the Place

    Underpinned by the deep knowledge about a place, awareness of the growing Irish placemaking official guidance and involving the relevant actors, placemakers could build capacity by knowing the place itself intimately. In this way, others who share a commitment to enhancement may benefit from placemakers who can act as the local authority about that specific place. To build a solid intelligence base for placemaking, listen carefully within a community and systematically gather local information.

    Carefully auditing current placemaking capacity of an individual or group helps to focus what can be achieved, especially under pressure, when placemaking activities can drain resources. Assessing strengths and gaps in skills or knowledge of a team, and understanding what everyone brings, means existing and emergent capacities are captured as strengths. Examining the data on current placemaking capacity also helps to see gaps, where others might contribute to make a diverse group.

    Step 2

    Understand Current Capacity

    Step 3

    Use Placemaking Research Collectively

    Research on Irish placemaking is in its infancy, but if nurtured, it could enhance placemaking capacity, especially if done by multidisciplinary teams based locally using mixed methods. Systematic fieldwork based on clear research questions leads to the delivery of new knowledge which is significant factor for better placemaking and places in Ireland. For building placemaking capacity, it might be more useful to say ‘do and use’ research collectively, as any organised individual or group of placemakers, once properly prepared, can undertake, use, and benefit from placemaking research.

    Understanding the organisational context around Irish placemaking is often a challenge. In this, knowledge sharing by experienced Irish placemaking groups can greatly enhance the local culture. Building ‘urban collectives’ of knowledge around the concept of place adds capacity. Neighbourhood associations, Public Participation Networks (PPNs), communities of place and of interest with formal and informal connections to a place, and any other loosely defined group can build the capacity for organising. In planning for placemaking, online participation matters as much as analogue in growing capacity, and blending across both realms is likely to be a key part of future active placemaking.

    Step 4

    Organise for Placemaking

    Step 5

    Engage a Placemaking Broker

    To enhance placemaking capacity in Ireland, formally introducing and solidifying the idea of a ‘placemaking broker’ could be a big step. They operate between stakeholders, communities, authorities, funders, resourced equally by all, and agreed as the ‘go-between leader’. In building on some local and international evidenced examples of this key role, lessons for successful realisation and curation of places can be drawn. Having an independent (specifically trained and specialised) broker could build trust, drive momentum, and ensure fairness in collecting the developing and emergent energies of placemaking, before, during and after the act itself.

    In adopting a placemaking approach in Irish cities, mixing placemaking methods is recommended. From a common understanding of diversity, in ways to undertake placemaking, groups should seek open data and available methodologies that suit the placemaking site and brief. Neither quantitative nor qualitative data alone should predominate urban analysis, nor in generating and assessing placemaking proposals. Building placemaking capacity and making plans includes everything from hard science to children’s stories, with an emphasis on communicating and representing a shared, locally embedded qualitative or emotional connection to place.

    Step 6

    Mix Placemaking Methods

    Step 7

    Iterate Placemaking

    Just as places are not simply created out of nothing, places are also never finished, so once a placemaking project is complete, it is good to review results of actions and examine potential gaps in provision. On an ongoing basis, through design, implementation, and after completion, placemaking needs iteration: a process of re-examining all the time how performance is playing out, what is being learned, and where a result of placemaking, once analysed, could indicate a gap in, for example who a place is for, or who feels invited to be part of the placemaking and the place itself.

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