Reimagine Projects Around Ireland

Pocket Guide 1

Placemaking in the Irish Town

Orla Murphy
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Placemaking in towns can be thought of as an ongoing conversation, one that is inclusive, open to differing viewpoints, that takes account of history, heritage and culture, and that expands to imagine stories, cultures and ways of being ‘in town’.

The specificity of towns is their asset. Their scale offers an intimacy that is singular and different to that of cities. How they adapt to embrace the best version of their future can be supported by good placemaking practice.

    Towns face particular challenges such as peripheral development that hollows out the core; changing retail patterns; and accommodation of predominantly car-oriented lifestyle. But they can offer a low carbon, high quality way of living, learning, working and playing, with direct access to nature, inclusive of all ages, abilities and ethnicities.

    Tenacity is needed for the long haul of placemaking and a champion – in the form of a town architect or town-centre officer who directs a bespoke long-term vision and its gradual implementation – is a common feature of towns that have managed to adapt such as Callan, Clonakilty and Westport, and more recently in response to the covid-19 pandemic in Ennis, Malahide and Dun Laoghaire.

    Step 1

    Great Places are about People – All People

    People know their town intimately and they know the nuanced happenstances that embed themselves over centuries in the fabric of town, which are vital to any future placemaking activity. At the outset of any placemaking process it is important to gather the views, stories, rituals, opinions, loves and hates of the people who know their town best. Some people shout louder than others about this.

    Co-design needs to deliberately connect with those people who do not shout loudly, or who may not feel their voice is important or valid. Examples might be children, teenagers, carers, those with special needs, new arrivals, those seeking or availing of shelter. All voices are important, especially when what they say may differ or divert from the accepted norm. Contradictory views are a necessary part of negotiated place making. So, set up shop, literally or figuratively, ask good questions and listen. Don’t forget to offer something in return for the knowledge that is shared with you.

    It is much easier to casually meet other people while walking or cycling than driving. It is also the case that younger people, older people and those with limited means or with special abilities may not own or drive a car. Placemaking in towns should facilitate pedestrian and cycle mobility. Broad footpaths, clear public spaces, greenways, cycleways make it easier and more sociable to get around. One great characteristic for towns is their scale – they tend to be easily walkable and cyclable. A connecting off road route can link schools, homes, public spaces, play spaces, natural amenities. These connections can accommodate spaces for pop-up events, exercise and planting.

    Step 2

    Great Places Facilitate Connection

    Step 3

    Great places are distinctive

    Distinction generates pride of place, interest, allure and a sense of home. Define what is unique about your town and celebrate this. It could be related to heritage, natural amenities, the physical fabric of the place, energy credentials, music, literature, food and markets, a particular type of shopfront or material, butchers, bakers etc. If a place becomes known for a distinctive quality, it generates pride and becomes an agent for enticement to that particular town.

    The aim in placemaking is not to find one correct answer, design it and implement it, and then consider the job done. Rather, placemaking, like urban settlements themselves, are constantly evolving and changing in response to changing needs. Prepare for the long haul. Manage short-term expectations by setting short, medium and longer term goals and actions. Use tactical urbanism techniques to try out approaches on a temporary basis, evaluate them and then build on findings. This will build support networks too. Be careful of over-draining volunteers. There is only so much participation, even the most generous volunteers can sustain.

    Step 4

    Great Places Continue to Adapt

    Step 5

    Great Places Do the Simple Things Well

    The unseen is sometimes more important than the seen. For example, without good broadband a co-working hub will struggle to thrive. Cable management and good quality lighting are important. De-clutter street furniture and unnecessary signs, and invest in simple and clear way-finding. This will allow the quality of the streetscape to be seen and enjoyed without too much visual distraction.

    Festivals, or events, pop-up changes, culture, performance, Christmas lighting all play a part in the temporary transformation of place. Towns are not frozen stage sets – they need to actively invite people into the experience of place. Places that are programmable for events, installations and seasonal celebrations knit people into the ongoing life and rituals of the town.

    Step 6

    Great Places Have the Potential to Surprise Us

    Step 7

    Great Places are Lived in and Loved

    When people live in a town their everyday activity and their coming and goings become the easy backdrop to the sociability of the place. By corollary, long term vacant space can generate a impression of abandonment that can be hard to shift. Mapping, measuring and understanding the forces at play and challenges in towns is useful in identifying opportunities for placemaking and setting objectives for liveability. There are many established methods to do this, included the Place Standard Tool, the RIAI Town Toolkit, the Heritage Council’s Collaborative Town Centre Health Check. Use of an established methodology allows for comparison with other places and long term tracking of the success of actions and plans.

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