Creative Placemaking: Storytelling About People and Culture

February 13, 2019
Landscape Architecture Parks & Open Space Public Art

To design and create meaningful and memorable public spaces where people want to be, the growing awareness related to Placemaking initiatives must be centered on both the functional and aesthetic challenges.

The term “Creative Placemaking” has become one of those overused phrases or buzzwords that has either lost its meaning or perhaps, never achieved the significant denotation that would help establish a common language. How did this happen? So often, we begin to categorize and label, to help us talk about concepts that aren’t always so easy to understand. In so doing, the idea is changed and loses its inherent value and integrity. Such is the case with creative placemaking. We’ve included so many different elements and approaches in the realm of public infrastructure, community master planning, facilitation and engagement, that now we’re not sure what Placemaking means, or the role that it can play in making special and functional places. This is one of the reasons that so many examples of urban design have become repetitive themes applied to our public spaces. Rather than a physical imposition, we must respond to the surrounding architecture and landscape to sense what belongs.

Klopfenstein Amphitheater for the Performing Arts in Marion, Iowa. Photo by Kun Zhang.

Creative placemaking is first and foremost about people. The growing awareness related to placemaking initiatives must be centered on both the functional and aesthetic challenges of designing and creating meaningful and memorable public spaces where people want to be. When public spaces are thoughtfully and purposefully designed by a multidisciplinary team of artists, architects, engineers, owners and other representative stakeholders of the community, the results can be dramatic. Without this collaboration, invariably something is missing: a connection and investment with the very people one hopes to attract and engage. Multidisciplinary design is critical to the process that helps drive successful and lasting public spaces and environments. Creative Placemaking depends on a sensitive awareness to develop and establish relationships among social, cultural, environmental and economic factors that are unique to each location, community and region.

"the weight of your heart / the weight of a feather" public art installation in Leawood, Kansas. Photo by Steve Gibson Photography.

Great projects evolve from meaningful and compelling stories that unfold in layers throughout the design of the space. Whether for the design of a public park, plaza, trail, streetscape, civic facility or transportation venue, it must be flexible, and able to function in a variety of ways to meet the needs of diverse users. Community spaces must also be universally accessible, as well as comfortable for pedestrians throughout all seasons. Special places reflect a sensitivity to visual presence and lighting, establishing tone and character and remaining conscious of safety and ambiance as a place changes from day to night. The design of a significant public gathering space is seemingly empty without the integration of art. Meaningful and integrated art elements create dynamic and visually engaging spaces and environments. They are rich in detail, inviting people to discover, remember and return.

The sculptural installation to the bridge physically and symbolically connected five distinct communities and over 600 miles of trail. The project has become a major destination and cultural landmark for the state. It has been recognized for its contribution to the economic development of the region, with visitor attendance to the closest community increasing by 15,000-20,000 per month.

Successful Placemaking initiatives and the public space outcomes must be resilient, considering function, material selection, life-cycle, ongoing maintenance and specific locale considerations. Creative Placemaking must also be thoughtful of the factors of time and scale relative to people and how they experience the space or element. Only through this carefully orchestrated approach to design and community engagement will the public be welcomed into and moved by the creative placemaking experience.

We Are a Bowl: “Empty Earthen Vessels Waiting to be Filled” in Kanas City, Missouri by RDG. Photo by IRIS22 Productions.

Parks, recreation and conservation professionals are not historians. But they are uniquely poised to embrace and celebrate community, history and the culture of assets they are entrusted to protect and manage through creative placemaking. They are storytellers, capable of making places truly special by seizing opportunities to integrate local and regional history and cultural diversity into parks, trails and open spaces.

Grinnell Central Park in Grinnell, Iowa by RDG. Photo by IRIS22 Productions.

How might you demonstrate the social and economic value of cultural storytelling and creative placemaking in your public spaces?

This article originally appeared in the Kansas Recreation and Parks Winter, 2019 Magazine.

Written by Scott Crawford, Landscape Architect