Placemaking…is a questionable concept in so many ways.

This critical view by Dean Saitta of the concept placemaking and its narrow implementation in many planners and designers views of what is a relevant version of placemaking, is welcome, especially here in South African cities  and in Africa generally, where racial stereotypes and gentrified views obscure the reality of the majority of users needs and understanding of what contributes to a places reality, beyond its physical attributes and aesthetic considerations. 

An extract form Deans commentary on a presentation to his university on some campus improvements from Plantizen shows  that these stereootypes of  “public space ” are in fact creating an ersatz or quasi  place, that these concepts are are pervasive and as irrelevant in his context of a North American university campus as they are in our cities. 
Hi post elicited a good conversation that is worth reading.
“There’s very little that differentiates proposals by four distinguished planning and design firms to better connect my university to its immediate neighborhood and the wider city. Why is that, and does it have to be that way?”

Differentiators of planning and design philosophy were few and far between. One firm didn’t mention faculty as a key campus constituency, which was a terrible mistake. Another firm celebrated its impressive data base of campus master plans from all over the country, although it wasn’t entirely clear what’s to be learned from these comparisons. A couple of firms channeled the Denver Union Station metaphor that our academic leaders routinely use to envision our future as a crossroads for people on journeys of discovery. However, Union Station is much better known for its Terminal Bar and trendy restaurants than anything else. One firm mentioned that “place grows from context,” but no real examples were provided of what that would look like in this particular case. One bit of context would be the university’s location on Cheyenne and Arapaho ancestral land, but nothing was said that suggested an awareness of that deep indigenous history or the extraordinarily painful period of contact with white settlers, including DU’s founder. Other contexts can be found in the area’s more recent Euro-American history. In the early to mid-20th century DU was known as Tramway Tech, a theme that could be picked up in re-imagining the campus Light Rail station.

Come to think of it, the Denver area has always been a locus of interaction between different cultural groups. An attending staff member at one firm began to get at this point when he suggested, almost inaudibly from the stage’s edge, that “people use space in different ways.” This might have been the most important comment I heard during the entire four hours of public meetings, but it was left unexplored. Absent a substantive engagement with cultural and historical context, the most obvious differentiator between the firms was their style of public presentation. Some firms were much more participatory than others in soliciting opinions from audience members about what they would like to see in a regenerated campus neighborhood.

Campus Green with Adirondack Chairs. (Image by Dean Saitta)

In fairness, the lack of obvious differentiators was understandable. All firms want to be guided by planning ideas offered by the campus and neighboring community. However, none of them gave any real indication that “community” is plural, except for the one staff member’s comment described above. Nor did any indicate that we might want our university neighborhood to draw visitors from other neighborhoods that aren’t populated by white people. None indicated the role that a liberal arts education—as distinct from professional training—could play in producing STEM innovation. Ideas for using culture and the arts as anchor venues for campus edges (e.g., a museum, art gallery, cultural center, or some other kind of learning lab or Idea Store) were not mentioned. None took up the multicultural theme briefly mentioned in passing by ULI, and what this might mean for the quality of public space, green space, public art, signage, historical markers, amenities, and residential housing. The commitment to multiculturalism—or, alternatively, interculturalism—should certainly amount to more than just making signs in Spanish as well as English.

Read the full a post here:

 

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