Placemaking for Sustainable Communities

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David Engwicht posing with his traffic tamer's whip

Image credit

In recent years, the value of placemaking has become increasingly appreciated, not only for creating enjoyable public places, but for the very real social and economic role it can play in strengthening communities and commerce.

I recently attended Creative Communities’ Placemaking course which has been touring Australia and New Zealand in early 2012.

Founded in 2002, Creative Communities is the company of David Engwicht, author of ‘Towards an Ecocity: Calming the Traffic’, ‘Street Reclaiming’ and ‘Mental Speed Bumps’. Engwicht is known for one of his more famous inventions, the Walking School Bus, among many other innovative approaches to urban design and placemaking.

As a young person who had just become involved in the ecological city movement in Adelaide, and who later undertook postgrad study in urban planning, ‘Towards An Ecocity’ (1992) had a profound influence on my understanding of planning, urban design and the psychology of place.

The book’s definition and visual clarification of ‘exchange’ space vs ‘movement’ space, and planned vs spontaneous exchange; lay-explanation of chaos theory in relation to city-making; the example of Donald Appleyard‘s work in showing how traffic impacts on communities; it’s observations of how cities worked and how people behaved in them – presented sometimes complex concepts in an accessible way for the beginner, as well as some refreshing perspectives for experts.

Having always discovered something new and useful from Engwicht whenever I’ve read one of his books or attended a session where he was speaking, I was keen to attend his workshop and learn about about his insights into placemaking.

life size inflatable tiger wearing black top hat

Image credit: Creative Communities

In typical Engwicht style, participants were greeted by a giant inflatable tiger on entering the room. One can only imagine the stories this bit of kit generates at airport security checks around the world!

Much hilarity ensued during morning tea breaks, where we were all invited to have our picture taken with the tiger, wearing the ‘tiger tamer’s’ getup of black top hat and red-and-white coloured whip, as a memento of the event.

Engwicht is a devotee of fun, play, the whimsical – and it’s role as a critical tool in successful placemaking – which he brings into his training as well as his practice.

There were two modules to the training – on day one, The Art of Placemaking included exploring fourteen secrets of creating great places; why psychology is the core of place making, embracing contradiction and conflict as drivers of great places; why community consultation is failing, and what new approaches could be used.

On day two, the second module, Becoming a More Creative Place Maker, included an examination of why traditional problem solving is flawed; how to question the assumptions behind problems as they are presented to get to the underlying issues; why an over-focus on ‘master planning’ can actually reduce resilience; and the seven environmental conditions that create an  ‘ecology of creativity and resilience’.

Engwicht has worked all around the world at the invitation of different communities, and his expertise has been derived from observation, practical application of ideas, and testing and refining them. The wisdom he offers in concepts like Dual Spiral Thinking and Agile Planning is very much grounded in an extensive track record of real-world experience.

The concept of ‘a space does not become a place until it is used in ways other than the designer intended’ was vividly illustrated with photographic examples of what that looks like from several countries, and stories of many successful, inexpensive micro-approaches to creating place.

What’s fascinating about Engwicht’s teaching and examples of his own and others’ experience is that so much of it seems counter-intuitive at face value (see The Safety Paradox and predictability) – this is because he has a deep understanding of the human psyche, culture and behaviour.

One exercise asked us to use ‘Fool’s Wisdom’ to stimulate creative breakthroughs in thinking – to spark and blaze new neural pathways by coming up with the most foolish option that would seem to counteract the intended outcome, instead of the most obvious way one would typically address the challenge.

The Fool, or Jester, was considered an important part of public life in past centuries – they could breach taboos and challenge conventional wisdom through humour, which may have been a dangerous tactic for ‘serious’ discussions.

Engwicht’s books and training are thoroughly recommended for anyone interested in sustainable communities, because placemaking is an integral part of manifesting the resilience needed to quickly adapt to social and environmental change.

Creative Communities’ 2012 tour has now ended, but a DIY ‘Workshop in a Box’ Placemaking Kit will be available later this year – you can get yourself on the mailing list by subscribing at the web site, or following Creative Communities on Facebook to find out when the kit is available, and be alerted to forthcoming workshops in your area.

Have you ever been involved in any placemaking work? What was successful – and what wasn’t?

How do you see placemaking’s role in creating sustainable communities?

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