Exploring theoretical trends in placemaking

Placemakingby Wessel Strydom, Karen Puren and Ernst Drewes

Our contribution to the recent special issue of the Journal of Place Management and Development on Participatory Placemaking, is an exploration of the theoretical trends in placemaking literature. Our paper “Exploring theoretical trends in placemaking: Towards new perspectives in spatial planning” follows Prof. Kalandides’ lead article, which proposes a disambiguation of the term ‘participation’. The two papers together constitute the theoretical framework of the special issue.

The paper aims to understand and describe the development of placemaking in spatial planning. Placemaking is a multi-disciplinary concept including Architecture, Spatial Planning, Geography, Ecology, Tourism, Art, Education and Nursing. Exploring the term “placemaking” from a multitude of viewpoints will allow developing an in-depth understanding of the concept in order to conceptualise global trends with regard to the topic. This exploration is informed by conducting an Integrative Literature Review (ILR). ILR aims at providing an exhaustive description of available research contributions. This exhaustive description includes both theoretical and empirical studies. Appropriate contributions are further explored by following a thematic content analysis and thematic synthesis method. From the thematic content analysis and synthesis, themes and sub-themes can be constructed. These themes and sub-themes are utilised to uncover global trends in research literature. By conceptualising trends, the construction of a comprehensive definition regarding the search-term is possible.

This paper represents the findings of an ILR focussed on the theoretical constructs of placemaking. Thirty-six international search databases is included in the ILR. As part of the quality appraisal phase, relevant contributions are coded according to appropriate limiting factors. This ILR includes the following limiting factors: (a) contributions only with the term “placemaking” in the title, (b) peer-reviewed contributions, (c) only full-text contributions, and (d) contributions published between the period 1970 until May 2017. Findings of the ILR reveals that while placemaking as a concept originated in the late 1950s it was only known by the term since 1970s. Jane Jacobs (1961) explored the concept of cities designed for site-observers in order to create lively neighbourhoods. Related to the creation of lively neighbourhoods, William Whyte (1968) aimed at understanding the manner in which physical elements informed social interaction in public spaces. George F. Andrews (1975) who researched Mayan cities, became the first author who referred to the term “placemaking”, as stated in the title of his contribution, Maya Cities: Placemaking and Urbanization. Andrews’ study mainly revolved around the spatial organisation, spatial function and physical aspects related to the pre-industrial city. Spatial organisation is an overarching term referring to the manner in which geographical locations are arranged according to their economic and spatial function. Spatial function refers to the activity practised within a place, e.g. ceremonial purposes, trade, socialisation etc. In order to make the spatial environment memorable, physical aspects were added e.g. symbolic elements including architectural features.   Since the early 1990’s the focus in placemaking literature shifted from a product that was concerned with the physical aspects found in an area towards the incorporation of democratic interventions. This democratic intervention describes the manner in which decisions regarding a placemaking process is negotiated. Negotiation in this sense promotes the inclusion of open dialogue, procedural transparency and respect towards diversity. Through the active involvement of individuals by means of negotiation, site-specific characteristics, meanings and values may be incorporated during the transformation of space to place.

The Integrative Literature Review (ILR) map on placemaking (Source: Authors’ illustration of the ILR process)

Apart from the concept and term “placemaking” the ILR illustrated that 56 out of 59 eligible contributions from various disciplines originated from the Global North and limited studies stemmed from the Global South. From these eligible contributions 23 was found within the spatial planning discipline. Only 3 spatial planning contributions stemmed from the Global South. Contributions from the Global South included studies of Samadhi (2001) conducted in Indonesia, Frischknecht (2006) Argentinia and Al-Kodmany & Ali (2012) researched placemaking in China, India and United Arab Emirates. Globally, pre-2000 literature concerning placemaking mainly focussed on the spatial interventions and/or visual properties, social relations, e.g.  people-place relationships and economic aspects such as availability of funds. Post-2000 literature started to incorporate the ecological- and psychological aspects associated with certain places. Ecological aspects refer to the conservation and preservation of the natural environment while psychological aspects illustrate the manner in which humans behave in and experience their natural and built environment. Ultimately, the ILR revealed research trends regarding placemaking. These trends refer to the manner in which the term “placemaking” was initially understood and how it evolved in recent research. Placemaking research trends include placemaking as – (i) physical construct, e.g. spatial organisation, physical elements and physical interventions, (ii) social construct which refer to activities practiced in a space e.g. religious, political, cultural activities, (iii) economic construct, e.g. attracting more consumers in a visually pleasing area by means of tourism or creation of business environments), (iv) environmental management tool, e.g. protection, conservation, rehabilitation of ecology and (v) psychological dimension  which refer to conscious, non-conscious and subconscious aspects e.g. intrinsic value and memory of past experiences. Most recently, the research focus shifted from generating a mere physical product with social activity, towards placemaking as an empowering process. Empowerment relates to the ability of individuals to have the confidence to inform personal or environmental change. Confidence regarding placemaking is only possible when skills are learned, shared, understood and practised in terms of the representation and management of a setting. This new perspective in placemaking theory in which placemaking is suggested as an enabling tool is a valuable concept for linking planning theory and practice.