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How participatory placemaking can help URBACT Local Groups to develop urban actions for public spaces in our cities

Edited on

17 October 2019
Read time: 5 minutes

More and more citizens, practitioners, politicians and city officials realise the importance of public spaces in our cities. These spaces are often described as the arteries and lungs of our cities. If these spaces are well used by a diverse population,it is evidence of the vibrancy of the city. How can we inspire the best use and improvement of public spaces in our cities? What roles can citizens play and are we dependent on ?good design? for quality spaces? During the recent transnational meeting of theCome In! Transfer Network held in Budapest in May 2019, partner cities participated in a masterclass on participatory placemaking, with a view to gain insight into the placemaking approach to activate and animate spaces in their cities. This article reflectson the inputs and discussions.

What is participatory placemaking?

Over the past 50 years a citizen-led process of shaping and activating public spaces have grown from well publicised incidents and events in New York City in the early 1960’s to a movement of placemaking activities in almost every city and town, especially in Europe.

The essence of participatory placemaking is actions at a hyperlocal level e.g. where citizens focus on a street, park, public square or open space in their neighbourhood. It is not simply another variant of urban design. The design and planning professions often prefer to use the term ‘place making’, but with an understanding that it is a statement of the desired outcome of their design endeavours. In ‘participatory placemaking’ however the role of experts and professionals is to support communities and local active citizens in a process of understanding the uses and potential of existing public spaces and to acknowledge the agency of citizens to make changes and improvements.

The Placemaking Europe Network agreed in Stockholm in 2018 on the following definition for participatory placemaking:

Turning spaces into places that increase the presence of people in public spaces through the participation of users, the collaboration of stakeholders and by signalling shared ownership of the common urban spheres.”


Which public spaces are appropriate for placemaking activities?

Public spaces range from the large public squares in city centres to small off-cuts or left-overs of land after the completion of buildings or new roads, to parks and beaches. It also includes our streets and pavements as well as urban natural environments such as woodlands and riverbanks.

These are not only functional spaces with specified uses for example playgrounds, public seating or bike stands, but are also the ‘undefined’ areas where people linger and connect with each other intentionally or by happenstance. The variation and intensity of the use of these spaces by people from all segments of society is an indicator of the wellbeing of cities.

The challenge is to make public spaces into places which people enjoy using on a regular basis and with a range of activities and amenity that enhance the quality of life in a neighbourhood. This is the mission of placemaking and of the people who initiate actions to bring spaces to their full potential.

This often involves a contestation of what are appropriate uses of public spaces or more to the point, what freedoms people should have to use public spaces. It challenges the notion that bureaucracy or design professionals know best for the area and spaces. It requires a level of active citizenship which seeks to build partnerships with stakeholders in the interest of sustaining public spaces as urban commons and creating pacts of joint responsibility for developing and maintaining such spaces.


What role can URBACT Local Groups play to stimulate participatory placemaking?

URBACT Local Groups are in a good position to initiate participatory placemaking processes and to equip communities with the tools and knowledge to engage in placemaking.

This is the case because the emphasis on a community-led process means that besides design inputs by professionals, the art of placemaking entails several tools to facilitate community participation, social inclusion, place analysis and experimentation i.e. trying out ideas to improve a public space.

These tools include doing analysis using place observation sheets and questionnaires; demonstrating uses through public art installations or building 3D models; installing temporary uses such as changing parking spaces into parklets or situating movable chairs in open spaces; and animating spaces through community events and communal gardening.

Any placemaking activity should be evaluated with community input and if deemed effective, the resulting capacity building ensures a foundation to replicate actions elsewhere.

How do local placemakers turn a local public space into a well-used place?

There is no recipe that fits all placemaking processes, however, it is useful to follow a process with a sequencing of defined stages.

The Project for Public Spaces identified five stages to turn a space into a good public place as per the diagram. It follows a pathway that is familiar to participants in URBACT networks. It starts with activating participation of key local actors in a series of meetings, site visits and events to deepen understanding of the targeted space. It requires place leaders and promoters to set up meetings with local stakeholders to discuss their issues and hopes for the spaces in question.

As with most development processes the focus should be on analysis before pushing for ‘solutions’. The findings of the analysis should be the starting point to build a shared vision among participants. The vision for the future development and use/s of the place should then be communicated more widely to local residents and with specific target groups, which fosters inclusion and ‘shared ownership’ and ultimately builds the social capital to deliver on future actions.

Changing a space often has more wide-ranging implications than local placemakers anticipate. Especially if it means that people will have to adjust their daily routine.

Therefore, in placemaking the best actions are also reversible. The ideas for actions should follow on from the communicated vision and should preferably translate into temporary ‘cheap’ actions or installations which should be evaluated with feedback from users and stakeholders to inform adjustments or to discontinue the action. The experimenting phase also helps designers to test their ideas, for example to build a scale model proposing new features for the space and to organise workshops/charettes gaining local inputs and support.

If temporary uses or beta actions are having the desired impact in accordance with the vision, then the next step is to prepare technical long-term interventions. The process up to this point should provide adequate information on the social impacts of the project that justify costs and make the ‘business case’ to secure funding for the implementation of more permanent actions. 

What role should professional designers play in local placemaking processes?

The process should never start with a designer’s drawings proposing changes to a space. That is typically a consultation, which is usually a one-off event presented as the design’s ‘participation element’ that ends when a designer is satisfied with the feedback received.

What is more useful is if designers listen to the questions, ideas and opinions of local participants and support their process by pointing out problems with the space as well as potentials for the space during the place analysis phase. Even more crucially, designers can assist with the visualisation of the shared vision for the space (phase 3 in the PPS diagram). The visualisation could include presenting local placemakers with a number of options best communicated with different drawings of the future design and uses of the space that will help stakeholders to agree on a vision.

Once a vision is agreed and practical interventions/changes to the space are being considered, the technical and creative knowledge and skills of professional designers can be of great value to ensure the success of a placemaking project. The project’s place leaders should approach key stakeholders to assist with funding to contract designers. 

How do we know what makes a great place?

The Project for Public Spaces developed the Place Diagram (see below) as a tool to assess places and thus to help with place analysis and to use indicators that helps with the identification of gaps and opportunities for improvement. The Place Diagram starts from an idealised result namely all the features and activities that make a public space a great place. This allows an understanding of what aspects to look for during the place analysis stage and to formulate specific questions which can be answered through place observations.

The diagram shows four key attributes that are applicable to all public spaces namely its sociability; its uses & activities; the comfort & image of the place; and access & linkages to the place. To measure each attribute the diagram shows a set of indicators in the outer ring. For example, in the case of access & linkages, traffic data (e.g. number of cars going through or around the public space per hour over a 24 hour cycle); transport modal splits (e.g. the percentage of space users who travel to the space as motorists vs cyclists vs train commuters vs walkers vs e-scooteristas); public transport availability and usage (e.g. the number of bus routes and bus stops as well as train/tram/metro routes and stops that are within a 5 minute walk from the public space); pedestrian activity (e.g. counts of the number of people walking into the public space at what hour of the day on different days of the week); and parking usage patterns (e.g. the number of parking spaces for cars and bicycles within a 5 minute walk from the public space and the frequency of use at different hours of the day and night). If you are able to collect all the data described with these indicators, you will be able to make an evidence-based analysis of the key attribute of access & linkages to the targeted public space.

It might not be practical to get sources for all the data required to measure and analyse the public space according to the indicators stated in the place diagram. It is possible to also use what is called the ‘intangibles’ in the diagram, that are descriptors of the experiences and perceptions of users of the public space, to describe the key attributes.

It is thus possible to create a questionnaire which placemakers can use to reengage with users on site and record their perceptions and experiences while making observations of the physical qualities and functions of the space. A few URBACT projects developed such a questionnaire based on the Place Diagram. It became a tool used in the Placemaking4Cities Project and the City Centre Doctor Project.

Here are some of the key questions to ask:


- Is this a place where you would choose to meet your friends?
Do people make eye contact with each other in this space?
Do people use the place regularly and by choice?

Uses & Activities

- Are people using the space? Are there different types of activities occurring?
Are there choices of things to do? Is it used by people of different ages?
Which parts of the space are used, and which are not?

Comfort & Image

- Does the place make a good first impression? Are people taking pictures?
- Are there enough places to sit and are seats conveniently located?
Are spaces clean and free of litter? Does the area feel safe?

Access & Linkages

- Can people easily walk to the place?
Is there a good connection between the space and the adjacent buildings? Are there obstructions?
Does the space function for people with special needs?

To conclude, what are the guiding principles for a good placemaking project?

1. Community and citizen participation are essential from the start to the end of the process.
2. Design should support the community-led place analysis and ideas generation and should play a key role in the visualisation of the vision for the public space targeted.
3. Place analysis should be evidence-based, and the Place Diagram will lead placemakers to identify appropriate indicators and data sources.
4. Observations of the use of the target public space over several days and at different times is critical to get a sense of the actual use and blockages.
5. Always create momentum with lighter, quicker, cheaper actions (beta) that allow for experimentation.
6. Evaluate beta actions to learn what works and what should be stopped usually no later than 6 months after implementation. To learn what is not working is as valuable as to discover what works well. 
7. Funding is not the issue. Demonstrating actions (beta) that are workable and that have a positive social impact will in most cases provide the content for a successful funding proposal.
8. Continue to learn and steal ideas from other cities and other placemakers.
​​​​​​​The placemaking project never stops…


By Wessel Bandenhorst