Building Communities Through Placemaking

st-albansPlacemaking can be defined as a collaborative process of creating environments that people are attracted to, and have ownership of. But what happens if the community doesn’t have the capacity (ability, time and/or interest), to get involved in the first place?

There are many reasons why community members don’t get involved in workshops, surveys or other formal engagement methods, and very rarely is it because they don’t care. More often it can be a lack of belief or trust in the process, or even quite simply being unable to make it to an event due to other commitments. In other cases it’s because they feel that they do not benefit from the involvement. It’s the big question we ask when we organise placemaking activities ‘what’s in it for them?’.

Our placemaking approach is based on the belief that places must be considered holistically. That is, we cannot separate the physical and economic from the social and cultural; the hard infrastructure from the soft; planning and design from community development, capacity building and programs. We believe that those projects that aim for successful developments as well as engaged communities are ones where this approach is taken.

Interestingly the most innovative examples are those where there has been explicit social focus. The Kapit-bahayan Cooperative in Canley Vale, New South Wales is a community led, Department of Housing facilitated housing project. This place-based community capacity building project utilised the culturally specific requirements of the Filipino community to design and build community housing that in turn provides not only homes but also programs where the co-op members participate in community development activities and learn financial and management skills as part of living there.

The Kensington housing project in Victoria, a re-development of an existing public housing estate, was cut off from the greater community and plagued by the effects of drugs and petty crime. The re-development has physically pulled down fences and re connected the estate with the urban street grid, whilst mixing private owners with social housing tenants. The process of creating a sense of involvement through community engagement helped steer the project development and has resulted in better integration with the local community and shared use of the public realm.

So what can we learn from successful projects such as these? Firstly and most importantly, the earlier the end users are involved in the process the better and that involvement needs to have real benefits and outcomes. Secondly, its important to find out how and when people want to get involved as well as what may be hindering them from participating. In this case ‘access’ isn’t just about transport but also about the psychological and economic aspects. That is – will people feel welcome or comfortable in the proposed activity (where is it located? is it too formal?) or will coming to the activity cause them to lose income from not working? would they need to get a sitter to look after children in the evening?

Human beings as individuals are complex but building communities and their capacity for involvement in new developments is even more challenging. Placemaking provides the opportunity for people to get involved in something everyone can inherently understand – their local public spaces and what they want to make them better for them. Its an easy and understandable starting point for community capacity building.

(image: St Albans, the community uses the public space as an extension of their living rooms, a place to meet and exchange news.)