By Yvette Freeman, P.U.M.A. Senior Strategist
“Placemaking” is a term commonly used in my industry, related to planning, business improvement districts (BIDs), and activating/managing public spaces. I have a strong visceral reaction to this term which I do not accept, much less embrace. Some places that have been “made” were previously occupied and used by the people that long lived in or near them. The term placemaking suggests that a business improvement district, a place manager, an urban planner, or otherwise, has initiated something, some sort of change, which constitutes the place is “made.”
There are instances where “placemaking” is actually place taking – like the fact that we occupy stolen land. Let’s be clear: consultants, planners, place managers, etc., do not “make” a place, particularly a place that has long been established and used by people that have lived in or around it for decades.
A place can be rebranded, which is often the case, remarkably in places that were “taken” or in present day reality, areas where gentrification has or is occurring. Denver’s Five Points is a historically African-American neighborhood. It is located adjacent to a previously underdeveloped area once simply referenced as Brighton Boulevard, known as a place where warehouses were located. In recent years, prior to tons of new development, the area was occupied by artists, who were eventually forced/priced out. This area is now branded the River North District, more commonly known as RiNo. There is an abundance of new housing, complemented by newer restaurants, a hotel, various businesses and a recent investment of $30 million-plus dollars from the City of Denver for new curbs, gutters, sidewalks, bike lanes, trees, and other forms of streetscaping. An unfortunate aspect is that a large portion of Five Points has now been consumed and rebranded as RiNo. People who are not familiar with Denver and its history would have no idea about the area where Black and Brown people lived and flourished – and where Black commerce was once isolated. This same practice is happening throughout the U.S.
For years, disinvestment occurred in many of today’s popular “urban” places/spaces. Black and Brown people commonly lived in these areas, completely ignored and isolated. These were places where redlining and other racist policies were endorsed and practiced. Residents that lived in these places, many with limited resources, created the place to serve their needs. In those days, white people steered clear of these areas because they were considered “unattractive” or “unsafe,” and often referenced as the “ghetto.”
Now the demographic is dramatically shifting from people of color -and often, those with limited resources- to predominantly white millennials….and increasingly, their baby boomer parents. Spaces are now designated for dog parks, the planting of new trees, the stringing of lights or the installation of banners, new murals, public seating, food trucks and festivals – all in an effort to “activate” spaces formerly considered blighted. Though admittedly I may be making some broad generalizations, the question remains: does activation or management of a place mean that the “place” has been “made?” If so, I ask: made for whom, by whom? Who gets to decide?
I challenge the idea that a place, which may have been changed or enhanced, is “made.” Consider the use of different terminology, like “place keeping.” Is there is an authentic and genuine effort to acknowledge and preserve the history and the story of a place and/or space beyond displaying a plaque or two? If streetscape elements are being added, wouldn’t “place enhancement” be a more accurate descriptor? The suggestion is for those of us in the place management and the planning industry to operate with a heightened awareness, a consciousness and mindfulness that genuinely honors and respects the place and spaces that existed long before we come along to introduce anything that changes what had -or had not- been there. Otherwise, aren’t we really just place taking, and then appropriating space under the guise of placemaking?