New York-based Ethan Kent has a unique overarching viewpoint of the global placemaking movement, and he says that Australia is at the forefront of the placemaking conversation, but things could be better.
Kent heads up a network of placemaking leaders called Placemaking X, which is all about “helping tell the story of placemaking.” He’s also senior fellow of Project for Public Spaces.
He spoke at Place Leaders Asia Pacific symposium in Canberra last week, which explored the role of data in placemaking and how to balance its shortcomings with its ability to deliver insights and measure the satisfaction, experiences and behaviours of people in place.
Australia’s leadership in placemaking, he says lead by work driven by councils, consultants, developers and design professionals.
But what Australia lacks, says Kent, is “grassroots-driven and organic” placemaking. The US is the opposite, with community-led placemaking initiatives the norm. He says both countries can learn from each other’s strengths.
Kent says Australia has made much of the same planning mistakes as the US but has often been quicker to “admit it” and move onto better models.
Placemaking the new environmentalism
Despite its relatively recent infiltration into the everyday design vernacular, the term “placemaking” emerged in the mid 90s, and the movement’s underpinning research dates back even further.
For Kent, placemaking recognises that successful urban development is anchored around important public places such as parks and markets and libraries, and that the best places give communities autonomy to shape them in the way they seem fit.
Multidisciplinary by definition, Kent says placemaking “brings together many causes and interests to address our biggest challenge to leverage and connect resources.”
As such, he believes “placemaking is the new environmentalism.”
From liveability to lovability
The goal of placemaking is to build the capacity of communities to lead change, Kent told The Fifth Estate in an interview after the event.
“It’s about answering the ongoing design question of how do we best design for the public realm?”
For this it’s important that the field remain multifaceted and not dominated by any one discipline.
Data has played a key role in council decision making for some time but Kent says it’s time to level up.
At the event in Canberra, there was a healthy discussion about how to “measure what matters” to replace narrow liveability metrics for traffic flow and economic productivity.
“At the moment, there’s no measuring of place quality and the capacity for people to build their own communities.”
He says Australia scores well on many liveability indicators but “small data” offers more meaningful insights about the quality of place.
“Measuring things shouldn’t be seen as an end in itself.”
He also says there’s a “high correlation between liveability and high consumption and high costs of living, and having an extractive relationship to the planet and place.”
He says one thing that’s resonating with Australians is the concept of “lovability”, which is about creating attachment to place.
This kind of data involves simply asking people what they want.
“People love talking about places, and why they love them, and what they value.”
The event also honoured the region’s best placemaking initiatives. Winners included FORM’s Public Silo Trail, which translates local stories and heroes into artworks on iconic grain silos of seven rural towns in Western Australia.