Detroit days

Its taken a while to write this, as Detroit gave me so much to think on, but here it is, a blog on my time in Detroit last month at the Placemaking Leadership Council: Detroit was host to 300 placemakers from ten countries this April with the inaugural meeting of the Placemaking Leadership Council (PLC), an initiative formed by Project for Public Spaces (PPS). A diversity of practice and process was brought together over three days of key note speakers, workshops and project visits, with an overarching aim to knowledge exchange and to both consolidate and strengthen placemaking as a community of practice and global movement.

Detroit was chosen as the host for this first meeting for the thought-provoking setting it offered the subject matter and the fact that it is, from the grassroots and from top down, using placemaking as a strategy for its revitalisation. Delegates got to see and talk to those involved at the grassroots of Detroit place revitalisations such as downtown Detroit’s storefront ‘welcome centre’, D:Hive and the volunteer group Belle Isle Conservancy, that saved and now manages the city aquarium, with a visit to the infamous Heidelberg Project amongst others.

In creating the PLC, it is PPS’s founder, Fred Kent’s mission to bring ‘the do-ers and deep thinkers’ together, people he called ‘zealous nuts’. This term was given in jest but meant in earnest: Fred sees placemaking as the reserve of the most passionate and a threat to those outside of its practice, led by ‘visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them’. The PLC is about bringing people together that understand and are active in transforming the urban realm through placemaking, as well as setting an agenda for change and policy and research. Fred also understood that placemaking is viewed by those in the urban sector as a credible mechanism to creating a sense of place, this sense based on economics, social fabric and health and the one overarching practice that can ‘help us grapple with the complex challenges we face in a globalised society’.

From this scene-setting, the action demanded of the PLC meeting in Detroit was to shape a five-year placemaking campaign to position placemaking as strategic practice. The PLC is part of that strategy itself, aiming to create a community of placemaking leaders to advance the placemaking movement  and to grow the isolated impact of placemaking into a collective impact. Five conditions of this collective success were advanced; a common agenda; shared measurement systems; mutually reinforcing activities; continuous communication; and for PPS to form a backbone of support to other placemaking organisations.

The definition of placemaking given at the start of the meeting was one advanced by Gadwa: ‘public, private and not-for-profit and community sectors partner to strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighbourhood town, city or region around arts and cultural activities’. Delegates were also formed into groups along themes, the delineation of which gave insight into the understanding of placemaking from the PPS perspective: ‘building community through transportation’; ‘creating multi-use public destinations’; ‘entrepreneurial places’; ‘place capital’; ‘architecture of place’; ‘place governance’; and ‘healthy communities’. PPS’s placemaking model of ‘Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper’ (LQC) was also referenced by speakers and projects showcased in the conference timetable. LQC is an approach to placemaking that is ‘lower risk and lower cost’ and that capitalises ‘on the creative energy of the community to efficiently generate new uses and revenue for places in transition’.

There was much talk of ‘arts as entertainment’ as placemaking and the revenue benefits this can bring. Placemaking that used the arts as a mechanism in regeneration projects were shown where big name artists were brought into an area to work on specific projects; whilst these projects achieved their own success, many were left questioning where the self-determining community was in this. Community participation was lauded as a, if not the, key component in successful placemaking, but the community’s articulation of need in these examples seemed missing. The ‘arts as regeneration’ practice has become its own trope, its own brand, for the economic bottom line but this overtly commercial focus was at odds with what many identified as their own placemaking practice.

An additional thematic group self-formed and demanded its own place in the agenda to talk of a creative placemaking practice that is focused on grassroots, iterative and marginalised placemaking activities, a triangulation of artists, the community and place in co-production and for social gain. This was where the power of arts as a social and placemaking process was most evident, a placemaking that does not commoditise art or have fiscally-orientated aims, where an increase in land, rental or retail value is not the start or end point of activity. Members of this group used arts and empowerment to transform place for and with communities in a collaborative creative process. A quote from Margaret Mead had also been given in the conference scene setting, which in essence, felt closer to what this group was active in: ‘Never forget that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has’.

This grassroots creative placemaking was seen in Detroit. Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation and pump-primers of much of the city’s rejuvenation, stated that Detroit, like any other city, needs to both ‘absorb and adapt’ to succeed as well as retain ‘city cultural integrity’ and placemaking is seen as the tactic to achieve this with. Rip stated that there are 4000 artists in Detroit that are progressing the city’s revitalisation and contributing to its new thinking. He saw placemaking best kept as a community vision, with the arts fully integrated with a broad array of urban practitioners, to have benefits along political, cultural and social lines.

If this reporting gives the impression that the meeting was divisive it is not meant to; what this debate focused minds on was the question of what placemaking is and whom it is for. As a global movement, common language and practice needs to be found and communicated but the nuances of placemaking practice across culture and social and geographical context cannot be lost in this pursuit. It is in fact to placemaking’s strength that it is so adaptable to diverse situations. Whilst a prêt-à-porter approach will work in some situations and times and not in others, delegates actively searched for the commonalties between their work.

The next PLC meeting will be held in Stockholm in June at the Future of Places conference where the agendas for a global placemaking movement, as formed by the working groups in Detroit and developed by PPS with further research, will be presented back to the group. With a perhaps more European delegate demographic enabled by its Swedish hosting, how will this community react to and progress the agendas created in the Stateside setting? What definitions of placemaking will emerge from this meeting and how will the formation of a global placemaking movement progress? The PLC meeting represents a step change in placemaking practice and a meaningful first step in creating a truly global movement. From the wealth and depth of experience of PPS was added the diverse placemaking of the PLC, practices of all sizes, scales, contexts, aims and outcomes. Definitions of placemaking were played with, deconstructed and reformed. Processes were shared, practices extended. Placemaking as a global movement felt tangible and within our grasp.

Fred Kent’s report on the PLC meeting can be found here.