Placemaking for Peacemaking

Posted on:

This is the third in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

Rony Jalkh: Placemaking for Peacemaking

As part of a panel discussion on strategies to go beyond Habitat III at the Placemaking Leadership Forum (Vancouver, BC. September 14-16, 2016), Rony Jalkh shared his work on Placemaking for Peacemaking, a two-way process for intervening, activating and improving public spaces as a way to promote inclusion and interaction in socially fragmented cities, particularly with immigrant and refugee communities.

We had the chance to chat with Rony before his session to get a glimpse on his approach to placemaking and ways to promote civic engagement in marginalized neighbourhoods.

What is placemaking for you?

To me, it’s about making place with the people, for the people. And it’s for all the people. I started working in Beirut. The project was about promoting placemaking because it’s not something known in Lebanon. We don’t have the culture of public spaces and we don’t have the culture of a participatory approach. In Lebanon we have a proverb that says “kill two birds with one stone.” This means that I want to make placemaking for two reasons: I want to tell people that they have the right to have public spaces and to claim them. But also I want to tell municipalities that people must participate in these projects.

Who would be the mediator in this process of placemaking for peacemaking?

We have to find someone who can be the link between community and municipalities. Someone who can play this role, someone who is dynamic and a catalyst. I believe universities can help. University students are young, dynamic, open and capable to play the linking role between the community and municipal authorities.

What has been your experience working with university students as mediators?

I started by providing workshops at universities. I implemented a pilot project at the American University of Beirut. I took placemaking because to me it’s a flexible process, we can always adapt it to local contexts. So I prepared a syllabus and I taught these courses for free. I wanted to test what I prepared to connect students to the community. Timing was good because we had municipal elections in Lebanon and the municipality was open to new ideas.

What challenges did you experience working on this project?

It was not easy because the students have never been to these communities. The students came from middle- to upper-income Lebanese families. I focused my work on marginalised neighbourhoods, mostly in the suburbs. Some of these neighbourhoods had immigrant populations (predominantly from Syria). The cultural shock experienced by students helped us screen their level of commitment to the project.

How did you bring students closer to the reality of residents in marginalized communities?

I included anything related to communications as part of the syllabus of the courses that I organized. The students often did not speak Arabic because they came from upper class families.

We also implemented a listening process among students. We explained to them how to ask questions in Arabic and introduced them to the cultural reality of these communities. For instance, we explained to students that it’s not enough to speak the language, they need to understand the slang and be sensitive to these nuances so that they can come closer to their reality. We worked a lot on communication skills. We also helped students learn how to negotiate the design and co-creation process with the community and told them that every opinion counts. I gave them an example. I said “You are architects. When you graduate you will build a house for your clients. So you will prepare the design and you will have to negotiate with your clients the number of floors. For public spaces the client is the people. You cannot build public spaces without negotiation. The community is your client. You must make something that is feasible, tangible and accessible for everyone.”

What was the scale of this project?

During three months we worked on 21 designs prepared by 21 students for different locations in Beirut. We are talking about small spaces because publicly accessible land is scarce in Lebanon. These are little land pockets where we could plant a tree to make people come. We worked under the idea that public spaces must remain open anytime and for everyone.

How can we use placemaking to bring peace in fragmented communities?

Placemaking is about connecting people in a space. And peacemaking is also about connecting people to each other. And for me peacemaking cannot succeed if it is not in a concrete place. It means we have to bring people together but how, where? So, the place should be a tool to bring peace. Placemaking for peacemaking is an approach, they reinforce each other. Placemaking is a participative approach. When you let people participate, the participation will bring trust and when you build trust you can have peace. So if I work with you, we will have to trust each other. If we make peace together, we will be more encouraged to work together.

But how do you engage people to work together?

Trust. In Beirut we learned that when we co-create neighbourhoods you don’t bring contractors, you work with the community. I asked students to identify skilled people within the community: carpenters, construction workers, plumbers, and so on. We invited students to work together with these people and friendships were made. These interactions facilitated teamwork.

While working with Syrian communities in Beirut, I explained to them that if they wish to be accepted they need to contribute to city co-creation. We saw Syrian and Lebanese residents working together in creating public spaces.  I’m not saying this is magic but if the public space is a place where we all wish to come, we could begin by building peace through the public space. If we have playgrounds for Lebanese and Syrian children we can facilitate interaction and parents might begin talking to each other.

Once I worked on a tree-planting project in a marginalized neighbourhood in Beirut. We designed the streets and we told residents “This is your tree and it’s up to you to take care of it. Tomorrow we will plant it, please be ready to help us.” It was the residents and not volunteers who were involved. Ten years later, I observed that trees grew and provided shade to residents. Working with communities takes time and requires patience. Trees, like communities, do not grow up in one day, they are the result of patience.

Rony will be joining us as part of The City as a Commons, a series of conversations in Canada with international innovators who are advancing transformative change in participatory city building and thinking. He will be giving talks open to the public (RSVP required) in Montreal on March 20 and 24; and in Toronto on March 27.

About Rony Jalkh

With nearly 16 years of experience working with UN-Habitat and other international organizations, Rony has extensive knowledge managing and monitoring projects relating to governance, civil society and working with the public sector. As an activist and practitioner of Placemaking, he provides lectures and workshops throughout Lebanon and abroad. As a senior fellow at the Project for Public Spaces, Rony is currently leading research on “Placemaking for Peacemaking” with the objective of creating placemaking resources and tools to promote urban equity and inclusion.

Digital technology as one pathway to social inclusion in placemaking

Posted on:

As part of the Placemaking Leadership Forum in Vancouver, we had the opportunity to attend several breakout sessions on approaches to placemaking. One session that has stood out so far centred on Digital Placemaking - defined in the program as learning how to build in and wisely use technology in authentic ways that reinforce the place-based and community-centered approaches inherent to placemaking.

Moderator: Daniel Latorre, PPS, Digital Placemaking Institute (New York, NY)

Panelists: Cath Carver, Colour Your City (London, UK); Glenn Harding, UrbanScreens (Melbourne, Australia); Karen Quinn Fung, Vancouver Public Space Network (Vancouver, BC); Teeko Yang, Northern Spark (Minneapolis, MN); Yuri Aritbase, Strong Towns (Vancouver, BC)

While integrating digital technologies into our practices of placemaking was the focus of the discussion, themes like bridging online and place-based communities; thinking holistically about the environmental impacts of digital technologies; and the issue of who gets to tell and receive stories through digital technologies, brought up questions about how we can thoughtfully refine our concept of placemaking as new tools and technologies inform our practice.

In this blogpost, we summarize and reflect on three of the five excellent speakers whose work was thematically linked through explorations of the tension/synergy between the physical and digital communities that comprise placemaking.

cityscape

It was wonderful to hear from a Vancouverite, Karen Quinn Fung, who has experience working deeply in Vancouver's neighbourhoods through the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) and other groups. The VPSN is a citizen-led grassroots organization working in many facets of urban life in Vancouver, from open space design to ownership of and access to place - hugely important issues especially in cities with income inequality and the accompanying social and economic exclusion from place. They also work to bring to light the social use of public spaces - in fact, they were one of the organizers of this week's Placemaking Leadership Forum, putting together a fantastic #POPCrawl (Power of Place Crawl) to encourage participants to discover some of downtown Vancouver's underappreciated public spaces.

Karen raised thought-provoking questions around the ways in which we use digital tools and technologies to augment public participation, and the need to be conscious of different populations' comfort and trust of these technologies, especially with concerns about ownership of data. This was timely given all the praise and critiques of Pokemon Go, the location-based augmented reality game designed for mobile phones, and how it enhances or detracts from our experiences in public space. Karen also addressed an important question about the environmental impact of the manufacturing, use, and disposal of digital technologies. As a placemaker, she aligns with a "fixer" (rather than strictly "maker") state of mind, which involves a cultural shift towards understanding how things work and fixing/adapting/improving them; in other words, a shift away from planned obsolescence (something that moderator Dan Latorre also honed in on).

vpsn1

Image from the Vancouver Public Space Network

Cath Carver presented a unique approach to expressing values and personal connections to place through colour. Why colour as a means of participating in placemaking? According to Colour Your City, "Colour impacts everything we do. It is a very powerful tool of language, expression, communication and connection. Everyone 'gets' colour, making it an accessible and potent tool." The idea that colour is something everyone can relate to and thus can use to ascribe meanings, values, and aspirations onto public spaces resonated with us, especially in light of concerns about "non-places" - places that are difficult to connect with due to their absence of rootedness in a particular community.

Cath's presentation brought about a few questions for us: How can we, as placemakers, use colour as an entry point to engage individuals to shape public space, particularly those whom 'traditional' public engagement does not reach? Who communicates the stories that inform public space design? How can we broaden the methods by which those stories are communicated so that more can be heard and thus included in the design and programming of spaces?

colour-2

Image from Colour Your City

Teeko Yang's work on the Minneapolis-St Paul based Northern Lights, a  a nonprofit arts organization working to transform our sense of what’s possible in public space, touched upon these questions as well. One of their main initiatives is Northern Spark, a "free, annual, dusk-to-dawn, multidisciplinary arts festival that takes place on the second Saturday of June in the Twin Cities and draws tens of thousands of Minnesotans each year". Like colour, light projections have a wonderful capacity to reach everyone who passes through or stops to dwell in a public space. Teeko explained that one of their core principles is not leaving anyone behind, which is a serious concern, especially in communities comprised of diverse migrant populations. Hearing Teeko's emphasis on not taking places away from people to make them more appealing to others was an important reminder as we increasingly work creatively to fuse the digital with the physical in the dynamic process of placemaking.

northern-spark

Image from Twin Cities / Northern Lights

From all these thoughts, ideas, and questions, we can conclude that digital placemaking must begin from listening to how people understand and use a particular place, then humanizing technology to enable these multiple feelings, stories, and connections to be surfaced and communicated. This begins with acknowledging basic human instincts and desires, like curiosity, status, and search for meaning. Often for people to feel belonging in a spaces, those spaces must provoke an interest in newness in tandem with satisfying our intrinsic need for rootedness/connection/comfort. Our understanding from this rich session is that digital placemaking is a process that can either increase inclusion in placemaking, or push people away from places to which they no longer feel connection. We hope these open-ended conversations around the evolution of placemaking will continue.

Placemaking Leadership Forum LIVESTREAM

Posted on:

From September 15-17, 2016, watch a LIVESTREAM of the Placemaking Leadership Forum, taking place in Vancouver, organized by New York City-based Project for Public Spaces.

This is a hugely important gathering of practitioners around the world to chart the futures of placemaking - as we look ahead to global gatherings around cities and sustainable development, including Habitat III in Quito, and the 22nd annual Conference of the Parties in Marrakech.

As founder Fred Kent put it, this is not a conference - this is a campaign to broaden our conceptions of public space planning to include the myriad ways in which we interact with the city - what we give, and what we get back from the places that constitute our cities. We have to think beyond the individual elements of what is traditionally known as public space - benches, fountains, signs - and move onto a feeling: how do we want to be in a place? How does place affect our mood? How does it shape our interactions with others, our broader connection to our city?

We will be sharing short blogposts with our thoughts, ideas, and questions around some of the themes that are discussed during the Forum - stay stuned!

What is placemaking?

Posted on:

This article was originally written for the McConnell Foundation blog by Alex Gillis.

Ten years ago, if you walked along sections of the Toronto ravine system that follow the Don Valley, you’d have likely noticed an abandoned, 100-year-old brickworks, surrounded by an expanse of tangled brush and marshland. Today, thanks to the creative vision of the Evergreen Foundation, the support of three levels of government, and a host of public and private donors,  this long-neglected 40 acres has been transformed into a thriving community asset, replete with yes, brush and marshland, but also children’s gardens, hiking trails, a brick works transformed into gallery and conference space, a farmers’ market, outdoor classrooms, a LEED platinum-certified office complex, workshops, and a restaurant. Evergreen Brick Works is today a global showcase for ‘placemaking.’

With Vancouver hosting Placemaking Week, September 12 to 17, and numerous other activities and projects underway, the placemaking movement has never been more prominent in Canada.

Tiffany Commons

“Brick Works is a living laboratory now, an example of a large-scale public space that re-connects people to a civic asset that was underutilized,” says Robert Plitt, executive director of Evergreen’s CityWorks. Plitt has been involved in placemaking initiatives with Evergreen and Artscape for about 20 years, and helped to create Evergreen Brick Works along with hundreds of others who worked to realize a vision that made this place beautiful, useful and meaningful.

‘Placemaking begins with citizens working together to improve their local environment. More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution. This inclusive process emphasizes the collaborative ‘making’ that builds local capacity and leadership to empower communities.’
– Co*Lab and Project for Public Spaces

Placemaking is about reimagining and repurposing buildings and spaces whose original purpose has become redundant or obsolete. The term was coined about 40 years ago by Fred Kent, founder of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS),  a New York-based nonprofit organization. Now it is coming into vogue in cities across the US and around the world. ‘Placemaking’ sounds elementary, but the making part involves high levels of civic engagement and social innovation, and the places themselves generate surprise and delight.

Placemaking is about public spaces. “It can be privately owned, but the place is accessible to anyone,” says Mary W. Rowe, Senior Fellow with both Evergreen and PPS. She also worked with Jane Jacobs, who wrote the influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which helped to create the concept of placemaking. “Part of what you’re seeing today is a broader definition of ‘shared space,’” Rowe explains. “As a city becomes more and more privatized – private housing, private clubs, private commercial activity – there’s a push to claim back aspects of the city that were once shared and publicly owned. You see that along waterfronts, on streets and with institutions that open their doors to the public.”

You also see it in Montreal. In winter, Village au Pied-du-Courant is a site for dumping snow near a six-lane boulevard. For five months in the summer, however, it transforms into a village beach and boardwalk used by 100,000 people for concerts, family events, festivals or simply relaxing, thanks to tons of sand and a contingent of community volunteers.

Public spaces like these encourage healthy, mixed-use, culturally diverse neighbourhoods and can sometimes raise larger issues, changing city policies and budgets along the way. “In these grassroots movements, people actually have the chance to change their alleyways, vacant lots and neighbourhoods, but also to make requests to the city to change big things and urbanism itself,” says Maxim Bragoli, co-founder of Pépinière & Co., which has helped to create Village au Pied-du-Courant and other placemaking initiatives.

Pavillions

At its core, placemaking proposes processes and partnerships that empower communities. As Evergreen’s Plitt puts it, “How do we create equitable, creative partnerships that, in the end, contribute to health and equity and that empower citizens to be involved?”

placemakingA recent report, “Canadian Placemaking: Overview and Action,” by Halifax-based Co*Lab, nails down this idea.  Citizens become more involved in their communities, guiding professionals and municipalities to make sure that places are affordable, equitable and vibrant.

The environment is another critical part of placemaking. Transportation and housing are created to be sustainable – to decrease carbon emissions, to create green spaces, to increase access to bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly spots and anything that makes a place healthy for people and the environment. Sophia Horwitz of Co*Lab  mentions a number of such green placemakers in Nova Scotia: Morris House (a 250 year-old wooden house that was saved from destruction and turned into a community project for youth);  Common Roots Urban Farm (a community garden and park in Halifax);  and a series of annual placemaking projects support by the city and community groups in various neighbourhoods in Halifax.

“We’re seeing placemaking pop up in new venues,” says Mary Rowe of PPS, which is organizing Placemaking Week in Vancouver, September 12-17. “We see it with the re-claiming of streets. Around the world, we’re using our streets in more imaginative ways. And our waterfronts, too. And many large institutions want to transform as well. They want to knock down the walls and be more accessible.”  The convening will focus on Canada’s place in the emerging global map of the future of the placemaking.

 

Recipients of placemaking grants from The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation include Co*Lab in Halifax; Evergreen Brick Works; Artscape in Vancouver and Toronto; and Pépinière & Co. and Ateliers créatifs in Montreal.