Placemaking demystified

Placemaking is the arts buzzword of 2016 – but what is it exactly? Dr Stuart Andrews explains.

Artists have long created artworks in response to particular places and, taken together, this body of work is characterised by rich variety. Artistic engagement with place can involve practices or artworks that are temporary or more permanent. Artists may work with the natural or built environment, and they may collaborate, in differing ways, with local communities in a place. Their work may be carefully positioned or in some way mobile, passing in and between places. Artists may work within existing categories of practice, for instance, land art, walking art, or site-specific performance.

Given the variety of the work and the looseness of these terms, it can often be more productive to focus on the distinctiveness of an individual artist’s practice and to look to the particular ways in which they engage artistically with a place. Artists are not alone in wanting to create distinctive ways of engaging with a place. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs criticised mid-century approaches to city planning and called, instead, for individual, community-based projects.

Jacobs’ book has become a foundational text for emerging work on placemaking – the idea local community stakeholders collaborate to develop a place, rather than an outsider imposing grand schemes on unsuspecting inhabitants. Placemaking is particularly familiar in town and city development, although not exclusively so. It can be entirely grassroots-led or brokered by organisations, whether public or private, to reimagine places at regional or even national levels.

In the USA, Project for Public Spaces (PPS), which formed in 1975, is a non-profit organisation that ‘helps citizens transform their public spaces into vital places that highlight local assets, spur rejuvenation and serve common needs.’ As PPS recognises, placemaking is often about transforming public spaces, which may hold little significance for a community, into places with meaning and value. Placemaking is often founded upon enhancing community life, rather than physical forms, and it might be more valuable to think of it as enabling community in a place. In other words, community is the critical element and any planning projects must, at its core, positively enhance community life.

This engagement with community is also an example of user-centred or co-design, which brings together designers and users to ensure usability. The arts have become a critical constituent of placemaking practice, particularly in creative placemaking. Artists can engage in creative placemaking projects in quite specific ways.

Artscape, a Canadian not-for-profit organisation, identifies three significant modes:

  • artist relocation projects, in which artists are invited to live in an area to encourage future livability and prosperity
  • public art projects, where artworks are created in public spaces
  • community arts projects which, in the arts, are often identified as socially-engaged art.


To differing degrees, these activities offer compelling opportunities for artists. Placemaking can enable artists to live and work in a place and, thereby, contribute directly to the life of that place, while also sustaining and potentially invigorating their own arts practice. By being involved in placemaking, artists are able to contribute to new formations of place and argue for art as a critical element of such places.

There are, however, issues with placemaking for artists. While some artists may relish the opportunity to reimagine everyday places, others may prefer to maintain a distinction from the world, to create art as an alternative way of understanding everyday life.

The more that art is brought into the redevelopment of place, the more it risks being incorporated into projects in which its value as art may not be a priority.

There are also social concerns about the politics of placemaking. Where artists are invited to move into an area to enhance livability, it is likely that one effect will be to gentrify the area, to stimulate public interest and raise rents, which may mean that some inhabitants, including, potentially, the artists themselves, will not be able to continue to live in that place.

Organisations such as PPS question the connection between placemaking and gentrification, and there are certainly many complex and intertwined reasons for these effects. But, if placemaking is intended to enhance community, then it fails if members of a community are required to leave as a part of that process.

There are no universal laws or minimum thresholds of placemaking, and, as a result, there is considerable variation in practice. Private developers, for instance, are welcome to fashion their own version of placemaking and, at times, it may be difficult to tell what drives a particular placemaking project. Artists and arts organisations may need to investigate the aims and conditions of a placemaking project, in order to determine how these might affect or even compromise their work, particularly if their practice has a political dimension. They might want to guard against being involved in schemes that are framed as placemaking, but which lack a network of multiple stakeholders, including members of a community, and which obscure or distract public attention from an imposed redevelopment of an area.

If artists and organisations are to engage in placemaking, it is critical they focus on their own creative exploration of place, and on making and showing art and performance in dialogue with place and community. Placemaking that combines a short timescale with limited interest in artistic exploration is problematic, as it may attempt a quick-fix to a physical place rather than a more considered engagement.

Artistic processes that shift and grow over time and comprise multiple stages and points of intersection with place and community may lead to particularly significant reflections and responses.

The art of placemaking is a process of investigating and reflecting on what we understand about both place and art, separately and in combination. It is a process that grows richer with time and which contributes to a sense of placemaking as being forever alive and open to emerging discoveries about art, people and place.

Stuart Andrews is a lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Surrey. He researches practices of performing place, particularly in homes and at points of transition.

The full article, including a case study of The Boat Project, appears in the latest issue of IAM (Vol 12 Issue 2) available here.