Copyright ©2017 Our Public Places. All rights reserved.
People today are seemingly less engaged with each other in their local communities, creating tears in the social fabric of our neighborhoods. In the US, a fast-paced rise in urbanization is occurring that will impact the kind of relationships and communities that residents can nurture. Public spaces and places in urban settings are vital for fostering engagement of people in their lived communities, and maintaining social connections. Particularly valuable is the process by which public spaces become places, occurring through a process called Placemaking. A form of community engagement, Placemaking differentiates itself by focusing on a community-driven process of transforming spaces to places. However, not much is known about the process of Placemaking, specifically, how people experience the actual process. This exploratory, qualitative study utilized an ethnographic approach and multiple sources of data to understand the experiences of people during an ongoing Placemaking process in Washington, DC, the 11th Street Bridge Park project. This study finds that Placemaking is a complex process and understanding the people’s experience requires a thorough examination, from multiple perspectives, of who is involved in the process and who is the process for. When multiple groups with power – governmental, non-profit – are involved, the question of who is not involved (typically residents, due to not knowing about the project) becomes as important as who is involved.
This understanding then led to the question of who this Bridge Park is actually for: residents? tourists? business owners? real estate investors? A larger theme that emerged from the data, and is relevant to any kind of Placemaking project was, what is really going on? during this process. Even within the affected communities, conflict among residents belies a simplistic analysis. This study demonstrates the importance of a critical understanding of the history of spaces and places, and, even more fundamentally, the necessity of knowing who has (and has had) stakes in spaces and places. Without this socio-political and historical context, any effort to understand the experience of a Placemaking process will fall short.