Digital Placemaking

5 of the world’s most creative placemaking projects

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Almost half of the global population – that’s about 3.5 billion of us – live in cities. These cityscapes have grown organically, over hundreds of years, with little consideration for the well-being of those living in them. They’ve been designed for the quantity of dwellers, rather than the quality of dwellings and their surroundings.

The last few decades have seen local and national communities and organisations try to take back control of their surroundings. It’s done through the collaborative and inspiring concept of placemaking – an effort to strengthen the connection between people and the places they share, through the reimagination and reinvention of their communal spaces.

We’ve talked about digital placemaking before, but as placemaking is a concept that both predates and transcends digital technology, we thought we’d take a look at some of our favourite placemaking projects from around the globe. Some are so simple they require nothing more than a little inspiration and a lot of paint…

‘Yes!’ – DUMBO, New York City

Despite the name, our first example has nothing to do with flying elephants. Instead, it pays homage to the power of cephalopods and positivity. DUMBO (short for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, which was once a manufacturing district (and birthplace of the cardboard box), but is now a centre for NYC artists and tech start-ups.

Like many urban environments, DUMBO is home to some unedifying concrete underpasses, which can become negative, unsafe spaces. Enter two eighty-foot-long murals featuring a fierce-looking octopus with tentacles that spell out the word ‘Yes!’ in fifteen-foot-high letters.

Yes! mural at Jay Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn| Art in DUMBO via Facebook

‘Yes!’ was created by design firm Sagmeister & Walsh in collaboration with Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu. The vibrancy, simplicity and positivity of the mural have transformed the underpass from a sketchy area best avoided, into an iconic statement reflecting the positive vibe of the DUMBO residents. It has also become a symbol of love, attracting New Yorkers looking for the perfect backdrop for their wedding or engagement photo shoots.

‘Home & Away’ – Hastings, Vancouver

Like ‘Yes!’, our next example aims to create an iconic landmark through a piece of public art. It will form part of a much larger piece of placemaking in Vancouver’s second largest park, transforming it into “a greener, year-round destination for park use, culture, sport, recreation, and fun.”

Fun is clearly the aim of the ‘Home & Away’ art installation. Designed by Lead Pencil Studio, ‘Home & Away’ offers a slice of the sports-stadium experience, overlooking the Hastings playing fields.

The colourful installation will be 14 metres high and 29 metres long, offering seating for 200 people – and will also feature a tube slide, for those who want to make a quick exit. The design echoes the Empire Stadium (location of the 1954 Commonwealth Games) which used to stand in Hastings Park, while offering great views of the redeveloped space.

Although costly (over C$400,000), the hope is that the installation will bring more visitors to the park and will lead to greater use of the playing fields, as well as encouraging local people to connect with community sports teams that play at the facilities.

Renew Newcastle – Newcastle, New South Wales

Well-organised placemaking can put the power for positive change in the hands of the community – one great example being the Renew Newcastle project in the Australian city of Newcastle, New South Wales.

In common with many large cities, parts of Newcastle, particularly in the Central Business District (CBD) had fallen into a spiral of urban degradation. Unkempt empty retail and business properties became a blight on the streets, which put off visitors to the area, which in turn drove away more businesses.

The Renew Newcastle project is billed as a DIY urban renewal scheme. Backed by funding from local government and business partners, the project pays landlords of empty buildings (be they between tenants or awaiting redevelopment) a nominal amount of rent to manage the short-term use of the buildings.

Renew Newcastle then brings in local volunteers to carry out basic maintenance on the properties (a good clean, a lick of paint and fixing broken windows), before handing them over to people and groups looking for cultural, creative and community spaces.

Property Owners of Newcastle: WE WANT YOU! from Renew Newcastle on Vimeo.

In this way, Renew Newcastle has brought colour, interest, and most importantly people back to these areas. Short term tenants have ranged from galleries and book binding bars to photographic studios and digital art projects. The area also provides rehearsal space for the Newcastle Youth Orchestra, and has housed both the Newcastle Writers Festival and the 2009 Newcastle International Animation Festival.

The Renew Newcastle project has been so successful that it has led to Renew Australia, looking to expand the model to other urban areas across the continent.

St Pauls’ Carnival/Seven Saints of St Paul’s – Bristol

For our final two placemakers, we’re picking examples close to our hearts – and our doorsteps, here in Bristol. The first is the St Paul’s Carnival. This celebration of Caribbean culture and diversity in one of Bristol’s most colourful areas was first held in 1968. The carnival has been on hiatus for a few years but is looking to come back with a bang for its fiftieth anniversary in 2018.

Image Credit: St Paul’s Carnival 2011 | Charlie Marshall on Flickr – CC BY 2.0

Despite the break, the spirit of the carnival lives on in other projects celebrating the multicultural heritage of the St Paul’s area – one of which is The Seven Saints of St Paul’s. The brainchild of local artist Michele Curtis, the Seven Saints project aims to paint murals honouring seven key people who shaped Bristol’s black community, including those who helped create the St Paul’s Carnival and others who campaigned for equality in 1960s Bristol.

The first of the murals, which will line the route of the Carnival in time for its 2018 relaunch, was completed in December 2016. Prominent Bristol civil rights campaigner Dr Paul Stephenson OBE said the Seven Saints “will serve as a reminder to the next generation of the contribution the past generation has made”. We can think of no better example of the power of placemaking to build a sense of shared community heritage.

Playable City – Bristol

While most of our examples are hyper-local, our last embraces a city (or rather, many cities). A term coined by Bristol media and arts venue Watershed, ‘Playable City’ has come to encapsulate a wide range of initiatives across the globe. They all share a vision of finding new ways of connecting city-dwellers – both with each other and with the urban environments in which they live – through the medium of play.

Here in Bristol, the intersection of environment and technology has given us Urbanimals, cute origami creatures projected onto surfaces across Bristol which reacted to the motion of passers-by. As Bristolians searched for each of the cute, interactive Urbanimals, they found themselves visiting areas of the city they had never been to before, gaining a new appreciation for their urban cityscape.

As well as the cute origami animals, Bristolians were also able to interact with street furniture. The Hello Lampost project allowed passers-by to strike up conversations with post boxes, parking meters, or even bridges, with an SMS text message. Each of the items would have a personality of its own and would draw you in by asking you about your day, telling you a secret, or even recounting a conversation with a previous passer-by, giving insights into the minds of the people around you.

Placemaking can take many forms. It can be small-scale or citywide, high-tech or lo-fi, but the one thing it always needs is a creative spark of inspiration.

Whatever the project, it’s the sense of connection, wonder and excitement which drives placemakers; bringing to life the potential of a place in a new and engaging way. That same creative spark can inspire digital placemaking, where the physical landscape does not have to limit what can be achieved.