Sunday, July 25, 2010

Place-Making For People of Small Means

Placemaking (or place-making) can be defined as, “the process of creating squares, plazas, parks, streets and waterfronts that will attract people because they are pleasurable or interesting...Being in places involves social encounters, immersion in the sights, sounds, sun, wind and atmosphere of a locale, and curiosity about the traces of thought, imagination and investment that have guided their construction and use over time. ” (Wikipedia, Placemaking.)

Another definition is, “An integrated and transformative process that connects creative and cultural resources to build authentic, dynamic and resilient communities or place.” (Toronto Artscape, Glossary.) I like this definition much better.

One of the challenges of this present time of economic contraction is figuring out how to make the places where we live into places that sustain us on a number of levels. This involves not only trying to create places that provide some or all of the essentials we need, but also creating places that encourage and promote a sense of community.

Some writers and thinkers have addressed this challenge, notably architects and urban planners from the “New Urbanist” movement. Their assumption has been that placemaking is primarily an activity reserved for governments, developers and other large entities with lots of resources to create well-designed, resilient communities from the ground up, or to re-fashion defunct, poorly designed communities into the sorts of communities that could be called good places to live. Things like redevelopment, transit-oriented development and gentrification come to mind when discussing the re-fashioning process.

The problem is that the money and resources for such a refashioning have already been largely blown in the United States. It's as if the nation collectively went to a store with $5 in its pocket, and blew the money on candy and soda instead of beans, rice and vegetables. Some key writers and economic analysts believe that the industrialized world in general, and the United States in particular, are in the early stages of a massive deflationary depression which will destroy the ability of large-scale entities like governments to do anything on a large scale.

It will therefore be up to ordinary citizens to make good places out of the places where they live. But there's another challenge, namely, that not that many of us own our own living places outright, and even now, not many can afford to pay for a place in cash. A deflationary depression will cause a drop in prices of assets like real estate, yet it will depress wages even faster. Such a drop in wages will make it hard for people who own “on margin” (that is, who owe money on the houses they “own”) to continue making payments on their debt, and it will turn many other people into sojourners without definite roots, as many young people in college and recent college graduates are now.

How can these renters - young people in college or recently graduated, and working poor people - make sustainable places for themselves in the places they rent? How can they make their neighborhoods into sustainable places? How can they engage in good placemaking?

In an attempt to answer that question, I interviewed Neil and Naomi Montacre, proprietors of Naomi's Organic Farm Supply in inner southeast Portland, Oregon. I first met Neil and Naomi during a tour of homes with backyard chicken coops in 2008. Their house impressed me, with its large chicken coop, its varied gardens, its “Hens for Obama” sign and a poster with pictures giving a guided tour of the place and their efforts. I asked them several questions about their place, the plans and steps they had taken in altering the place, and its impact on the neighborhood. In 2009, they added a greenhouse and more garden plantings. This year, they moved to a leased property of about an acre where they set up their store, and they continued with the activities and philosophy they had developed while living in their former house. In all these things, they took bold steps with property they were renting, to make that property a place that could at least partially sustain them.

In this week's interview, Neil talks in more detail about their activities with rental properties, and his philosophy regarding making good places out of the places where people live. The interview can be found at the Internet Archive, under the title, “Place-making For People Of Small Means.” There's also a video on Vimeo which shows a partial tour of Naomi and Neil's new location, as well as an interview with another renter in inner southeast Portland. The video can be found at Place-Making for People of Small Means, or you can watch it by clicking on the link below. Note how prominently urban agriculture figures in both examples of placemaking.

Place-Making for People of Small Means from TH in SoC on Vimeo.

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