Is there a predicate to “placemaking” where a place is analyzed and mastered? Is that process of immersion, which I so love to emphasize, part of the placemaking process, or should it be called something else? To many, the question poses a distinction without a difference.

Nonetheless, in talking about Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character during these past few weeks with people from all walks of life, one theme recurs. Many wonder how we take the places we have and understand them before plotting their improvement.

But wait. I’ve written about this before, seven years ago, in my old blog, myurbanist, and, eventually, in Seeing the Better City.

I really think we should be more intellectually honest before we sustain, replenish, remake, or co-create. We should give the foundational research about our neighborhoods, squares, streets, sidewalks/footpaths, and parking lots a plain language name. One More Time: First Comes Place-Receiving.

Here, slightly updated, is what I’ve said before:


In 1997, I returned to Europe after a long absence. My Paris photograph, above, jump-started a then-dormant fascination with the scenery of urban life and form.

I later digitized the photograph to enhance the Eiffel Tower’s contrasts with the layered scene on the Pont d’léna, and the Champs de Mars beyond. My goal? An indelible impression, evoking a provocative, dream-like quality, consistent with a profound place-based memory.

Call this informal process “place-receiving,” and not placemaking.

Is place-receiving composed of unique occurrences, limited only to when and where we, the users, find them? Can they be replicated? If so, how?

These questions raise a practical side—and a real challenge—in assuring that placemaking efforts dovetail with the human nature or natural systems of place-receiving described here.

The challenge comes from today’s renewed interest in creating special urban places for people–whether public, private, or somewhere between–often offered by design professionals or related consultants.

Sometimes, a remade urban place’s look and feel are not consistent with the human perceptions or ecosystems common to place-receiving. A quick example from my former hometown:  Assertions that downtown redevelopment approaches and several features of the Seattle waterfront plan just don’t fit the context of local climate, local history, and likely end-users.

Years later, disassembling the Paris photograph, I see many central elements of what urban visitors, residents, and design professionals aspire to, whether resulting from spontaneity, casual tactics, or more purposeful plans.  The photograph suggests several words well within the vocabularies of placemaking, complete streets, green infrastructure, or human-scale approaches.

Some summaries of these elements seem stale and full of labels.  Others evoke emotion through climate, color, and the built environment.  Here are just five examples:

  • The pavement dramatically mirrors people approaching the Eiffel Tower on the Pont d’léna.
  • The Eiffel Tower, the Pont d’léna, an equestrian statue, cars, buses, and people combine to enhance a Paris view and experience.
  • The grainy textures of infrastructure stand out along the Seine.
  • Water and pavement blend in Paris.
  • A red bus and red backpack stand out against the Pont d’léna, the base of the Eiffel Tower, and the expanse of the Champs de Mars.

Other summaries could be more poetic, or more human in focus.  And perhaps they should because place and place-receiving occur as much in our minds as in the real world.

My take?  In the end, we should focus more on place-receivers as the most authentic stakeholders of meaning in the urban experience. If people cannot place-receive with a sense of acceptance and inspiration, placemaking may mean very little indeed.

Review the special “landing page” for Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character here.

Adapted from myurbanist, 14 March, 2014 and Seeing the Better City, (Island Press, 2017), pp. 75-76.

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