STEPS Blog: What Is Creative Placemaking?

How Arts and Culture Initiatives Can ‘Make’ Spaces

You may have heard the term ‘creative placemaking’ used in recent discussions around urban development projects, public art proposals, or concerns about the gentrification of neighbourhoods. There are many examples of creative placemaking in Canadian cities with a range of scales, outcomes, and goals for public space. But what is the actual definition of the term?

The Project for Public Places explains that the concept of ‘placemaking’ emerged in the 1960s with a push for urban design that put people first, instead of the buildings or cars. This meant developing more public spaces for citizens to spend time in: making plazas, walkways, parks, and natural spaces that were attractive, safe, and welcoming. 

Visitors enjoy Cherry beach, a placemaking project in Toronto

Sugar Beach in Toronto was created as a public space for pedestrians. Image source: Kateryna Topol.

Creative Placemaking Today

More recently, placemaking has become a multi-faceted approach that draws from urban studies, environmental planning, sociology, architecture, and design to improve the liveability of city spaces. The idea of ‘creative’ placemaking adds another element to the mix, using arts and culture to revitalize spaces, stimulate the economy, and emphasize community cohesion.

‘Making’ a place is both a hands-on process and a conceptual goal; creative placemaking aims to physically improve public spaces—like neighbourhoods, buildings, and parks—in a way that also strengthens their place identity. But city spaces are not empty, waiting to be made; to drive equitable change it’s important to take into account the existing history, function, and cultural significance of an area and involve community voices in new developments.

Community involvement is a crucial part of good creative placemaking; inserting arts and culture that only appeals to one group or only attracts the “creative class” can result in the people of a neighbourhood being displaced as it is gentrified. By starting from the ground up, creative regeneration projects can meet the needs of the people who already occupy the space and embrace newcomers as well.

Instead of thinking of residents and visitors as consumers of urban design, equitable creative placemaking recognizes the heritage, residential communities, and diverse uses of the targeted area to position people as ‘makers’ of space, defining their own neighbourhood. Successful creative placemaking projects can highlight or shape unique characteristics of a communal location while envisioning a future where all members of the community feel a sense of belonging and ownership.

Pedestrians, bikers, and visitors enjoy a public communal park

City spaces, like public parks, are used by many communities at once and are designed to serve different functions. Image source: Ignacio Brosa.

Creative Placemaking in Canadian Cities

So what does creative placemaking actually look like in practice? All kinds of development strategies that use arts and culture to boost the function, financial opportunities, social fabric, and environmental wellness in a shared space use principles of creative placemaking. The most meaningful ones consider community engagement and impact.

Definitions of ‘arts and culture’ can include visual arts, like murals, sculptures, and installations, performance pieces, like music shows, theatre, or spoken word, as well as other cultural expressions, like food preparation, gardening methods, craft circles and many other forms of creativity. These initiatives exist in commercial, residential, and public spaces across the country; you can come across them when you’re taking a walk, stopping at a food market, or meeting a friend for a coffee.

Sustainable Outdoor Spaces: Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto

Built out of an old quarry and an abandoned brick factory in Toronto’s east end, the Evergreen Brickworks was developed as Canada’s first large scale community environmental centre. Through adaptive reuse, this creative placemaking project transformed the existing buildings into a welcoming hub without compromising the history or integrity of the site. The Brickworks finds a balance between preserving the natural ecosystem of the Toronto valley and facilitating community use in Canada’s largest city. By organizing an Ontario produce farmer’s market, themed food nights, skating lessons, a plant nursery, and sustainable education programming for children and adults, the Brickworks programming celebrates the beauty of the green space while attracting a wider audience to help shape the space and enjoy it respectfully.

Take a video tour of the Evergreen Brickworks site, filmed and edited by Gold Media.

Participative Design: The Halifax Waterfront

The Halifax Waterfront is another revitalization project that builds on the natural beauty of a space while promoting the local economy and welcoming new visitors. The province of Nova Scotia, with input from the local community, invested in functional infrastructure like colourful orange hammocks, muskoka chairs, a revitalized playground, and a cooling fountain to expand the use of the scenic boardwalk along Halifax’s working port. The waterfront development has a history of community involvement: the 2011 redesign of the popular waterfront playground was influenced by consultation sessions with local children and families, and T.J. Maguire, manager of Design with Develop Nova Scotia, emphasizes the “shared-vision policy” of recent placemaking projects. Participating in the design process can strengthen residents’ connections to the place and to each other. These creative placemaking strategies generate economic and social engagement with their waterfront district, serving the community’s vision and attracting visitors to local businesses.

 Accessible Recreation: Pied du Courant Pop-Up Market in Montreal

The pied du courant village set up in Montreal offers visitors seating

The Village au Pied du Courant offers visitors communal seating and programming on a manufactured beach in Montreal. Photography credit: Marie-Ève Dion

The Pied Du Courant market in Montreal is a seasonal creative placemaking initiative that transforms the foot of the Jacques Cartier Bridge into a beach-themed pop-up market, complete with sand and beach umbrellas. La Pépiniére developed this project in 2015, with an emphasis on bringing in community participation and emerging designers. It resulted in craft pavilions, yoga classes, dance parties, and a food market that became a gathering place for many different audiences: families with children, groups of young people getting a drink, tourists experiencing Montreal’s park culture, and locals going for a walk in the sand. The communal hub is free and aims to welcome everyone, with commercial options that allow for economic opportunity in the area. Food markets can be an effective form of creative placemaking, re-energizing urban spaces, and allowing the community to inform its use.

Tactical Urbanism as Creative Placemaking

Creative placemaking activations don’t always have to be a major revitalization project like the Halifax Waterfront or the Evergreen Brickworks; smaller-scale, low-budget efforts can also have a big impact on our public spaces.  Tactical urbanism enriches neighbourhoods through more minor, pop-up, or temporary changes to the built environment in a cityscape. These interventions consider the site-specific contexts and communities of the area and target feasible issues or potential improvements to make the public space more comfortable and safe. Creative initiatives like sidewalk decals, storefront wraps and window displays, trail markers, street furniture, green scaping and parkette activations can make spaces more liveable and inspiring.

Blue and purple painted planter boxes by MJ Jean-Louise for Clarkson Village BIA's Main Street public art activation

Blue and purple painted planter boxes created by Marie-Judith Jean-Louis for Clarkson Village BIA’s Main Street public art activation. Photography credit: Selina McCallum.

Throughout the ongoing pandemic, ‘making’ and keeping accessible, safe, and enjoyable outdoor spaces has been critical. In this context, STEPS developed the Creative Placemaking Rapid-response (CPR) initiative to uplift communities and help residents connect and take action to brighten their public spaces.  This type of creative placemaking can use a tactical urbanism approach to target sustainability, like the Clarkson Village BIA’s pollinator-themed planters, promote community participation, like the Home Base community-led upcycling and DIY projects, or rejuvenate recreational and social spaces, like Leone McComas’ painted outdoor furniture.

The idea of creative placemaking includes a range of sectors, stakeholders, and tactics and can result in a broad scale of public art projects and cultural programming. While Canadian cities continue to navigate the challenges of the pandemic context, creative placemaking projects across the country can foster connectivity, sustainability, and collaboration to build positive and equitable communal spaces.

Public seating area in Port Credit is painted by artist Erin McCluskey

A public seating area in Port Credit, Ontario that was painted by artist Erin McCluskey to animate the main street through STEP’s I HeART Main Street. Photography credit: Selina McCallum

Eva Morrison

Eva Morrison

Cultural Content Writer

This article was written by Eva Morrison (she/her), a writer, curator, and painter based in Montreal. Her work has recently been published by Culture Days, Winnipeg Arts, and FARR Montreal. She received a BFA from Concordia University in 2019, specializing in Art History and Studio Arts.
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