Placemaking in the new roaring 20s

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December 2019: I find myself writing on the eve of a new decade, struggling to process the latest cascade of emergency warnings in an already horrific bushfire season in Australia, intensified by a climate emergency our leaders seem deliberately blind to.

The tide of climate emergency extends beyond the relentless pings of emergency warnings that has become a quintessential summer soundtrack. The scale of this is not natural. This is new. But so is the prevalence of moments like this:

A month earlier at a Placeleaders Asia Pacific event in Canberra, practitioner Stephen Moore shared a question he was asked in the field at a town he was working in:

“We’re about to run out of water in 50 days. What’s placemaking going to do for us?”

One could hear both a pin and pennies drop across the room.  The question has reverberated with me ever since and will no doubt continue to do so.

If placemakers and those of us working with place are to remain relevant in the next decade, we will need to listen more deeply to the calls of place. Placemaking though has particular strengths that may hold it in good stead in this newly roaring 20s: in its ability to work at the hyper-local level, while changing mindsets in ways that can contribute to structural change at larger scales.

Responding to Real-Time Challenges

The climate emergency means pressing needs are becoming ever-more existential: for people without access to water, for wildlife in fire-prone areas and for our whole environment. It also means that we can no longer think of social justice without thinking of spatial and environmental justice.

People are understandably scared as the ramifications of climate emergency hit home. This is the new field we work in and it poses new questions, like: How can placemaking help distribute urgent water supplies in times of need?  Three particular strengths placemaking has here are the ability to work at a variety of scales from the local and beyond, the opportunity to think inventively in ways specific to local context and the ability to form and bind social capital. 

For example, could multifunctional meeting and distribution points be set up for people to access urgent supplies, services and the support of incidental social interaction?  What if these points went beyond transactional spaces, to promoting social cohesion through a de facto town square or place of encounter?  Here, a simple intervention can meet multiple needs: access to fresh water but also the healing balm of positive interaction and healing social isolation.

Next though, we need to take a broader view about engaging with the localised factors that have caused water shortages we never thought would happen.  These come down to structural dynamics, but also place-based factors of how land has been managed.

Healing Places, Healing People

For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples across Australia have looked after this land informed by a deep, existential and spiritual link to Country. This is underpinned by fundamental wisdom often shared and repeated: “If you look after Country, Country will look after us”.

The time has long come for placemakers in Australia, from overwhelmingly settler backgrounds, to think more deeply about this. For as flames, mass fish deaths and more remind us, what is the climate emergency apart the results of attacks on Country that continue to undermine its ability to hold life itself?

A healing philosophy with place can take many forms and promote interventions that achieve many ends. For example, cooling our cities by introducing vegetation can also create shelter for people and habitat for flora and fauna. We need to think more about how our interventions can work harder at an ecological level.

These ideas make us revision the role of people in our landscape. What if we focus our practice on starting the healing of place, so that it might be able to regenerate itself and, in turn, its capacity to hold us?

Engaging with and platforming Indigenous knowledge in ways that are authentic and ethical is ever-more vital. This is about more than giving back to people and place: For us as settlers, it involves undoing established ways of thinking that continue to accelerate and intensify the climate emergency. As Barkindji woman and University of Melbourne Research Fellow Zena Cumpston puts it:

“If Country, our Mother, is sick, then we too are sick. It also follows that when we as First Peoples are suffering and cannot be healed, Country too is suffering and her wounds are open. This affects all Australians, and we must find a path forward that honours this kincentric relationship – and disrupts the colonial mechanisms of taking, taking, taking.”

What if we envision placemaking as a practice of healing our now-entwined social and environmental rifts? What if we, particularly as settler placemakers, do our reading and learning so we can work to open space for First Nations ways of knowing to come forward?

Telling Stories and Sharing Place’s Lessons

As placemakers, our sensibility ought to position us well to act as intermediaries between people and place, to find ways of passing on the lessons. As Donna Harraway puts it, we have to stay with the trouble. But trouble is a two-sided coin: herein lies the opportunity of finding and facilitating new ways of being. Finding ways of adapting to and living in a climate emergency relies on listening to place, now, more than ever.

This again is where placemaking’s focus on the local can be a strength. Working at a fine-grained level, placemaking can open the way for conversations, acts of care and stewardship that can sew hope and grow hearts and minds.

We can see this in pop-up vegetable boxes in the public realm that call people to water, weed and harvest from them; to the humble practices of putting containers of water out for wildlife. We can also see it in interventions like street art murals that use the storytelling power of art to expose power dynamics and inspire new ways of thinking.

What if we as placemakers start to see our practice as facilitating and starting conversations that give people back a sense of agency in these times? What if this means more weavers in the tapestry of kindness, and more weavers means more working to prepare the ground for the structural change necessary for climate action?

Perhaps it’s here that a new potential for placemaking a new decade in might be found. As practitioners, we now need more than ever to hold our energy and stay true to place, so that we may guide and be guided.

I wish you and your loved ones a Happy New Year.

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