What is a Place to You?

Alistair Newsome 1ST YEAR

What is a place to you? Maybe the answer is just a fleeting mental image or feeling associated with a certain place and time. Can’t quite put your finger on it? That’s because you’re trying to define something ephemeral and elusive that changes depending on context; who’s asking, why and when. Placemaking requires context and history to combine. Something has always shaped the way we respond to a particular space and that something can only be experience. Experience as an individual or as a collective or community. Perhaps it’s something you touched or were physically involved in or something you read or observed. As humans we rely on this experience, or memory, to shape who we are.

How as landscape architects can we begin to unlock that network of shared and individual responses, to create a common vision of something that reflects what resides within all those myriad people who are involved in and connected to a placemaking project? Such a network has no physical boundaries or definition. When we engage in placemaking we are attempting to harness what has gone before along with the future aspiration of the landscape stakeholders to design a new history.Or should we really Design? Every place has a history before we start any investigation or design, it already exists. We can’t change that, we can reinterpret it but we can’t change it. Once we have made a place it has a new history, a new narrative. We lack long term control so that history will evolve. So perhaps the answer for designers is to interpret a narrative rather than to design a finished product.

A place might be a grand central area, pivotal to the lives of thousands of people or it might be extremely modest in terms of present usage or past intervention; but it still has a history and it has it for a reason. It may be a history of human success or failure, of good or bad decisions, neglect, change or transience, little or no human intervention at all. All of these are distinct in the designers’ palette; they all imbue each site with a unique set of responsibilities for any designer in order to make it a place. To shape and sculpt a site without simply imposing Design or designing at the residents, visitors or the landscape itself is far from straightforward and is the key to successful placemaking. In the case of Oratia Reserve who could, or should, have input and why? What does this place mean to those involved? What has defined Oratia as a space up until now and how can we hone that definition going forward?

Undoubtedly a place that still enjoys a link to its early colonisation by Croatians and those from Victorian Britain, today Oratia could arguably be viewed as a bridging point, both physically and metaphorically, between many disparate entities; east and west Auckland, urban and rural, historical colonial and modern multicultural, C19th Europe and C21st Pacific – the crossing point between a modern city and a wilderness.

In terms of physicality, on one side the site borders Auckland’s western suburbs and the other side plunges almost straight away into rain forest and Piha. So which wins? Or, perhaps more prosaically, how do we meld the two? A central tenet of contemporary placemaking is arguably the bottom up approach of involving and consulting the local people, who, unsurprisingly in the case of Oratia have expressed a multitude of sometimes conflicting needs and desires.

As Joan Clos i Matheu statedthe value of the public good affects the value of the private good” and in the case of Oratia Reserve the narrative is arguably even more complex. Oratia Reserve is a public space but it’s more intimate than that, it’s a very local public space, it doesn’t necessarily belong to Auckland as a whole. There needs to be consideration given to an inner Oratia and outer Oratia within the space and the two elements need to be constructed to complement each other, to compete but not to dominate each other. Auckland needs to be kept at bay to some extent, or at least kept under control in order to allow some of the bucolic charm to remain. The same can be said of the Waitakere Ranges; we can’t deny the relevance of Oratia’s urban fringe location in favour of an idealised notion of untamed forest or coast taking precedence over human need. The reserve must have seating; it must have the apparatus of human presence, food, warmth, shade, comfort, community. It must accommodate activity in all seasons.

If we can approach a site like Oratia armed with a comprehensive understanding of the experience and memory of the site and of the people linked to it, we will continue to act imperfectly but hopefully with a broader and deeper sense of responsibility to process and drive placemaking in a responsible, sustainable way that doesn’t simply add a veneer of design to a place but which makes a genuine attempt to get under skin of the site and of the community in a positive and meaningful way. The idea of placemaking is still used as a tool that reflects how we view ourselves as a society and a culture. It can still be a reflection of contemporary and to some extent mainstream social ideology because that is in itself a reflection of what we collectively hold dear and true as a society; our shared experience. To consider any site such as Oratia from the point of view of memory or shared experience “raises issues and questions that are not merely architectural but also moral, ethical, and philosophical” and requires the design approach to be centred around “unveiling—uncovering as well as anchoring—histories and memories”.

 Previous governments may not, and indeed did not, value landscape or legislate in the same way as we would expect our current and future governments to. Effective and sustainable land management, urban redevelopment and heritage planning are obvious examples of where publicly accepted wisdom is vastly different from one generation, or government, to the next. Certainly now a ‘bottom up’ approach of public consultation and involvement in placemaking alongside legislative bodies and government gives more credence to the legitimacy and driving force of participatory design. As we involve the local community throughout the process of placemaking, however the danger, is always in misinterpreting their collective narrative properly.Arguably the success or failure of a placemaking project “arises from its capacity for establishing dialogues with, and presenting questions about the past (and the future)”. Sometimes the discussion is enough to achieve something in terms of community engagement. To plan for months, years, even decades gives a project its own shape and life. As part of this process we may ask ourselves what are the prevailing ideas or ethos regarding placemaking? What environmental or cultural issues draw us to certain conclusions at any given time? These will change, they always do. People change, political ideology changes, memories change, landscape changes. 

Xsection Issue Three 2013/14 Placemaking