Tag Archives: placemaking

Experts in their own tomorrows: Placemaking for participatory climate futures

I get published, y’know? Here’s one that didn’t get a mention when it first dropped, because… well, because January, to be honest.

Sadly I can’t just send you to read the thing directly, either—because the thing in question is a chapter in the new Routledge Handbook of Placemaking (edited by Cara Courage, with Tom Borrup, Maria Rosario Jackson, Kylie Legge, Anita Mckeown, Louise Platt, and Jason Schupbach) and Routledge Handbooks do not (to my knowledge) ever go open access. And I’m sure Routledge will take it on the chin if I use my academic freedom of expression to point out that their Handbooks are not cheap, either… though they do make up very nice promotional flyers, like this one below, and if you click through on this link (or the one above, or on the image of the flyer) and use the code SMA02 at checkout, you can get it at 20% off the list price.

It’s one chonky volume! Here’s the official marketing blurb:

This Handbook is the first to explore the field of placemaking in terms of the recent research, teaching and learning, and practice agenda for the next few years. Offering valuable theoretical and practical insights from the leading scholars and practitioners in the field, it provides cutting edge interdisciplinary research on the placemaking sector.

Placemaking has seen a paradigmatic shift in urban design, planning and policy to engage the community voice, This Handbook examines the development of placemaking, its emerging theories, and its future directions.

So perhaps your institution or organisation would be interested in making the investment? My guess is that, if you’re at all familiar with the term “placemaking” already, you might actually find this wide-ranging, critical and timely collection of essays to be of considerable utility and interest!* Perhaps you’re an academic in a discipline adjacent to planning, urbanism, or the more social/human ends of geography or sociology? Perhaps you work in local government, or in the consulting sector, around issues of redevelopment, social inclusion or neighbourhood identity? Or perhaps you’re involved in social practice arts, whether as a practitioner or a commissioner or a funder?

If you are any of those things, then the question of what placemaking is and has been, but also the question of what placemaking might yet be, is potentially relevant to you. Put it this way: I’m a scholar of climate futures and theorist of sociotechnical change, and what I learned about (and from) placemaking theory and practice truly revolutionised the way I think about my work—and indeed influenced the design of my current project.

(Admittedly the placemaking aspects of my current project are completely on hold due to prevailing pandemic suppression measures, but the point remains: if you’ve ever wondered what a collision between critical ethnography, action research, design futures interventions and contemporary arts practice might look like, then placemaking—and this book about it—can provide some answers.)

My chapter is titled “Experts in their own tomorrows: Placemaking for participatory climate futures”; given that abstracts don’t end up in this sort of handbook, I guess I can just share the one I wrote with you here, can’t I?

This chapter is concerned with the potential of placemaking for catalysing community adaptation to a climate-changed future, and with how researchers might support placemaking practitioners in that work.

The first section discusses the unfolding climate crisis as an urgent mandate for the reconfiguration of sociotechnical practices, and describes one way in which we might conceptualise and model those everyday activities in terms of their tangible and intangible elements.

The second section argues that placemaking might be seen as a methodology for extending that model into futurity, thus allowing for the extrapolative exploration of reconfigurations. This positions placemaking as a living laboratory for the participatory production of new practices, as well as for the reconstitution of the places in which those practices are situated.

The final section asks what might be offered to placemaking by researchers concerned with the sociotechnical transformations mandated by the climate crisis, whether in terms of theory or practice. What knowledges might we provide to make the consequences of a changing climate situated and legible for communities and placemaking practitioners? How might we better analyse and describe the relationships between the abstract of complex infrastructural systems and the concrete of local ways of life? And what arguments might we make to encourage placemaking, and integrate it into the greater project of adapting to the anthropocene?

But there’s much more than just my five-dollar-words malarkey in there; click on through for a look at the TOC and the structure. Seven sections! Forty-five chapters! The biggest names in social practice arts and scholarship! It’s a landmark publication, and I’m privileged and humbled to have been a part of it.

If you really can’t afford a copy—and hell knows I would sympathise with that—but you nonetheless think you’d like to read my chapter, and have a good professional and/or academic reason for doing so, well, drop me a line. Maybe we can work something out! But otherwise, please hassle your institutional or organisational library to order a copy; it ain’t cheap, but if you know the field, I dare say you’ll get the money’s worth. Plus it’s probably tax-deductible!

[ * — See, I could have been a copywriter. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten mixed up in this academic stuff? But I think copywriting is probably better off for my absence, on balance. As to whether the academy is better off for my presence, well, that hypothesis is still undergoing experimental evaluation… watch this space, wot? ]

fragile, non-fixed ways of thinking

A bunch of snips from an interview with Matt Ward [via Matt formerly-of-BERG Jones], until fairly recently Head of Design at Goldsmiths:

Speculative Design can act as a mode of inquiry or it can be a form of strategic practice within industry. At its worst it’s an aesthetic, a step-by-step guide or corporate vapourware, at its best it creates a gravity centre, attracting people to discuss different types of futures, whilst using the tools and the language of design to explore and expand our notion of the possible.

[…]

… we never design for today. We’re always projecting and imagining a world where our work will exist. Even design with the fastest turnaround times, from concept to production (say editorial publishing), you’re always thinking of a person in the future, using and engaging with your work. We design for a world that doesn’t yet exist. We’re constantly imagining (or making assumptions about) the conditions and possibilities of the future world we hope to inhabit. This is why, over the last decade, more work is focussed on different environmental and political possibilities, because these issues dominate our attention and imagination.

[…]

In informal educational settings, in workshops in industry for example, I see speculative methods can be used effectively to loosen up creativity – allowing diverse stakeholders to explore possibilities without getting stuck on the near term problems. By “suspending disbelief”, you can examine the values and assumptions your organisation holds.

He drops some good, concise gotchas for the practice near the end, too:

As we’ve seen with Design Thinking, over stating the power and claims of design can ultimately undermine it as an approach. Using it as a method doesn’t guarantee interesting or resonant work. Over selling its power risks it being dismissed in the future or turning us into snake oil sellers.

I’m having to think about this a lot right now, because I’m dragging something fairly closely related to SD into the world of environmental politics, where people on all sides are pretty desperate for some sort of magic wand to make everything better. It’s important that I continue to remind them, and myself, that SD and/or narrative prototyping is not and cannot be that magic wand — though it might be a way to support the creation of highly situated magic wands in those circumstances where it’s done successfully. Which is of course related to:

Designers are comfortable seeing prototypes as a fragile, non-fixed ways of thinking – a process of thinking through issues and ideas without finalising a future possibility. However, these futures, seen out of context, can become concretised in the imaginations of non-designers. The proposals, that we give material form, are often misinterpreted as possible and desired, not propositional and problematic. In other words, be careful what you wish (design) for.

This is our old friend, the hazard of hoaxiness — the interpretation, presumably fostered by the social conditioning of decades of marketing and advertising, of any designed object or service or environment as a promise rather than a proposal (as mentioned just a few days back, in fact, in the context of charismatic megaprojects).

This got under my skin early on, and has always been one of my major issues with mainstream futures studies and scenario-based methods of foresight — it’s genuinely terrifying how quickly people will not only start to eat their own dogfood, but also claim that they like the taste.

Last but not least:

If Speculative Design builds competency in thinking about future alternatives, the design community needs to ensure that it is aware of the structural inequalities that allow for a privileged voice. I think it’s become painfully obvious that we don’t need any more white male billionaires telling us how the future looks, therefore by moving Speculative Design outside of the “academy” we need to make sure it’s reaching people who don’t normally have say over the future. We should aim to empower alternative views about how the world could be.

Yeah, this. Political science (and the social sciences in general) are still pretty bad at this, but that’s at least in part down to the institutional inertia of disciplines, and of the academy more broadly; a lot of folk at the coalface desperately want to do more co-productive work, but getting it funded can be a real challenge. (There’s more than one reason I’ve come to Sweden; no UK research council would touch my work with someone else’s barge-pole, and that’s not only because of my vocal contempt for the ubiquity of “innovation” as the dominant quantum of value.)

I’ve attempted to keep myself honest on this aspect by drawing on theories prevalent in social-practice arts and placemaking, wherein the artist/researcher is not the author of the project so much as its catalyst and midwife… though this means I’m now in the interesting position of having to actually *do* that, rather than simply hold it up as an ideal.

But as Ward makes clear above, it’s necessary. It became obvious to me early on that a significant factor in the foreclosure of futurity experienced by ordinary people is that they feel like they’re subjected to a barrage of grand promises (or threats) that fail to materialise. We’ve spent a couple of decades telling people — with, for the most part, the best of intentions — how they should live under/against climate change. But social-practice placemaking recognises that people are the experts in their own lives — and so it’s time to try asking them how they think they want to live with climate change.

I am confident that the answers will surprise us. As such, resisting the urge to correct those surprising answers will be the real challenge.