Retaining Wall.

DesignIdeation: Placemaking

What makes a place? Is it the art, signage, ornate gardens that draw your attention? For Gabriela Cañamar Clark, a place is defined by people. She starts by looking beyond the confines of a project, to imagine what moments can be created on busy streets, in between urban high-rises, or along a dynamic waterfront. These moments are not just placemaking aesthetics to Gabriela, but are moments for people to enjoy.  

Below, Gabriela shares her thoughts on the influence of placemaking in the public realm.

Q: What is the role of landscape architecture in urban planning and placemaking?

Landscape architects are the authors of what happens in the fabric of a city in between the buildings. The definition of placemaking is making a place, but in reality, placemaking is made by people. If a place doesn’t feel inviting, then people won’t use it and it won’t come alive in the way it was intended. The first step in the design process is to understand the various spaces in the public realm — their mission and goal, and social and physical context. Responding with the right approach ensures we are creating a place where people want to linger. As landscape architects, we prepare the canvas for placemaking to happen, whether organically or programmed.

Q: What is the value of landscape/ placemaking in new development?

I think placemaking is a bit of a buzzword right now. In the private-sector it’s all about the brand of the place, and if projects have a strong identity in the marketplace, their chances of being successful are higher. As designers, we help translate that brand through signage, passive and active public art, curated gardens, etc. There are a variety of experiences can be incorporated into a project’s design. That’s where landscaping and placemaking can add another layer to what the developer is offering.

Q: What trends are we starting to see in public realm design, specifically in urban areas?

As landscape architects, we’d like to think the spaces we design function without heavy programming, meaning manned-programming (events, activities, etc.). Programming is fantastic, but without a sound infrastructure, creating public space that also functions in non-programmed time can be a challenge. The possibility of engaging with others is the whole point of public space! We need to think about ways to provide unique experiences whether there is heavy, soft or no programming at all.

Q: What are the challenges that come with creating a public realm in an urban environment?

In private development, public spaces can tend to feel as if they are exclusive to a certain population. Our job as landscape architects is to reach beyond the confines of a project and create a space that is welcoming to all. For the public realm, it’s inherent in the word — public should mean open to everyone. We need to hone our skills and craft to find a way to communicate through our designs that these spaces are indeed for all.

Q: How does transportation (metro, autonomous vehicles, Uber, etc.) influence how we design public space?

As designers, we need to anticipate new transportation technologies and look to find design solutions that accommodate these technologies. Back in the day, designs were required to provide a taxi pull-off for certain building uses. Today, because Uber and Lyft provide that type of service to the entire population, we have to organize our streetscape to accommodate this type of transportation. Designers should be analyzing how drivers respond to design and if they need signage to note where to pick up a rider, while also ensuring the pedestrian knows where to be picked up.

We are also looking at how we design the streetscape for bike share and scooters. When bicycles entered the public realm in the form of bike share, docking stations allowed for designers to find a solution for the streetscape that would keep things organized. The challenge with scooters is the lack of regulatory rules in terms of public engagement. Because of the freedom scooters have, to be picked-up and dropped-off anywhere, they tend to clutter streets.

Q: What design accommodations are we making due to the rapid growth in these urban areas?

We are seeing people flock to 18-hour cities where you can live affordably and be anchored by lifestyle amenities. To accommodate this growth, designers have to work at an extremely fast pace. 10-12 years ago, the timeframe to get multi-family, mixed use, mid- and high-rise projects off the ground would take well over a year. Today, the design and delivery process is happening within 10 months or less. How are we responding? By offering the best talent that can get it done!

Q: Throughout your career, what have you learned about translating a client’s vision for a project?

Listen — that’s the most important part! If designers bring to the table a preconceived recipe for a client’s project, we aren’t setting the project up for success. Every client has different concerns, priorities, financials and values. As long as we listen to their vision and goals for the project, we can use our expertise to design and deliver a project that achieves their goals. Anyone can design something beautiful, but it’s about meeting the needs of the client’s vision.

Q: What does the future of public realm design look like 10-20 years from now?

Hard to tell. I attended a conference where the speaker used the example of how stone was used as the primary cutting tool for a millennia — until someone put a handle on the stone, advancing the tool. The tool kept evolving, becoming more sophisticated over time, but it took a millennia to get from one tool, to the next.

We’re going through a period of time where new technology is emerging every year. The way people use open space is influenced by Uber, autonomous vehicles, cell phones, etc. It’s hard to predict how we will respond to the public realm because things are moving so fast. However, we are more aware than ever that human beings need to be with other human beings to be healthy mentally and physically. The appetite for communal space is still going to be going strong, but how they are going to be designed 10-20 years from now — I’d love to see it!