Placemaking a suitable tool for permaculture

LANDSCAPES WITHOUT PEOPLE are spaces, not places, but in the permaculture design of shared facilities such as community gardens or sustainability education centres, we strive to build places, not spaces.

How to do this has been the missing link between permaculture designer and client, whoever that client might be. Now, there's an approach we can borrow from those who already use it successfully. It's called 'placemaking' and it turns those unpopulated spaces into well-used places.

This article discusses the application of the principles of placemaking to both physical places and to the organisations that keep them running.

Local citizens join in placemaking activity

Local citizens join in placemaking activity

DISCOVERY

I first heard of placemaking as an alternative approach to public place design from friends in Melbourne — Amadis and Gilbert Lecheta who run their own placemaking consultancy, Village Well.

The need for it as a fresh approach to public involvement in how land is used for public purposes became clear when I worked in local government and found the approach they used created opportunity for vexatious people to dominate the process and retained much from the old designer-led, hierarchical approach. It allowed the process to polarise opinion and created opportunity for that scourge of new urban ideas, NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard). This was because the model used by the council I worked for was one of consultation, not local participation in identifying opportunities for a piece of land and having a hand in its design. It was very much a designer-led approach.

Seeking a better way, I was fortunate in being able to attend training offered by Creative Community's placemaking consultant, David Engwicht. We made use of some of David's ideas in working out how Randwick Council's community education centre, Barrett House, would be used.

THE PRIMACY OF THE DESIGNER

All too often in permaculture education we have been taught the primacy of the designer. The designer is the person who brings with them a bag of techniques and ideas and a pre-existing mindset about how things should be done and what should be done.  Permaculture, for much of its history, has been a designer-led approach. Now, it's time for a little creative destruction. It's time to drop the designer.

Not completely. But what I'm talking about is displacing the designer from the centre and placing them on the periphery. I'm talking about a different role for the designer. Now, in order to enact the permaculture preference for participatory processes, the designer becomes the placemaker. The process of placemaking is led not by the designer but by those who would make use of whatever facility the designer is helping people create.

You might think of the designer in this new role as a facilitator, as a person who guides participants through a process. You might also recognise that some designers already do this, at least partly. I recall that when we were planning the Permaculture Interpretive Garden we engaged with local people and the regional permaculture group in identifying how the site could be used and what might be installed there. We didn't think of it as placemaking then, although it held elements of that, more as process of ideation, of participatory design and the opportunity for local permaculture practitioners to be involved in a real-world design process in a public place.

To go into participatory processes would take more space than there is available, so instead I'll mention a few of the principles of placemaking we might incorporate when working with groups to design for public places.

PERMACULTURE'S PLACEMAKING PRINCIPLES

Principle 1: EXPAND THE EXPERIENCE ENVELOPE

In a permaculture process we would have already conducted a needs analysis with the group we are working to discover what types of experiences they would like from the place, what they would like on site. Needs analysis enacts the permaculture principle of 'observe and interact'.

Now, we apply the permaculture principle of multiple purpose design to incorporate whatever of those needs are feasible and to suggest additional experiences that might be included. It's about making connections between the elements that might go into the design.

To expand the experience envelope is to diversify the uses the site would be put to. That — using diversity — is a permaculture principle too. We can, for instance, turn construction of garden beds, pergola of compost system into workshops out of which comes learning, and that's a valuable experience. Doing this, we expand the educational envelope of the site and achieve another permaculture principle, that of obtaining a yield for what we do.

It's good practice to periodically review a design and how it is managed. This is part of the placemaking approach which doesn't stop after the initial participatory process, development of a site plan and construction. Placemaking can be iterative. That is, the design and use of a site can be completed in stages. If the use of expensive infrastructure such as park furniture is avoided, the components of design can be moved around to accommodate improvements and new needs.

As part of this iterative process, when it comes time to do a little planning for the facility's future we might adopt the SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) process that focuses on what has worked well and how that success can be replicated.

Principle 2: MAKE PEOPEL FEEL AT HOME

Placemaking is versatile enough that its principles can be adapted to organisations as well as physical sites.

First, we put out an inviting welcome mat. Make participating and joining easy, both in the development and ongoing phases. That can go for permaculture organisations as much as for site designs and their governance.

An example: I have had a bit to do with the development of community food gardens and have come across a myriad of design approaches and management models. I have seen the different welcoming mats gardeners put out and for the most part they do welcome the public to the site and, if interested, to joining the garden as a member. I have also seen the unwelcoming mat that is occasionally put out to the interested public, such as when someone wanders into the garden to be confronted by a gardener acting as if resentful of their presence, as if they have no business there although the garden might be on public land. This exclusivity is the very opposite of successful placemaking.

Design your welcoming mat well. Put up an informative sign so that people know what's going on on-site and how to make contact. Welcome the curious who drop in, answer their questions, show them around. Provide comfortable seating that people can arrange to facilitate conversation.

In your organisation or on your public site, include social activities — community gardens and related enterprises are about people, and so are the organisations we set up. Make them people-centric. Provide social space on-site such as pergola, BBQ, picnic tables, quiet sitting places — space becomes place only when inhabited by people. Create the opportunity for good memories of the place for it's those memories that will bring people back, that will encourage them to tell others about their good experiences and encourage them to join in.

Provide information about your organisation, its aims & activities. Create good memories of membership, participation in activities, social contact and learning. People won't want to hang around in a fractured, argumentative organisation. They will leave. If your organisation is factionalised, fractured or similarly dysfunctional, it needs therapy. Get outside help. Meetings and events should be convivial.

Principle 3: FOCUS ON EXCHANGE

Exchange is one of the prime functions of towns and cities. In cities, people make exchanges of all sorts of things: information, in formal and informal education; time and skills for remuneration; production of a social good for peer recognition and skill development (such as some online services) — once called the 'gift economy' or 'social giving'; food and other swaps now part of the informal, collaborative economy; taxes and charges in exchange for government services of different kinds; goods and services for currency and so on.

Community gardens and similar site-specific enterprises are not merely places where people come to tend their garden or whatever it is that they do there alone. They are social places. They are about people and there they exchange skills and information, knowledge and friendship and sometimes material goods.

This is what we, as permaculture designers, want. When assisting people in the design of some facility, or in the design of a residential community such as a co-housing or ecovillage, we seek to facilitate the development of exchange. This means not only physical locations in which exchange takes place (what in permaculture we call the 'visible structures' or 'hard systems') but also what we call the 'invisible structures' or what we might call 'soft systems', the organisational structures through which exchange occurs.

Exchange is central to placemaking, so, to encourage it we create opportunities for exchange such as seating for conversations and gathering place under shelter where we can share food and social contact. We organise educational workshops for the makers among us. Workshops exchange knowledge and so do study circles, an informal alternative to permaculture introductory courses. Be sure to invite the public as well as members.

Another way to encourage exchange is to build swapping into the culture of your organisation and the design of your place, even if the organisation is a community-based permaculture association. Food, books, clothing, household items, children's toys and children's clothes are just a few swappable items. I saw this at a meeting of Permaculture Sydney West where plants, food and other stuff were swapped and where there was a seed bank from which members could make withdrawals and deposits. I recall the swap cupboard at Earthsong Cohousing in Auckland, New Zealand, where people left unneeded stuff for those who could use it. It was a good arrangement.

Meetings can be formal and boring. Turn meetings into exchange events to swap food, seeds and other stuff and leave plenty of time to socialise. Keep official business as brief as possible. Ensure there is food at meetings.

Set up a social media presence and populate it with frequent postings. This supplements your website where information to be retained for long period is housed. Online media complements our facetime activities — it is how we communicate when we are not physically with each other.

This is all about creating exchange opportunities in the physical places we help people design and in their — and our — organisations that support these places.

Principle 4: CREATE AN OPEN ORGANISATION

When thinking of applying placemaking principles to the organisations we create, welcome new ideas flowing in from other nodes and network hubs, even when they challenge your beliefs and assumptions. Engage with them rather than shun and exclude them.

Make links to other, allied organisations to create a wider network and engage in joint activities where you have commonality of interest. Cultivate the connectors in your organisation who enact those linking roles with other hubs on the sustainability network. Link and communicate with other permaculture groups.

Invite members to attend your organisational meetings as observers even if they are not on the management team. People are tired of secretive government and corporate organisations, and secrecy and exclusivity is out of place in community organisations. Permaculture is no place for tired and expired old corporate and government models of structure. Keep it open.

Permaculture groups and some community gardens and sustainability educational facilities are characteristically small, poorly resourced and kept going by people with limited time available. Adopt a modern structure with a coordinating team to look after membership, finances and legal responsibilities then encourage teams to self-initiate and self-manage within the aims and ethics of the organisation and to focus on specific tasks and initiatives. Set up frequent, two-way information flows between task teams and coordinating team so that the coordinating team has an image of the state of affairs at any time.

Teams can start and shut down according to the work they elect to do. Some will be permanent, others temporary. Teams reformulate around new ideas and needs.

Principle 5: CREATE A POINT OF DIFFERENCE

What does your organisation/sustainability education centre/community garden offer that is not offered by others? Focus on this — it's your point of difference and separates your group from those that are mere clones of existing organisations.

Have a clear idea about yourself. Why does your organisation exist? What of value does it add to our cities? What is its niche where it works?

A TIMELY APPROACH

New ideas are flowing in from the creative edge of society, that place out on the edge of chaos, that place between disorder and staid mainstream where new ideas are born and from where the good among them spiral in towards the mainstream centre. This is territory once inhabited by permaculture but which, according to some, it has forsaken as it has become bogged down in established beliefs and practices.

A placemaking approach can help to revive permaculture practice in the public arena. These have been a few of its principles.

 

Story and photos by RUSS GRAYSON
PacificEdge - tactical urbanism
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