During the week of September 12th, 2016 we had the pleasure of playing a role in Vancouver’s hosting of the Pro Walk / Pro Bike / Pro Place Conference. As a part of our activities, we both gave Pecha Kucha-style talks about concepts we believe improve the urban fabric of our cities. The following is Melissa’s presentation, which focused on how the built environment affects its residents' experiences, depending on their age.
Allow me to paint a picture – it’s a warm summer’s evening. Children are laughing as the splash in a fountain. Nearby, their parents sit at a patio, enjoying a quiet conversation about their, musing over their children’s revelries, and watching the city go by.
Well-designed spaces help scenes like the one described become a reality in cities around the world. They support communities, and inspire attachment. Placemaking is part of every new or reimagined space, with a goal of making it more people oriented. To humanize a place and make it home.
Outside of design rooms, away from decision makers and best practices, the truest test of a successful design is how well it meets the needs of a variety of users.
Since having children, I am acutely aware of the importance of placemaking. Spaces where my children, my husband and myself can all feel equally comfortable are key to our enjoyment of a given place.
But why is placemaking for all ages so important in creating a great space? It helps to first remember that ageing does not occur in isolation. Interacting with individuals young and old enhances our experience of the world. Children learn of our shared history from older generations, while adults get to relive the joy and innocence of childhood through observing our youth.
A place where multiple generations feel welcome creates vibrancy. The backdrop will only do so much – it’s the people in the space that help to highlight its success.
We sometimes tend to focus on the needs of one given group at a time, instead of recognizing that multi-use, all ages spaces are integral to inspiring activity. How people move, play or relax in relation to each other is of vital importance to a successful design.
When this is not considered, even the best-intentioned designs can become spaces where all but a few feel welcome. Seating and colour can be transformational, but unless the design also allows for the playful spirit of our young, I can attest that many families will be unlikely to make repeated visits.
The same can be said for places built with just children in mind. A playground tucked away from amenities, void of seating or shade, will make even the most dedicated caregiver turn away. Spaces for play and enjoyment must not be age specific, or else they will isolate their desired audience. We are social beings, and placemaking must be thought out accordingly.
Some of the best examples of well-designed placemaking juxtapose the activities of young and old right next to each other. As our children get older, and with that earn more freedom to roam on their own, the idea of standing idly at a playground draw a heaving sigh from kids and adults alike. Spaces where we can relax with our peers, while our children play and explore, always top our list of destinations.
Placemaking without age means creating spaces in a community open to all users. A healthy mix of play areas for children, green spaces for teens and adults to gather, and seating for older generations inspires opportunities for multi-generational interactions. It is this mix that creates a visible reminder that we are all equal members of the places we call home.
The availability of green space is very welcoming in the cities that have it, but in the urban core, public squares need just as much thoughtful design. While open squares can be a blank slate for organizing temporary markets and one-off events, without proper planning, they run the risk of sitting empty the remainder of the time, and becoming unwelcoming, cold spaces.
Public squares designed for multiple uses, both permanent and temporary, enliven the community. They become spaces for play, socialization and spontaneous gathering. The urban core can be an intimidating and isolating place. Centres filled with laughter and a sense of fun inspires attachment – the feeling that you belong.
This feeling is directly linked to place attachment – that almost familial connection to a given place, and the desire to return. The natural landscape can provide an excellent canvas, but how planners enhance our ability to interact with that space is what makes it successful. Feeling of comfort and affection will bring you back time and again.
For those cities not blessed with proximity to nature, they are increasingly creating ageless natural spaces in the heart of the city. In recognizing the need for respite from the urban, once cold, dangerous places can be transformed into placemaking icons. City beaches provide excellent opportunities for relaxing at the end of the day, or an oasis for families with less means to travel.
Planners design with the best of intentions. The goal – to reimagine a formerly underused space to one of vibrant activity. However, without draws for citizens young and old, they run the risk of underutilization, sending residents to spaces that better meet their needs.
The most successful are those places where the potential for activity is boundless. In my travels, my attentions is always drawn to locations where I can easily imagine my children happily playing, and my parents eager to explore as much as me. Locations where three generations can experience joy and a sense of connection.
And successful placemaking does not need to be exclusive to the public realm either. As we increase density in cities, including a central gathering space in development designs can do wonders to build camaraderie in residents. Children of all ages can have a safe space to play, and neighbours feel more inclined to look out for each other.
The idea that we are all in this together can, in turn, make or break a space. Areas that sit largely underused can cause feelings of loneliness and discomfort. They turn families away and send most adults searching for places with more opportunities for social interaction.
As new urban communities grow, placemaking will play a key role in enhancing the livability of our cities. The design doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to be built with accessibility for all ages in mind. Children need to be welcome to play, adults to relax and be social, and the two groups able to mix happily.
That accessibility must also apply year round. Play and socialization happen even on the coldest days, and can be enjoyed by both the yound and old. Intergenerational interactions at any time of year are not only welcoming, but also remind us that even on the darkest days, we are not alone.
Great placemaking is crucial to inspire our attachment to a place, regardless of age. We all want to feel like we belong, and have that desire to come back to a given spot. Placemaking without age encourages all of us to learn from each other, and enjoy the spirit we give to a space. With mindful design and planning, they have the potential for lasting success, from one generation to the next.