Vibrant Activation! An Introduction to Space Activation and Placemaking

A valuable space for the community need not always be beautiful; the most treasured spaces are those that meet the needs of the community, places that people naturally use as part of their daily life.
Placemaking is an approach and an ethos, which places community participation at the forefront of creating vibrant public spaces that contribute to the health, happiness and wellbeing of that community.
Given that this ‘placemaking’ thing is buzzword of the moment in the open space and planning world I thought it would be valuable to introduce you to the language and ethos so you can join in the conversation!

“A great public space cannot be measured by its physical attributes alone; it must also serve people as a vital community resource in which function always trumps form. When people of all ages, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds can not only access and enjoy a place, but also play a key role in its identity, creation, and maintenance, that is when we see genuine Placemaking in action.” – Project for Public Spaces

Public places are the little joyful moments of cities; they are where we gather to sit in the sun with friends, meditate over a coffee on the way to work, meet our neighbours, birthday parties are held, run to shake off the days frustrations, retreat to when it’s hard at home, learn to play cricket and pass on skills to our children. Not limited to parks, public spaces typically include streets, laneways and the “front porches” of places like the library or post office, although anywhere people can go has potential to be a “place”.

Place activation is the goal of the placemaking process and it impacts all aspects of park planning, development and ongoing management.

“Place activation is defined as planning for diverse human activity in a place. When planning new places, the focus of place activation is on ensuring the needs of all potential users are met. This will provide for the natural, organic and sustainable use of places by people as part of their daily life. In turn having a place full of people will attract more people.” – Place Partners

A space that is buzzing with people is an active one. I’ve been know to exclaim “Wow, look at all this activation!” in response to a park brimming with people chatting, exercising, playing chess, picnicking, dancing, reading and eating, “This place is so activated!”

Activation is caused by placemaking and the result of the following concepts.


Community participation in open space planning:
The difference between the traditional method of developing public spaces and placemaking is all in the process.
Placemaking offers a way to strengthen the connection between people and the places they share. Community ownership of the project from the beginning sets you up for success in creating a space that people will adore.
In a space that already exists this presents an opportunity to re-imagine a place they already know and see new potential. In new spaces it can facilitate building community by connecting people and creating shared value. In the placemaking process the community is the expert and your main source of ideas and help.
The collaborative process is as important as the result. It’s possible to change how the community use a space with little more than some great conversations. If the goal is to create a ‘place’ then a landscape design will not be enough. Sure, making the space more comfortable and pretty will certainly help but it’s the relationships that make the fundamental change. Partnership with the surrounding businesses and community can build a strong sense of community, and eventually a valuable, vibrant place.

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people” William H. Wyte

“Lighter, quicker, cheaper”:
Everyone appreciates the little wins on the way towards something great and placemaking is no different. The great thing about placemaking is that it doesn’t have to be a huge, expensive undertaking. You can start slow, test out new concepts, stimulate some new ideas and start conversations with a small investment. As the Project for Public Spaces say; “Start with the petunias”, planting some cheap, colourful, flowers that brighten a space immediately, and they must be cared for which demonstrates that someone must be looking after the space. Seeing actual things happening on the ground, no matter how small, encourages the cynics among us to get on board with change, it’s not just another strategic plan that won’t show impacts for years.
Some of the most sustainable, valued and authentic places are those that where created through a slow, step-by-step process, cemented in the community. These incremental improvements infiltrated the way the community think of the space and before long became much more than the sum of its parts.
A great example is the proliferation of gorgeous public art, which has been appearing all over Perth. This ongoing ‘PUBLIC’ project by FORM truly transformed spaces with nothing more than a mural.

Tactical Urbanism:
Sounds like some kind of SWAT team right? Tactical urbanism, sometimes called Guerrilla urbanism, is a term used to describe any technically unauthorised project undertaken by the community to improve a space. Whilst it’s technically vandalism, it’s all in good fun and with good intentions. People have painted in cross walks, used pot plants to mark out bike lanes, installed free library boxes in parks, and built new parks in parking lots to name just a few. One example, which has been increasingly supported by councils, is the Parklet. These miniature parks on parking bays, which started out as protest demanding more green space in cities have now become a popular permanent fixture in main streets. There is even an international “PARK(ing) day” to celebrate it!
Tactical urbanism is a demonstration of community ownership and value of a space, these rouge actions show what people care about, and what they need from their space.


Power of 10+:
There are many aspects that contribute to a successful place, and I’ll go into this more in a future article but I’d venture that the three most important things are; that the space is comfortable to be in, there are places to sit and that it’s welcoming. If you get those three things right you are well on your way.
The ‘power of 10+’ concept is a tool for identifying why people would be attracted to a place, and to ensure there are an adequate number and variety of things to do in one location. The idea is that if a neighbourhood has 10 places that each have 10 different things to do, then that neighbourhood is on the right track; but if that city then has 10 neighbourhoods of this nature, everyone will be guaranteed access to excellent public spaces.
Places thrive when there are lots of reasons to be there, all layered together. For example; people go to a park to sit, play in the playground, listen to music, walk a trail, buy a coffee, meet people, have a picnic, play sport, watch the ducks, or walk the dog.
Think big (the overall character of the place) and small (where will people sit?).

Through clever design you can create a whole that is a lot great than the sum of its parts. Triangulation, when applied to the design of space, means to place items in such a way that the use of one increases due to use of the others. For example, a playground, café and rest rooms would get used individually but all three together will naturally attract more activity.
Sites with multiple, different but related functions grouped together create opportunities to triangulate, connect with people and a reason to talk to strangers and build relationships.

Place Management:
Creating an award-winning beautiful place is just the beginning (sorry!). It’ll never become a truly valuable community place unless it’s well managed. In fact, apparently about 80% of the success of any public space can be attributed to its ongoing management.
Places change and you need to be around to see that and respond to it. Having the ability and flexibility to make changes, which support its ongoing evolution, builds places with strong physical, cultural and social identity.
You’ll notice that more and more councils and organisations are hiring ‘place managers’ to take on this role.

A large proportion of a place manager’s role, other than ongoing maintenance, is programming. Any event or organised use of the space that is designed to attract people to the space can be considered “programming”. It serves many purposes such as; an introduction to the space for newbies, to demonstrate that someone is in charge and looking after the space, to create activity ‘social buzz’ and build momentum, and/or to build social capital.
These programs can be run in collaboration with local community groups, businesses or institutions such as schools, libraries, or farmers markets. It’s the perfect way to make a great first impression; perhaps they’ll fall in love with the park whilst perusing the citrus at the farmers market and bring their book and picnic rug next weekend.


There is a wealth of information available about placemaking, and now you know some of the language so you’ll know what to look for! The New York based Project for Public Spaces can be considered the epicentre of the movement and their website ( is full of great articles, case studies and resources on the topic.

All images courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces, NYC.


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