A place to call our own: The connection between community well-being and placemaking

Sarah Ravlic is BC Healthy Communities’ former Healthy Community Planner.

Place affects our health in multiple, powerful ways. In fact, it’s now known that the majority of individual health outcomes actually depend on the environment that we live in, rather than our genetic makeup (Raphael, 2009). However, not all spaces have been created equitably. This equitable making of place is essential to both individual and community health. Placemaking is one way in which individuals and communities are attempting to strengthen their connection to place and the appropriateness of it.

Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which people shape the public realm to realize a shared value, and is defined by asset-based activities that highlight local ability while meeting local need and desire for accessible (and fun!) spaces. These activities promote creative patterns of use, paying attention to the many identities, histories, and cultures that define a place and support its evolution (Project for Public Spaces, 2018). This process of collaborative creation, when done right, supports social, economic and environmental components of total well-being.

How does placemaking support our health and well-being? Well, it encourages social interactions with others in our neighbourhood, supports community building and fosters civic engagement. These activities promote a greater sense of belonging, feelings of efficacy over one’s space and life, and often increase physical activity, which in turn helps to reduce negative health outcomes for individuals such as depression. Basically, “research shows that the experiences of volunteering, acting in a leadership role, organizing and recruiting others, and learning new skills, all facilitate key social processes that benefit health. Other studies indicate that engaging community members in a public space’s planning process increases the degree and frequency of its use.” (Project for Public Spaces, 2016).

The key to good placemaking is equitable inclusiveness in both placemaking activities and the resulting space or place. The degree of representation and participation that all members of society have in shaping these public spaces is key to positive health and well-being for communities. A healthy space and healthy placemaking are equitable and inclusive of all community members, regardless of socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation or ability.

Cherished urban designer Jan Gehl says it so nicely: “As a tool inclusion can help [placemaking] practitioners and communities reduce and ultimately eliminate health inequities stemming from long-term systemic discrimination and other barriers. Inclusion has the power to create real change—in practice, in process, and in people’s lives,” (Gehl Institute, 2018).

A city square becomes an intersection for connection and collaboration through placemaking

For placemaking to be a positive and healthy community activity with long-term effects, it should make room for many different communities and encourage and facilitate connection between them (Project for Public Spaces, 2016). To leave individuals excluded will only allow placemaking to result in harmful changes to a neighbourhood and leave it vulnerable to gentrification.

Gentrification is brought about when those who should be involved are not. If a community placemaking process is development-led or merely an element of design, then likely gentrification will occur and limited positive community outcomes will be seen. When undertaking placemaking activities we need to ask ourselves; who gets to be involved? Who is included or excluded? Is this process or activity exclusionary or inclusionary? Is the goal to increase welcomeness of a space, or only increase comfort for the “right” people?

Gehl Institute. (2018, June). Inclusive Healthy Places. Retrieved from Gehl Institute: https://gehlinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Inclusive-Healthy-Places_Gehl-Institute.pdf

Project for Public Spaces. (2016). The Case for Healthy Places. Retrieved from Project for Public Spaces: https://daks2k3a4ib2z.cloudfront.net/5810e16fbe876cec6bcbd86e/5a626855e27c0000017efc24_Healthy-Places-PPS.pdf

Project for Public Spaces. (2018, August 24). What is Placemaking? Retrieved from Project for Public Spaces: https://www.pps.org/article/what-is-placemaking

Raphael, D. (2009). Social Determinants of Health. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.

Author Credit: Sarah Ravlic

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