Placemaking for a Post-Pandemic World

Photo by Naman Saraiya

The Citymaker speaks to citymakers Charlot Schans and Siënna Veelders, advisors at Dutch urban development bureau STIPO about their vision for placemaking in a post-pandemic world and their roles as co-curators of The City at Eye Level Asia, a new book showcasing some of the most creative approaches to creating liveable and lovable cities in South East Asia.

2020 upended many of the norms and constants in our lives. It restricted our freedoms of movement and association. It imposed strict operating requirements on schools, shops and businesses and radically altered the way we navigated the villages, towns and cities we call home. Citizens who once treated their neighbourhoods as dormitories, places to retreat to after the working day and the socializing were done, were forced to consider how many of their needs could really be met locally. 

When the place of work, the supermarket, the pharmacy, the doctor’s clinic, the employment bureau or the public park are on the other side of a barrier, how do you meet those needs? Many municipal bodies have reinvented or renewed themselves during the crisis, moving quickly and reflexively to meet the requirements of people forced to shelter-in-place. 

In many instances, the changes have been modest, but impactful. Creating online and digital access to public services. Opening up cycle lines and paving or pedestrianizing areas that were dominated by motor traffic. Establishing temporary clinics and other government facilities and services in areas that previously lacked access to them. Steps as simple as temporarily removing licensing restrictions on street vendors to improve economic opportunities and the neighbourhood supply of food and goods. 

Though the term may not be one that some people are unfamiliar with, 2020 turned millions of people into placemakers. In partnership with Think City, STIPO, a Dutch urban development bureau, has published The City at Eye Level Asia, a collection of some of the leading placemaking case studies in cities across South East Asia. The Citymaker caught up with two of the book’s curators, Charlot Schans an urban sociologist and Siënna Veelders, a Heritage professional to ask them about STIPO’s mission, the new book and their vision for placemaking in a post-pandemic world.

Can you tell us about STIPO and its mission?

Charlot Schans: We’re an interdisciplinary team for urban development and we work a lot on better cities. Whether that’s by working on public space in the city or a social innovation collaborating with many stakeholders. We do a lot of area development issues and central to our approach is always co-creation and co-makership, because we believe that better cities are made in co-creation. 

Where did the idea for the book, the City at Eye Level Asia originate?

Siënna Veelders: During my studies I traveled to Hong Kong: I did my internship at Urban Discovery [where] I was combining my internship for my studies [and] my love for travelling. And ever since I graduated, I was exploring the possibilities of combining heritage and placemaking, [so] I started working at STIPO. 

I had a dream to see if we could combine the different stories that Asia has to share. We noticed that lots of Asian cities look to the West for examples of urban development, creating better cities. But then, while looking to the West, the context is, in a lot of times, very different to the Western context. 

We launched a programme called The City at Eye Level. In 2012, we started gathering different examples of building great cities on a street level. We gathered lots of different case studies together with lots of initiatives and co-authors. And it grew and grew and grew. We had lots of different series from the books, for example, the City at Eye Level for Kids. Throughout of working on the different books, we had [the idea] to gather different Asian case studies to share all the best Asia has to give and to give people the possibility to learn from similar case studies instead of a case studies that don’t match their contexts. 

The first few books had a very European perspective. Why was it important to move past that and to include city like Brazil? And, of course, with the new book, cities across Southeast Asia?

Siënna Veelders: The way cities are built in Southeast Asia is completely different. Of course, there’s lots of different [reasons] why cities are different in Asia. For example, the way people build or the regulations on building and public space. Sometimes it’s a bit hard to just copy and paste projects from the Western context into an Asian context or a Brazilian context. So, we thought it would be important to share great examples from Asian countries, because then people can easily, not necessarily copy and paste, but easily find ingredients that fit best in their own context, instead of trying to make it fit from a Western context.  

Charlot Schans: Besides that, I think it’s also very interesting to see that [when] people draw on these more global examples, it can be something that you look up to, that sounds great to strive for, but is difficult to accomplish. And I think by showing these great examples from the Asian region itself, it empowers people to understand that it actually can be done, because there’s lots of examples that they can learn from. That’s also central to our approach: [better] connecting a network of Asian placemakers or people working on a city at eye level because learning from your peers in the city, in similar contexts, might be more fruitful always looking across the globe for other contexts.

Siënna Veelders: It’s really interesting to see how different cases from the book showcase a different approach to creating better cities and creating a more sustainable city or a sustainable a world. [To] also show people in the West, [that] things can be done in a different way.

Charlot Schans: Absolutely. I think you definitely see if we look in the West to how we talk about activating public space, for example, it might not be as natural to put our private lives up in public space. And you see a lot across the Asian region, amazing examples that we can learn from a lot in Western context.

Charlotte, you mentioned earlier, the kind of co-creation aspect and how important that is. Can you explain a little bit about the software, hardware, orgware approach to placemaking?  

Charlot Schans: Central to the approach that we’ve developed in the city at eye-level program since 2012, is the idea that cities are not merely design-driven. It’s really something where the hardware – the design – should be combined with the software – the use. How do people move around in the city? How is the place programmed? What are the soft qualities of the place combined with the orgware – how is it managed? What are the communities around a place that actually make it thrive? And things like how it’s maintained or how the quality is improved by different stakeholders around the place.

How has the coronavirus changed the kind of approach that STIPO takes to placemaking? 

Charlot Schans: I think what the last couple of months have shown is that people were retracting into their private spaces more and more, and public spaces were more and more empty because of lockdowns across the globe. But you definitely see that people simply love to come together: they seek connection. And whereas we can’t easily travel as much as [before], you see a lot of appreciation for people’s local context. I’ve heard many great examples where people have finally started to understand the importance of public space, the importance of green spaces across cities. And I think that in our book Hamdan Abdul Majeed from Think City actually emphasized that the time for placemaking is now because you definitely see that people appreciate the use of public space much more than before. 

[We] see great examples across the globe and also in Asia of people focusing much more on the human-scale qualities of the city, by closing down streets and opening up space for pedestrians and cyclists. All these street eateries, which are actually much more [common] in Asia, but in the rest of the world, [it] might be new for people to seek food in the street and sit out in public space. There’s a huge opportunity to reimagine our public spaces now in a post-COVID world. And we hope that these temporary experiments can be sustained over time and that his will lead to more strategic approaches from cities to seek new priorities in how we use our public spaces. 

Siënna Veelders: The usability of public space is under pressure now with COVID. Of course, we do need to keep our distance, but we still need to seek human contact. I think it’s important that we take note of the way we design our public spaces and our streets, to make sure that it’s really accessible for lots of different user groups, not only for pedestrians, but also, for example, people with disabilities, or for children. It’s very important that we [take] notice of the way people are using public space now.   

What advice would you give to people who want to get involved in making their cities better? Especially for people who aren’t necessarily connected to that world of placemaking? 

Siënna Veelders: I think it’s a matter of getting inspired. A lot of people we’ve met, for example, joined Placemaker Week Asean in Kuala Lumpur and they didn’t really recognize themselves as placemakers. They were just saying: I do something that I love for my city and for the people that I live with. But then, when they met fellow placemakers, they realized that they are part of this movement. So, I think it’s a way of trying to make sure that people connect with each other. To organize different conferences in Asia [and] worldwide to make sure that these people can meet each other and exchange [information]. But normally we would just say start small. Start in front of your house; that’s already a beginning. And [if you want] to get inspired by the different things you could do in front of your house, then it’s nice to get in touch with a network, wherever you are. I think it’s a matter of finding the right people, [to] get inspired and try to do [things that are] really quick, cheap, easy to do and start small. And that’s already the beginning of a change.

Charlot Schans: I think the beauty of placemaking is that it can be done by anybody. So what you often see is that people see something that is not working well in their own streets, and they just get started and they get their community together and create a better place by adding greenery, or cleaning the street together, or adding a couple of benches or a nice place to play for children, those kinds of things. [It] needs to come together with the more overarching strategies implemented by the city. Whatever your position you’re in, in the city, there’s always something you could do to create better cities and more lovable places. 

Touching on that point about strategy. One thing that might not be obvious to new placemakers the methodology or practise of thinking about that strategic side. How should we go about that process of turning action at a community or neighbourhood level into a wider plan? Something that is coherent, integrated and effective?

Charlot Schans: This is where the aspect of co-creation comes in. It’s often thought that top-down planning will solve all the city’s issues by itself. If you look at the complexity of cities and the complexity of our urban places, by bringing these stakeholders together, even on a very strategic level, you can create new visions and create new strategies together that actually fit the local community [and] fits the ambition of local governments. Because in the end, what we always see working in co-creation, is that there’s actually a win-win to create it between these different stakeholders. So, it’s often not [the] worlds apart we think [it is] in the beginning. Often, activists, placemakers, people working in local government, real estate developers; they all have an ambition to create a better city. And by working together and thinking about their own interests, [as well as] their joint ambitions, you often see that these strategies can be created to the better.

Siënna Veelders: It’s always important to make sure that you engage the future users of your projects or your public spaces, instead of staying in your office and trying to imagine [how it should] be. If you engage with the community from the get-go, it’s really interesting to see what can grow out of it. You have to have an open mind and, sometimes, you need to let go of a couple of things in order to be fluid and coherent and co-create with a lot of different stakeholders.

What are some of the placemaking initiatives taking place across Asia that are exciting and inspiring you?

Siënna Veelders: [There are] so many different initiatives showcasing so many interesting perspectives to the city. For example, one from Yangon; there’s an organization called Doh-Eain. They started out with renovating heritage public housing and they noticed, at the back of the houses, there were lots of back alleys that were really in bad shape. Lots of people were using them as a place to throw garbage. Rats were swimming in the dump. It was very unhealthy for people to live close to the back alleys. So, they figured, why not open up these back alleys, clean them up and add public space to the city? Yangon is a very open-structured city, but it’s also very crowded. There’s limited open public space where you don’t have traffic, for example. By opening lots of back alleys in Yangon they added miles and miles of public space for people. 

Charlot Schans: There are so many great examples in the book, and I would definitely advise everybody to read into all of them, because all of them have their own lessons and their own beauty. It’s interesting because we created the City at Eye Level Asia to focus on the street level. One of the cases from Singapore also shows that we can move beyond the eye level and even include opportunities for greening the city on the rooftop level. In Singapore, you see, in terms of the densification, lots of opportunities are being sought to include rooftops [as a way] to create lovable places for communities in real estate development. So, I think that’s a beautiful example of how we can interpret the eye level in an interesting way.

You can view The City at Eye Level Asia online here. Free digital copies of the book be downloaded from STIPO’s book store.