Understanding Placemaking: Economics, Politics and Everyday Life in the Culture of Cities

By Bonner, Kieran | Canadian Journal of Urban Research, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Understanding Placemaking: Economics, Politics and Everyday Life in the Culture of Cities


Bonner, Kieran, Canadian Journal of Urban Research


This brings to the forefront the vexing question of just what makes a place a place like no other place. Phrased differently, what about a place persists and what changes over time. And this is precisely what power struggles over 'place-making' are all about; namely who changes what in alternative representations of any place's present and future and how do these changes selectively appropriate or reject particular elements of any place's historical past? (Smith 2000:115)

Place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity... (Auge 1995:77)

Anthropological place is formed by individual identities, through complicities of language, local references, the unformulated rules of living know-how; non-places create the shared identity of passengers, customers or Sunday drivers. (Auge 1995: 101)

The City is different. It is an artifact so varied, so profound, so baffling, so significant, so far and away the most fascinating thing ever created by man. (Morris 1985:60)

Alone with his image of the future product, homo faber is free to produce, and again facing alone the work of his hands, he is free to destroy. (Arendt 1958: 144)

The man-made world of things, the human artifice erected by homo faber, becomes a home for mortal men, whose stability will endure and outlast the ever-changing movement of their lives and actions, only in so much as it transcends both the sheer functionalism of things produced for consumption and the sheer utility of objects produced for use. (Arendt 1958: 173) Michael Smith, in his book Transnational Urbanism: Locating Globalization (2000: 115), asks "what makes a place a place like no other place." This, as he calls it, "vexing question" implicitly raises another question: what kind of research would make the uniqueness of a place observable, which, in turn, invites us to reflect on the different voices in the discourse of place-making (the resident, the neighbourhood, the municipal politician, the corporate strategist, the architect, and so on). Parenthetically, what is the place of the voice of the theorist as one of the voices oriented to understanding the making of a place in the city? Place -- the ide a and practice of 'place-making' (Smith 2000), the difference between place and space (Casey 1997; De Certeau 1984; Auge 1995), the separation of place and space in modern life (Giddens 1991), the increasing irrelevance of place in contemporary life (Long 1989), the increasing dominance of non-place in Auge's sense above -- has become problematic and so topical in this contemporary period (of globalization? of advanced capitalism? of media penetration? of super-modernity?). The city by its very being makes place problematic; through its expression and encouragement of mobility and cosmopolitanism, the city has, through history, challenged the fixity of place. Yet, the loyalty and love Socrates showed for Athens, shown in his refusal to leave it even under pain of death, is one way the particularity of ancient Athens has entered history.

The city, as a made place, expresses the world of homo faber, as Arendt describes this actor. Cities, the most fascinating thing ever created by humans (according to Morris), like all other human-made objects, possess a durability "which gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produced and use them, their 'objectivity' which makes them withstand, 'stand against' and endure, at least for a time, the voracious needs and wants of their living makers and users" (Arendt 1958: 137). Thus, on the one hand, the city can take the shape of a home which provides the stability of durability, that resists the endless cyclic swing of the biological nature (Arendt 1958:136-174): it can even be what the "world is always meant to be, a home for men during their life on earth," where human artifice makes "a place fit for action and speech, for activities not only entirely useless for the necessities of life but of an entirely different nature from the manifold activities of fabrication by which t he world itself and all things in it are produced" (Arendt 1958:174). …

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