An Anthropological Spin on Placemaking

May 15, 2018

By: Marirosa Garcia, Social Media Manager ArtPlace America

Creative Placemaking Summits are always an interesting bird. What will you learn? Will your questions get answered? What are your questions to begin with? After all, many of us are looking for answers to a question we haven’t asked. Something that Anne Koller (League of Creative Interventionists) touched on perfectly in her spoken word poem performed to close the Summit.

For many of us, we know arts and culture can bring change. We know this. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy road. In a way the Creative Placemaking Leadership Summits are a perfect place for us because not only do you get to meet fellow creative placemaking practitioners, but one of the many sessions offered just might be that question and even the answer you are looking for.

 There are still 3 Creative Placemaking Leadership summits to go in 2018, one in Charleston and one in DC 2019 is shaping up to be even more amazing, so keep your eye on the announcements.

I was particularly excited to attend the Denver CPLS, not only because I had a based my upcoming book in Denver, but I was particularly interested in the Anthropological Spin on Placemaking session. As a little girl I very much wanted to be Indiana Jones (yes, I know he was technically an archeologist, but stick with me) not only did he know random facts about ancient cultures but he had a fabulous hat and leather jacket (see photo above for proof).

Eventually I discovered I was more interested in the people and stories behind the adventures (and the leather jacket) than the dubious archeology part. Which leads me to the Anthropology session, because what is placemaking if not people and places? Or as Jamie Bennett, our Executive Director would say “people IN places.” 

Bonnie Clark, Esteban Gomez, and Christina Kreps of the University of Denver Anthropology Department guided us through the anthropology (yes, that’s anthropology) of placemaking and how people make places, before taking us out into the University of Denver campus, turning us all into baby anthropologists.

“You need to understand setting to understand people,” Bonnie Clark said. “And if we want to understand a people we need to understand their places.”

Bonnie noted that often to get her students motivated she would ask them to talk about a favorite place or a place they hated and simply listen, because talking about ‘place’ was deeply human.

People and places are often intertwined and to understand places we must understand how people are engaging with them. How we interact with a place can reveal power differentials: “If you’re interested in where the schisms are in a culture, watch how people are interacting and not interacting with each other. Or where those territorial divides are,” Bonnie continued.

History is built into a place. This seems obvious, but it is, particularly when you see it through the lens of displacement: “As we know from studies of people who have been displaced, a place does not become any less important even when you lose it.”


As built. As imagined. As Experienced.

Before Bonnie, Esteban and Christina took us out into the campus they taught us how to conceptualize place in 3 ways: As built. As imagined. As Experienced.

As a storyteller each of these concepts felt familiar, techniques often used to describe an important place or object in a story. For example if I was describing New York based on these three concepts it would go as follows:

As Built: Here we are talking about the physical form. The architecture of the place as it is or perhaps as it was.

As Imagined: These are the tales weaved about the locale. The songs sung, the often grandiose nature of a place. “Did you know this famous writer lived on that block? And he always had a cup of coffee in that diner over there…” and so on.

As Experienced: A perfect example of this would be to mention that NYC smells like hot garbage in the summer; that the perfect word for the city would be ‘sticky’ and crowded; that when I walk down the street I bump into at least 3 people every minute.

Each facet reveals different aspects of a locale, their convergence and dissonance—particularly when a place is built or designed by someone who does not use it! This will particularly come in to play when we leave the session and start walking around the campus.We were asked to keep these questions in mind: 

Who is using a place and what are they doing?

How does it shape activity?

Do you see physical or behavioral evidence of place-claiming?

What is your own sensory engagement with this place?

Things that we may, perhaps, ask ourselves when tackling a new project. For example, when trying to decide how to change a physical place in our community. Should that empty lot be a park? A community garden? What questions do we ask ourselves as placemakers and how are they similar to the ones above? 

We walked around the campus watch the people and noticed how they interact with space.

The first thing we noticed is the busy street that dissected the campus right down the middle. It reminded me of what Bonnie mentioned earlier regarding development: When things are torn down what survives? Structures that survive denote power and importance.

How important is this street that it could not be moved when building this institution? This incredibly busy street was a little bit frightening to cross in order to get to the university library, but thankfully, as a New Yorker, I plunged ahead.


If it’s created by a human, it can be changed by a human

We were urged to “de-familiarize the familiar.” Take something that’s familiar and deconstruct it. Where did it come from? Why was it built? How do we interact with it? You’ll soon find the connections behind the place, how it can change, what works and what doesn’t (and for whom). 

“If it’s created by a human, it can be changed by a human.” Christina said. “You have to be conscious of something to change it.”

So how does this help us? How can this help in placemaking? I think it comes back to the question we must always ask ourselves to make sure our projects are tied to not only place but the people in that place. Maybe as we move forward in a project we can look at a space as it is built, as it is imagined, as it is experiend, and perhaps eventually, what it could become. 

But always by whom and for whom?