Panuku Development Auckland

15 March 2017

Panuku Development Auckland’s Manager Place Making, Frith Walker, triggers a good reminder that we’re all actually the same in the end.

As a not so great man, Dr Evil, once said… “We’re not so different you and I”.

We and humans across the globe, (and those floaty astronauts out on space stations above us) are actually 99.9 per cent the same according to genetic similarity based on DNA sequencing. And, while I have you, we’re also 60 per cent the same as bananas. But that’s another story.

This feels particularly important at the moment, as we witness crazy scenes of division in the USA with people being banned from entering the country based on religious grounds, walls being built (literally) and random assertions that a number of refugees a country has corresponds with the level of social disorder. While in the UK, the growing chasm in social class also reared its head last year in Brexit as rural and “less affluent” parts of Britain came out in force with the end outcome being a vote to leave the EU.

And if you think little old New Zealand is immune from the social and racial differences that laid the foundation for all of this mess, think again. You’d be surprised how much we lead separate lives in our own social bubbles – keeping to our patch based on our demographic make-up, whether its transport (car versus bus), different shops, schools (public versus private), holiday places, employers, etc.

Getting social

Some may argue (Facebook – I’m looking at you) that being surrounded by mirror images of yourself and living in carefully curated echo chambers is fine. However, in my humble opinion it’s good for the soul to hang out with people from all walks of life – for the sake of empathy, humility and respect for others and to be reminded of what we humans with our rare social genome have. And the one environment where barriers fall away and we all have a right to be there is, drum roll please… our public spaces.

There is something beautiful in shared experiences with your fellow humans – be it a concert, people watching in a park, the hallowed grounds of a public library or even a bus stop.

Real-life, equitable interactions with our own species encourages socialisation regardless of race and wealth status, and is fundamental to who we are.

And actually using common spaces as a way to encourage interaction is nothing new. In medieval England, commons were integral parts of manor-owned estates where tenants and others held certain rights. Much the same way now we all have – or should have – equal rights over public space.

And, without getting right up on a favoured soapbox, this sense of interaction feels particularly important in this new digital era where social media has created even more reasons for us not to engage in person.

Role of placemaking

Placemaking and urban design play an important role in this regard – to create chance encounters and pleasant places to be in and experience life, together. The key player in this space is the Gehl Institute who works with government and commercial enterprises across the globe to encourage more mixing in public space.

And actually – to cite the wonderful Rony Jalkh of Project for Public Spaces (another ground breaking group in this space) – it goes beyond social interaction to actually playing a key role in peacemaking. This increasingly-felt view is that by creating an environment where marginalised members of the community feel welcome, the benefits of community participation and developing mutual trust are equally applicable to peacemaking as placemaking.

Shaping places

Now we know that good public spaces are important in breaking down social barriers and uniting us, the next trick is creating spaces that actively encourage it. As we all know, Project for Public Spaces is the Jedi Master in this arena, and has nicely summarised the act of placemaking in a helpful graphic and tool.

While PPS is my own personal north, there are countless other views on how best to create a place. Given I kicked off this piece talking about DNA, I should really cover off one particular view that outlines how a place’s DNA defines how we activate and transform its public spaces.

In his book Recoding City, Thomas Ermacora outlines how placemaking as an act allows you to transform a code of a place. For those non-nuclear physicists out there, in the last 10 years a form of technology called CRISPR has been developed, which has allowed us to make specific changes in the DNA of humans, other animals and plants. Now while I’m not sure that fiddling with our DNA is a great thing, the basic premise is that Mr Ermacora’s concept follows the same logic.

He extrapolates the theory into urban planning and suggests that before we can change the DNA code of a place, we need to know what the genetic blueprint is first to deliver a new way for the gene to express itself.

As my first boss and mentor in this field always says; “Let the place speak for itself”. So returning to my initial point, you could say that by understanding differences in DNA between places, we are in a position to create environments which not only make us happier and heathier, but also highlight the fact that as humans we differ very little when it comes to DNA (0.01 per cent in fact). Woah big thought there; I might need a lie down!

But in all seriousness – reflect back on your year so far and think about any particular events, public spaces, or trips on public transport where you had a positive encounter with a stranger regardless of how fleeting it might have been. What did it feel like to be engaging and sharing in something with strangers, migrants, or whoever? Good for the soul right? A reminder that we’re all the same in the end. And that we need each other.

And that my friends is what placemaking is all about – creating environments that encourage positive social interaction in urban spaces. In a time when some countries out there are building walls. I think we need to remember that. That other stuff – it’s bananas. B.A.N.A.N.A.S.

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