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Micro-placemaking: Turning roads into beaches

A recent article in the Guardian describes how residents of São Paulo turned an elevated roadway into a spot for sunbathing and other forms of recreation. Public space is lacking in this city of over 22 million people, and it is a long way to the beach. The article describes how local residents now come regularly to hang out and sunbath on this former stretch of motorway, turning into a leisure zone for the neighbourhood.


Reclaiming the street in São Paulo (photo Greg Richards)


This type of bottom-up, informal placemaking contrasts with the top-down vision of providing space for leisure that prevails in countries such as the Netherlands. In a country with very little space at all, every single centimetre is designated for some use by the local authority, and set out in a centralised ‘environmental plan’ (omgevingsplan). This leaves little room for bottom-up initiatives, except in the form of consultations and comments by locals on the already-formed plans. In some areas placemaking initiatives are led by planners or architects trying to carve out areas of alternative and/local use from the centralised vision, such as Placemakingx in the US or Placemaking Plus in the Netherlands. One enterprising Individual has even found a role as an ‘environmental psychologist’ helping to support localised placemaking initiatives.


The extent to which local placemaking initiatives can carve out localised public space and alternative (read non-commercial) will soon be put to the test in the Netherlands. By 2023 every local authority will have to finalise their environmental plans, which will provide the basis for land use planning. These will be developed according to the ‘environmental vision’ of the local authority, which will lay out the strategic framework for taking decisions about land use. The danger with setting out the priorities for planning in such a document is that priorities can easily become set in stone, and the emergence of new activities and uses will not be foreseen.


Priorities change. When the planners in São Paulo decided to construct a new road, they couldn’t have foreseen that it would eventually become an urban beach. This kind of bottom-up, microplacemaking by local people is usually only possible where other uses fail. It will be interesting to see what kind of flexibility the new environmental plans in the Netherlands will leave for new, localised placemaking initiatives in future. Maybe will see more beaches and less roads?

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