Observations on Place-making and Place-keeping in St. John's

Bannerman Park Plan

Editor's note: this article is written by Dennis Knight, who attended our Placemaking event on March 2, 2013.

Place-making has been receiving increased attention from community planners, architects and others since the 1970s, fuelled by thought leaders such as Jane Jacobs and recognizing that great places are drivers of economic and cultural development.  I define it as 'planning, designing and managing communities and their public living spaces to facilitate people's creativity, well-being and connection'.

In recent years, place-making has become a focus of collective action in communities who lack (or have lost) a sense of place. They include certain neighbourhoods in Halifax, Portland, Oregon, Fort McMurray and London, England.

Creative place-making is offered in the US as a certification program at Ohio State University and it is a focus of organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, sponsor of the nation-wide Soul of the Community project, http://www.soulofthecommunity.org/.

Questions recently posed by Happy City St. John's stimulated some thinking about how we in St. John's rank as place-makers and place-keepers:

  • How good are we at 'Place-making" in St. John's? and
  • What could we do better?

Following is a scan of the things that we are doing (or have done) relatively well.

How good are we?

City Hall, philanthropists, volunteers and service organizations have produced a diverse palette of community-building initiatives, including:

City Hall

  • Municipal Arts Plan, Art Procurement Program, Poet Laureate, Summer Lunchtime Concerts, and Grants to Artists and Arts Organizations. 
  • Symposia with the arts community + analyses of artists' infrastructure needs (currently looking at a multi-use arts venue). 
  • Investments in Bannerman Park and community centre facilities in Wedgewood Park, Southlands, etc, and recreational programming for seniors and youth.
  • Snow clearing of sidewalks has improved in recent years (but it needs to be expanded further to make St. John's truly a liveable winter city).
  • Sculptures and murals have greatly improved the city in recent years.
  • Cultural Capital of Canada award in 2006 and associated programming.

Natural Heritage

  • The Quidi Vidi/Rennies River Development Foundation has excelled at protecting/enhancing the fish habitat of Rennies River Watershed and Quidi Vidi Lake, thanks to champions such as Drs. John Gibson and Don Steele.  Advocacy for the protection of other rivers and the Atlantic coastline has been pursued tirelessly by organizations such as the East Coast Trail Association and Northeast Avalon ACAP.
  • The St. John's Harbour Clean-up Project was completed in 2011 with start-up of the Riverhead Wastewater Treatment Plant.
  • The Grand Concourse, Johnson Geo Centre and other major heritage investments by Paul Johnson and the Johnson Family Foundation have contributed significantly to the place.

Built Environment

  • The City has lost many built heritage treasures but much has been preserved due to the sustained efforts of a few champions such as Shannie Duff and Shane O'Dea.
  • Various public sculptures and other important heritage causes have been realised or are in process, due to champions such as Elinor Gill Ratcliffe.
  • Quidi Vidi Village Plantation and Mallard Cottage are excellent recent projects.
  • St. John's Clean & Beautiful is a good initiative (but has to keep repeating the same annual activities).

Creative Industries

  • St. John's is a creative place with a full spectrum of business, worker and volunteer champions, fuelling a wide range of creative production.  This includes a high level of creative output in the performing, literary, visual and material arts.
  • Our stories are being preserved and shared, with credit due to people like Dale Jarvis and Eleanor Dawson.

Caring for the Underprivileged

  • Stella Burry Foundation and Choices for Youth are making major contributions by offering affordable housing and meaningful employment to young adults facing challenges. 

What could we do better?

While we have done many things rather well (such as the above), there are many other cases where things could be improved considerably. This will be the subject of another post. 

Until next time...

D. Knight
23 April, 2013

Dennis Knight is an Urban and Regional Planner who has operated a consultancy in community planning and economic development for 28 years. In 2011, he authored a book entitled 'The Place'; a series of reflections about the founding and building of his home community in Green Bay, and about place-making in general. 

Written by Dennis Knight at 09:36

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Dawn Boutilier said...
Hi Dennis! Great post, great topic! One comment I have regarding place making that I feel many cities continue to do incorrectly is that the engineered infrastructure determines the place and after construction is when we realize that the place is not people friendly. An important planning step is missing. Instead a vision for the place should be developed (through a city-lead collaborative process that engages the public and design professionals) and then the role of the engineered infrastructure is to support the vision. Planning should lead, engineering should follow, not the other way around. My two cents!
September 6, 2013 08:47
While it is true that sidewalk snowclearing has improved somewhat in the past couple of years, it is still extremely difficult and dangerous to get around the city on foot in winter (let alone with a stroller, wheelchair, walker, etc.). This means that many people are housebound from December to April and many more are forced to drive when they would prefer to walk. I hope this topic will be revisited in the forthcoming post on "cases where things could be improved considerably". Walkability is vital to "public living spaces [that] facilitate people's creativity, well-being and connection".
May 2, 2013 08:10


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