Author: michaelakcohen


Waiting for the Swimming Pool. We turn up the heat on urban renewal at Sydney’s Green Square

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In a paradoxical age of hyper-connectivity and isolation, Waiting for the Swimming Pool is a creative placemaking proposal that highlights the importance of designing communal spaces. This temporary creative placemaking project will bring life and activity to the newly developed Green Square precinct whilst the Gunyama Park Aquatic & Recreation Centre is being built.

​​ The project takes its inspiration from cities around the world using public saunas as ways of reinvigorating under-utilised or unactivated areas. In Gothenburg, for instance, a sauna was recently built in the disused container port as an agent to seed the area’s regeneration into a new urban quarter. In Finland, the City of Helsinki commissioned Löyly, a large-scale public sauna that sought to regenerate a former industrial zone on its seafront. The sauna aims to combat rising levels of anxiety and loneliness in urban environments. It advocates for the prioritisation of better public spaces in Sydney that are affordable, inclusive and contribute to residents’ quality of life. ​

The project was initiated by Studio Rain and is sponsored by 107 Projects and will be built outside City People’s home at the Joynton Ave Creative Centre, a newly completed adaptive reuse project by Peter Stutchbury.  City People will curate a public program of arts and wellness activities at the sauna and there is hope that the structure will eventually find a permanent, or semi-permanent space within the community.  ​

Shortlisted for the My Community Project grant scheme through the NSW government, the project is part of a public vote that engages members of the local electorate to have their say in what they want to see improved or introduced in their community. If you live in the Heffron electorate of NSW and want to see this project brought to life, please follow this link to vote.

But hurry: Voting closes on Aug 15.


Join us at Vivid Ideas 7 June 2019

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Image result for change is happening wall

At City People we believe inspiring people to connect with each other and the place in which they live, work or visit is the key to an inclusive city.

This is why we love creating experiences (from planning to implementation) that are imaginative, challenging, delightful or beautiful but most importantly, inspired by the specific community and place.

Please join Michael Cohen, Director City People, at Vivid Ideas Exchange on 7 June at the Museum of Contemporary Art for a panel discussion on how we can ensure Sydney is a city that is inclusive for all people.

Michael will be discussing how art and culture can be curated and programmed to create inclusive cities with some insightful panellists in social analytics, urban development and indigenous culture: Joanne Kee, National Theatre of Parramatta; Lucinda Hartley, Neighbourlytics; Tim Williams, Arup; and Dave Beaumont from the City of Sydney.

The focus is on the future of Sydney and innovation in both technology and approach to placemaking will a key theme.  We look forward to sharing City People’s urban innovation accelerator as a great example of a new way to deliver on a creative placemaking vision.

The event is on 7 June, 9am-11am as part of Vivid Ideas Exchange and Helen Salmon, Director of The British Council, will facilitate the discussion.

We’d love to see you there! You can get more information and register here.


Does Placemaking = Homogenised + Gentrified?

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I recently posted about what placemaking means and the Valuing Creative Placemaking research project that I initiated with a team of great academics, commissioned by Landcom / UrbanGrowth NSW.   The crux of our research project into creative placemaking is how it impacts the people who use our streets, town centres and city spaces.  Importantly, we are looking how one might measure the economic social and environmental impact of creative placemaking.  And even just mentioning that goal is a hot topic.


As you can see in the diagramme above, we’ve identified a couple of areas of critique that creative placemaking attracts.  On the one hand, some placemaking can sometimes use generic approaches that can produce (somewhat ironically) a sameness of place.  On the other hand, :  placemaking is often cited as a cause of neighbourhood gentrification.

On the homogenisation front, I’m right there.  One of my least favourite parts of a lot of placemaking practice is that it often uses generic tools in an effort to get communities to engage with their places.  Grimy parklets with dying trees, colourful chairs poised on astroturf circles, lonely coffee carts and food trucks.  Did anyone mention those giant pot plants? These are the easy-reach, and often wheeled out tools of Placemaking 101.  They do a job yes.  But do they really get people thinking about what is special and particular to their place?  I’m not so sure.  A better approach to meaningful engagement with place seeks to draw out the specific character of a place:  its stories, physical character and its communities.  Our Urban Innovation Accelerator is the tool we have devised for just that purpose.  Anyway that’s material for another rave…

No doubt, there will be contention that placemaking is a tool for gentrification and a lot of heat under some academic collars.  Don’t get me wrong, the dispossession of communities that happens with gentrification is a serious concern and it rightly attracts debate.   The jury is still out on whether creative placemaking can be identified as a prime cause on this.  But either way, merely measuring the effect of creative placemaking is not a handshake with the devil.

As a research team we identified that the lack of concrete methodology for measuring the value of creative placemaking was an Achilles’ heel to its sustainability.  For better or worse, the clearer picture we have of the effects of placemaking the more empowered we are as a community to make good decisions.  So that’s the job we’ve undertaken and at the moment we’re refining what sort of indicators might be a good measure for valuing placemaking.

So watch this space for more on that – later this year.


Q: How many placemakers does it take to…

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… agree on what placemaking means?

A:  Quite a lot actually.

The great news is that City People has got the most comprehensive definition of that very nebulous term right here.

Valuing Creative Placemaking” is a collaborative learning project commissioned by Landcom and UrbanGrowth NSW that I initiated with a great team of colleagues:

The first part of our research is a literature review of the placemaking field and its numerous contesting definitions.  If you want to dive deep into our appraisal of the field of placemaking and the multiplicity of definitions, you can download Valuing Placemaking Literature Review here and read the full report for yourself.

Or keep on reading for my ‘cheat sheet’ version…

Basically our research team decided to go with a nuanced definition of placemaking proposed by geographer and planner Alan A Lew.  He outlines four different kinds of placemaking:

standard placemaking focused on physical upkeep and maintenance of the built environment.

strategic placemaking focused on the creation of a new development on the scale of a neighbourhood or city through a top down’ development approach with a significant level of investment, often from governments or private developers.

creative placemaking focused on the utilisation of the arts, to make a place more vibrant and interesting, be it through applications to the physical environment, the presence of arts related businesses, or the staging of programming and events

tactical placemaking focused on a ‘bottom-up’ approach led by community groups looking to test, change or improve aspects of their locale and often using temporary, low-technology interventions.

Placemaking Defn.001Happily, Lew is the first to admit that these are not neat and tidy compartments and that there is a lot of bleed between different areas.  So as a team, we agreed to adopt his framework as the most useful way to think about creative placemaking in relation to other placemaking practices.  As I’ve mentioned, placemaking exists in a contested field and no doubt there will be dissent among practitioners about whether this is correct or not.  But we believe Lew’s framework lends itself to the diversity of placemaking projects around the world.

So there you have it:  a tight little précis of the field of placemaking and one that provides for a whole spectrum of practices from top-down to bottom-up.

As you can see in the diagramme above there are some critiques of placemaking – homogenisation and gentrification.  I’ve got a blog coming on that one – hopefully next week.

Follow City People (blue button at bottom of page) and we’ll ping it through as soon as it’s up.


Michael Cohen – Director, City People


Urban Innovation Accelerator – we cracked it!

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An innovative step for cultural planning and creative place-making strategy.

At City People we understand the importance of developing inspiring vision, strategy and policy.  Indeed we’ve been doing it for years.

However sometimes cultural planning or place-making strategies can become the end point, rather than the beginning of a process of change in our cities and towns.  And what happens is that the big picture documents can languish on a shelf – and real action stalls.

The reasons for organisations not delivering strategy recommendations can be many and various:  redirection of corporate goals, budget problems, staff changes.

However, we have often observed that vision documents rest on the shelf simply because there are not enough breadcrumbs between the big vision and the project implementation phases.  So organisations and their teams can’t actually follow through on their best intentions.  Or because the suggested direction is not specific enough for the place where it is planned.  Or because the staff capacity to interpret and deliver the outcomes just isn’t there.

City People has just delivered an Urban Innovation Accelerator for the City of Wollongong and the process really demonstrated its power to transform vision documents into real projects.  In 2016 the City of Wollongong commissioned world-renowned Danish firm Gehl Architects to produce a document about how to make Wollongong more liveable.  It’s a great report (you can read it here) and it sets some aspirational goals for Wollongong to become a city that is connected, vibrant and lively.

What Wollongong needed next were some specific city activation projects that would keep the vision of the Gehl report alive and drive these goals of ‘connected and vibrant’ city ahead – projects that were specific to the needs of the people of Wollongong.

I’m delighted to say that our Urban Innovation Accelerator managed to crack it.  We facilitated this great 12-day process with a team of artists, urban geographers, architects, designers, musicians and community activists – all working with the City of Wollongong’s urban planners, historians, green city team, as well as with local Aboriginal people, businesses, skaters, parents and more.

Over 15 specific cultural activation projects were scoped, tested and planned.  And now they are at the stage where the City Activation Team can choose which of the projects they want to implement.

It was terrific to work with the City of Wollongong.  The team took an innovative approach to solving their urban problems by hosting the Accelerator and we’re really excited to see how the projects roll out.

Check out the video here.