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How to reclaim the city’s public spaces

The personal city: City Repair leader Michael Cook comes for the Arts Engage! symposium to teach Halifax about a beautiful bit of activism called “placemaking.”


Michael Cook's coming to Halifax and he's packing big ideas about public spaces. Cook is an advocate of us citizens creatively claiming public spaces in our cities, or what he calls "placemaking"---one of the primary principles and practices of his Portland, Oregon-based group, City Repair. From a bench on the corner to street paintings, a successful act of placemaking reminds passersby that there are people living nearby who know and love this space.

Cook's crossing the continent to demonstrate placemaking during weekend workshops. His time in Halifax is part of Arts Engage!---Arts for Community Engagement, a training session and symposium running June 14 through 20, organized by the 4Cs Foundation. He explains placemaking in this Q&A, which has been edited from an email exchange. For details on other events, visit

The Coast: What is placemaking? Michael Cook: Placemaking is creating awesome things together for the joy and empowerment of overcoming physical and social isolation. Placemaking is the process of communities reclaiming their public commons and expressing their collective values in the places where they live. This process manifests as ephemeral events and celebrations, or semi-permanent public amenities. The finished projects can be used to address practical needs of a community but even the creation process is a catalyst for the development of community integrity and decision making-capacity.On, you touch on the grid plan in American cities as something that needs to be overcome. Does placemaking only work on grids?Cities with strong grid structures tend to have higher amounts of physical and social isolation---they have a strong need for placemaking, but placemaking is always important no matter where we are or what kind of societal structure we're in. Sharing our human story and expressing it collectively in the places where we live is necessary for life just as breathing is necessary for life. Cities have compromised our ability to make place, just as they're compromising our ability to breathe.

What makes here right for placemaking?My focus isn't really Halifax the city, it's the people and the communities within it. My goal is to share stories, principles and patterns, and let you who receive them decide what to do with the knowledge. Because my goal isn't to change your city structure or urban planning model; it's to remind you that what we have inside of ourselves is the most important thing, and that to express it and share it with others is the foundation for a healthy community and that positive change in society happens upon that foundation.

You'll do three hands-on workshops the weekend you're here---participants are advised to "come dressed for mess"---which doesn't seem to be much time to make something substantial.Placemaking can be both ephemeral and long-lasting. We do single-day events but also projects that have been around for over a decade. The fast pace of modern society is certainly an issue that comes up. But even in a fleeting moment, a story can be born. And that story can shake the world long after the moment has passed.

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