Active Placemaking and a Marshmallow Fluff Festival in Somerville, MA
"Yes, I will be happy to be a volunteer for the 2013 Fluff Festival. Will I get a fluffernutter sandwich as a snack? So, my task will be to operate the Fluffatron 3000 with two other neighborhood volunteers? This will be fun."
The Fluff Festival, which has been held in the main plaza in Union Square, Somerville, since 2006, is an example of actively "making a place." According to MIT urban planner Susan Silberberg, placemaking seeks to build or improve public space, spark public discourse, create beauty and delight, engender civic pride, connect neighborhoods, support community health and safety, grow social justice, catalyze economic development, promote environmental sustainability, and of course nurture an authentic "sense of place."
Placemaking also involves the planning, design, management and programming of public spaces, and facilitates patterns of activities that define a place and gives it its unique identity and meaning. Placemaking is done on many scales, from the local, everyday interactions of neighbors, to weekly events like farmers' markets, to extraordinary events like the Fluff Festival, which are designed to emphasize a public space, create a sense of community, while drawing visitors from a larger area to come to Somerville. Placemaking can be both spontaneous, and carefully planned and programmed; it can be both top-down and bottom-up; it can be disruptive, and it can also spark dialogue and questioning regarding the nature and use of both public and privately owned public spaces (private spaces that are legally required to be open to the public).
At the grassroots level, placemaking can even be used as a way to protest the appropriation and privatization of public spaces, and as a way to take back, often on a temporary basis, places where "no purchase is necessary." Parking Day, where metered street parking places are temporarily transformed into pop-up parks, is a creative and whimsical example of this. The transformation of Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests is an example of placemaking with a larger political purpose.
The Fluff Festival displays many of the qualities described above for placemaking, as I discovered while operating the Fluffatron 3000 (a homemade phone booth with flying Styrofoam pellets, "flying fluff"). It certainly facilitated conversation with people, even if part of that conversation was asking kids to not use their marshmallow shooters all over the street, and to not shoot at people's eyes. It certainly served to brand Union Square as a diverse, interesting community with deep historical roots.
While taking a break from letting adventurous toddlers play inside the Fluffatron, I visited the booths from local restaurants, passed by the burlesque-themed "Flufferettes," and heard some live music from local bands. The organization of the whole event was so smooth that it was not obvious that a playful festival dedicated to a local confection first made in Union Square in 1917 required so much careful coordination and planning: for instance, taking over the streets required all buses to change their routes! This is because successful placemaking will always involve a certain level of disruption and unpredictability, and elements of the unexpected and spontaneous.
Active placemaking, especially when it involves "taking back" streets and public spaces, often involves unpredictability and disruption. To what extent are these interruptions of everyday city life necessary to obtain the benefits of placemaking initiatives, especially the creation of democratic public spaces? How do you see this playing out in your own city?
Credits: Images by Leonardo March (1, 3) and Linda Gritz (2), and courtesy of Union Square Main Streets. Data linked to sources.