Urban imagineering brings public spaces to life

Colourful piano on street

When vacant public spaces across the region turn into vibrant hubs of activity this summer thanks to $60,000 in placemaking grants from the city of Kitchener, a new website built at Waterloo is ready to track all the action.

The brain child of Troy Glover, a professor in Recreation and Leisure Studies, the website is the first step in a project to better understand the rise of urban imagineering— the act of transforming ordinary spaces into animated places of belonging.

“Urban imagineering or transformative placemaking, as it’s also called, is interesting because it’s fairly low cost and driven from the ground up,” said Glover, who coincidentally started the project several months before the grant announcement. “It has the capacity to not only change how people view a space and how they use it on a daily basis.”

From yarn bombing and street art to food trucks and festivals, transformative placemaking is not a new phenomenon —  but its recognition as an important element to fostering strong communities is.

“Placemaking allows communities or neighbourhoods that would otherwise go unnoticed to build an identity by animating that space,” said Glover. “Increasingly, city officials are coming to realize the most effective and immediate solutions to make a public space thrive are best defined by the people who use it.”

Tagging animated spaces

Built in partnership with the Geospatial Centre at the Dana Porter Library, Glover’s smartphone-friendly website lets users upload pictures of animated spaces in the community and it automatically geo-tags the location for other users to see. Users have the option of adding textual descriptions and providing insight into their interpretation of the location.

“The hope is that in addition to assisting with research, the website will act as a community resource for those looking for interesting places to check out around town this summer,” said Glover.

Those interested in taking it one step further, can opt in for an interview with Glover to further discuss the space they tagged.

Come the fall, he will use data from the website and interviews to answer a slew of questions including: How do animation initiatives represent urban life? Whose aesthetics really count? Who does the reimagining and cultural packaging? On whose terms?

Ultimately, he hopes that a better understanding of urban imagineering will lead to more resources for transformative placemaking activities across communities.

“By nature transformative placemaking is an organic activity,” said Glover. “But if we can support these initiatives with resources to reclaim and enhance public spaces, everyone benefits.”

colourful piano on street