All we need to know about place making can be found in…FOOD?

creme brulee

The longer I work in the field of urban planning I continue to find a strong relationship between the art of place making and food.  Place making, like food, consists of a relationship between a recipe, the necessary ingredients, and the artisan chef to expertly assemble the ingredients to provide the expected result.  If one would like a crème brulee there is a certain mix of ingredients that are necessary.  A particular recipe must be followed.  A caring and knowledgeable chef needs to be at the helm.  If the right ingredients aren’t used, or the recipe isn’t followed, a crème brulee will not be the end result.

Food is often very dynamic in its creation as are the places that we collectively love.  Great places don’t just happen.  They are no accident.  Recipes are used.  Ingredients are weighed and measured.  The chef executes on the recipe with the necessary ingredients.  These relationships are well understood with food, but are only now being (re)discovered when it comes to place making.

So what are the recipes and ingredients of place making?  Our recipes are the land use policies that a community uses.  This would include conventional zoning codes.  The ingredients for place making include streets, buildings, and civic spaces among other things.  The chef would be all those who make up the decision making process (i.e. government, developers, lenders, citizens).  Zoning (the recipes) tells us how the ingredients can be put together.  In the case of conventional zoning practices the “dishes” that are made (as per the recipe’s instructions) include monoculture neighborhoods, commercial strip centers, and homogeneous office parks.  While this may not be the intention, it nonetheless is the result.

“The new American city has been likened to an unmade omelet: eggs, cheese, vegetables, a pinch of salt, but each consumed in turn, raw.” (Suburban Nation)

Source: Pixar/Disney

In the Pixar/Disney film “Ratatouille a very important lesson about place making is taught (indirectly) through food that is worth sharing.  Remy the rat is being mentored in the culinary arts by Chef Gusteau. In the particular scene I am referencing Chef Gusteau is explaining to Remy the delight of certain foods when consumed separately.  He tells Remy to take a bite of a strawberry, and to relish in the flavor the strawberry exudes.  Gusteau then instructs Remy to take a bite of cheese and note the nature of the flavor it offers.  Gusteau then tells Remy to consume the strawberry and cheese simultaneously.  When Remy does this he experience an entire different palette of flavor because of the interplay that occurs between the two foods.  The result is something that is unable to  be achieved without the two working together as they do.

The same lesson taught to Remy by Chef Gusteau also applies to place making.  It is through the different application of ingredients that a richness of urbanism can be created that is unique, engaging, and inspiring.  The creation of place is typically not an accident, although it can occur that way.  Just like an award winning recipe, the execution of that recipe by a fine chef, and the use of carefully selected ingredients – will often emit the type of genuine places where people will go out of their way to spend time.  Think of the great places you have experienced in your lifetime and answer these questions: What made those places distinctive?  How did you act differently in terms of your engagement of that place?  What aspects of that place inspired you?  What were the lasting impressions and the impact of those places on you as a person?

The translation between food and place making is a strong one.  These same questions could very easily be asked of a great restaurant that you have experienced.  The differences are just as palatable and easily identified.  It is the difference between a meal at Ruth’s Chris and McDonald’s, in my opinion.

Cooking Urbanism
Source: Tom Low

So what are the lessons to be learned from the correlation between place making and food?

LESSON 1 | Place making requires vision – As in food you have to know what you want to create and take the necessary steps to prepare for the outcome you desire.

LESSON 2 | Place making requires discipline – As in food you have to show commitment to the process that is necessary to achieve the end results that are part of the original vision.

LESSON 3 | Place making demands effort – As in food the desired results will take time and attention if the end results from the vision are going to be delivered.

LESSON 4 | Place making delivers higher returns, both financially and socially – As in food, when the right vision is identified, the right discipline is maintained, and the right discipline is exuded the place making results can be amazing.  The results are often long lasting because the investment in creation often carries over into the sense of investment and ownership for those who engage the place.

The last question to be asked in relation to this topic is – what can one do in order to more effectively generate places as opposed to projects?  There is much that can be done, but it certainly isn’t easy.  The recipes, as presently constituted, require the consumption of ingredients separately.  The end results can be as drastic as emitting Paris, France or Paris, Idaho.  I don’t know about you but I am more interested in Paris, France (no offense to Paris, Idaho intended).

Ratatouille 5
Source: Pixar/Disney

2 thoughts on “All we need to know about place making can be found in…FOOD?

  1. I love this analogy, Michael. I have pondered it before and I would like to elaborate on a few items to take it a step further.

    Regarding ingredients being “weighed and measured”, I would emphasize “proportion and scale” as it relates to place-making. Using the wrong proportion of ingredients in a recipe will not be good to the taste. Too salty, too sweet, too bitter. There is a list of ingredients to be used in a recipe, just as there is a variety of elements necessary for good place-making. By means of the Urban-to-Rural Transect, a variety of street types, building types, land uses, civic spaces, density, and urban environments (Transect Zones) is necessary to create a place with natural human activity with a healthy variety of culture, socio-economic groups and age groups all carrying on with their daily activities at different times throughout the course of the day. This vitality is the outcome of well-proportioned use of a wide variety of elements in urbanism and is good to all the human senses. Suburban sprawl is an example of an environment that is lacking variety, using a single or too few ingredients, and at the wrong proportion (too much of one ingredient).

    “Mixing” is another step in a recipe that is critical in creating good food. Ingredients have to be properly mixed and blended to create an edible outcome. Similarly, good place-making requires a proper mix of elements or mix of uses (mixed-use) to create a robust urban environment with different people and activities in close proximity interacting together in a natural way.

    “Time” may be the most important step in food-making (baking and cooking) as the proper proportion of ingredients, blended together, are marinated, seasoned, boiled, baked or fried to cook the ingredients together at the right temperature over a period of time to create a culinary masterpiece. New places also need time to develop, mature, grow (especially street trees) and establish themselves into culturally rich environments with a strong sense of community with buildings, civic spaces and institutions that age gracefully over time. Places, communities, neighborhoods, towns and cities tend to adapt to changing circumstances over time as needs change. Just as a master chef refines and perfects his recipe over time that can only be taught through experience.

    As Michael’s analogy plays out with proper proportion, variety, mixing and time, places are created with a timeless quality that increase in value over time as they become beloved by many people over many generations.

  2. I really liked this one! Perhaps the simplicity or the familiarity of the correlation. This is something anyone could understand. How clearly and strongly is presented the importance of mixing the different ingredients.

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