From Placemaking to Placekeeping: Redefining Urban Spaces with Alexa Gonzalez

Alexa Gonzalez shifts urban design from placemaking to placekeeping, emphasizing community voices and long-term engagement to reshape public spaces in ways that truly reflect and benefit those who use them.

This episode pairs well with…

Joanne Cheung – Cities Book of Play

Cities are sites of aspirations and identities, and ‘play’ can be a means for fostering community engagement. Architect and urbanist Joanne Cheung critiques the prevailing forms of community engagement, suggesting that they are often paternalistic and fail to adequately consider the agency of individuals and communities.

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Episode Overview

  1. Distinction between Placemaking and Placekeeping: Alexa emphasizes the importance of “placekeeping” over “placemaking,” arguing that the latter often disregards existing community values and can act as a vehicle for gentrification.
  2. Community-Centric Approach: The focus is on amplifying local artists, businesses, and stories, fostering a deeper connection with the existing community rather than imposing new ideas.
  3. Multi-Generational Engagement: Placekeeping encourages activities that engage multiple generations, sharing knowledge and experiences within the community.
  4. Overcoming Trust Barriers: Building trust in communities, particularly BIPOC communities, is crucial due to historical disenfranchisement and skepticism towards development projects.
  5. Interactive and Fun Engagement: Alexa’s approach to community engagement emphasizes making participation enjoyable and interactive, which helps lower barriers and fosters more genuine connections.
  6. Use of Creative Tools: Tools like “Programming Tiles” help community members visualize potential changes in their environment, assisting them in articulating their needs and desires for public spaces.
  7. Education and Shared Decision-Making: It’s essential to educate the community about the potential long-term benefits of urban design projects to foster informed decision-making.
  8. Importance of Representation: Ensuring that public spaces reflect the diversity of the community, including all ages, abilities, and racial backgrounds.
  9. Navigating Systemic Challenges: Recognizing that public space projects are part of larger systemic frameworks, which often reflect existing power dynamics rather than the collective good.
  10. Sustainable Community Relationships: Long-term success in placekeeping requires ongoing efforts to maintain relationships within the community, understanding their evolving needs and respecting their historical context.

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Show notes & links

Guest Bio

Alexa Gonzalez is a Colombian-American urban designer, placemaker, and Spatial Justice Advocate. She is the Founding Principal of Hive Public Space, an urban design and placemaking/placekeeping studio based in New York City. She brings over a decade of experience designing and transforming public spaces into socially and culturally inclusive environments. 

She believes in the power of public spaces and strives for her work to create memories and connections while evolving each community’s identity and sense of belonging. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design and holds a Master of Science in Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University in New York. Alexandra is an Obama Leader, a core organizer for Design as Protest. a member of the board of the Association of Community Design (ACD), a member of the Alliance for Public Space Leadership (APSL), and a Design Fellow at the Design Trust for Public Spaces.

“Our approach is truly about placekeeping. It’s about finding, amplifying, and really, keeping the local artists, the local business, the local stories. And that is really what defines a place. And that’s what we’re trying to bring in with our work. Because Very often we understand also that placemaking is seen as a Trojan horse for gentrification. that’s why often why there’s issues with trust And it becomes purely about aesthetic and it doesn’t connect with people. We really want to honing on the place keeping again and encouraging this idea of multi generational activity of sharing knowledge, sharing ideas, and sometimes even sharing the bad things, right?”

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Journey with Purpose: Placemaking. It’s a term I’m personally allergic to because for me it sounds like colonialism, like, Hey, we’re going to come in. We’re going to make this place. And ignore that, you know, people have been living here forever..

So when I speak to people who are trying to actively subvert the idea of placemaking and shifting it into something else, Like our guest today, Alexa, Gonzales of Hive Public Space. Who talks a lot about place keeping I’m interested. This is journey with purpose. I’m your host, Randy Plemel. This is episode 21.

Alexa, welcome to the show. Please introduce yourself.

Alexandra Gonzalez: My name is Alexa Gonzalez. She, her pronouns. I am a Colombian American urban designer, placemaker, and a spatial justice advocate. When it comes to what I do, it varies day by day because I do wear a lot of different hats, but I [00:01:00] have to say the one constant. is really my commitment to fostering connections and memories while really cultivating a sense of belonging in public spaces. And when I talk about belonging, it’s not merely about accessibility and being able to enter the space. But what we really try to do is focus on that real sense of belonging and what it means to feel like you’re welcome in the space and part of the space and that work that really is the North Star of my work at Hive Public Space.

Journey with Purpose: One of the things I’ve seen in your work is that you and your collaborators talk a lot about placemaking. Can you share with us, how do we define that and what do you mean by that?

Alexandra Gonzalez: I always refer to myself as a placekeeper. This is something that we feel really strongly about and we want to make the distinction. Because I think we’re committing not only to decolonizing our brain, our [00:02:00] language, and our approach, but really to make the statement that this is a practice, it’s not just a one time thing. what’s important when it comes to whether placemaking or placekeeping, I think it’s about this idea of connecting the dots.

Not necessarily reinventing the wheel and I think that’s my issues with placemaking is that sometimes it implies that There is nothing there and that you have to start from scratch so there’s this really Top down approach that we know how to do it and we are the experts and we’re coming in to tell you exactly what to do we are completely not okay with that.

Our approach is truly about placekeeping. It’s about finding, amplifying, and really, keeping the local artists, the local business, the local stories. And that is really what defines a place. And that’s what we’re trying to bring in with our work. Because Very often [00:03:00] we understand also that placemaking is seen as a Trojan horse for gentrification.

that’s why often why there’s issues with trust And it becomes purely about aesthetic and it doesn’t connect with people. We really want to honing on the place keeping again and encouraging this idea of multi generational activity of sharing knowledge, sharing ideas, and sometimes even sharing the bad things, right?

So it’s even allowing public spaces to be places to mourn and to protest. So it really covers quite a bit, and that’s why I’m really excited to push that lens of keeping and this idea of nurturing and care as being the connecting thread of artwork.

Community Engagement

Journey with Purpose: I also love get your thoughts on community engagement and how you and your work have helped people share their visions of the future. Cause I think one of the things as [00:04:00] experts in, Architecture or planning or future studies points of view is always, we could be potentially a conduit for people’s ideas of the future because people have ideas of the future, but they might not know how to channel it.

I’d love to hear how you engage with community so that they can point to the future.

Alexandra Gonzalez: I think the one important thing that I want to hone in on community Engagement and these community plans is that first of all there is no one fits all formula Right?

And I think we live in a world where we’re constantly seeking hacks and shortcuts and all of these things. This is not the place for that. So I wanted to start there in terms of our approach. We use a combination of qualitative and quantitative tools because there is a need still have that survey data and all of those things that are really important to the design, but there are sometimes the missing link with the community.

Very often the community does not [00:05:00] have the language to be able to say what they want or what they need. So one of the things that we do and how we are trying to change The approach of it is to keep it fun and keep it playful. And that might sound really counterintuitive okay, what does that mean?

But what we mean is that we want participation to be as enjoyable, memorable, and interactive as possible. And when we’re playing, when we’re Spending time with someone literally just playing, your barrier is just lower. So suddenly you are able to connect with people in a way that you will not be able to connect with if you’re simply just asking them these very dry questions that are listed on a survey.

So that’s the first thing. And then I think also our approach is it’s a become a little bit of translators and sometimes we’re. Very often we’re reading between the lines as to what people are telling us and When it comes to [00:06:00] design very often people don’t have the language to say what they want Or they would have a very timid response, right?

One quick example is if you ask someone we have this beautiful park in here. What do you want to see? A very timid or very small response would be we want a bench, which to me, it’s like yes, that’s the bare minimum. But what else do we want? So one of the things that we do, and one of the creative tools that we’ve developed is what we call Programming tiles, and they are essentially 12 by 12 tiles that are foam core, and they’re just images that they’re interlocking.

So they become this kind of, think of magnet tiles or like Jenga, like things that you can essentially build. And they have images. That are depicting diverse members of the community. First of all, it’s very important to be able to show representation and show the [00:07:00] type of users that are in the space.

That means all ages and abilities as well as racial diversity and it gives people language because suddenly they’re able to see a public art piece or programming or suddenly there’s a bike share system things that they were not even considering or things that often they feel like That’s great.

But that’s not part of our community. That’s not what our community wants. And that’s the part that we’re constantly trying to educate people about giving them agency about ensuring them that their communities can dream and that this public space could be so much more for their communities that would allow them to grow and to learn and to have it.

Opportunities for economic development and opportunities for storytelling, which is often very missing in a lot of BIPOC communities. There’s a lot there and there’s a lot that we can do. There’s [00:08:00] certainly a lot that I am that I’m inviting and as a call to action for other designers and other people that work in the public realm to really think about and be very intentional about community engagement and ensuring that when we are asking communities for something.

It isn’t a performative ask, and it isn’t an ask that is purely aesthetics, right? Like coming into a community saying, do you want the blue one versus the pink one? Come on, we could do better than that. It should be Asking them for input and decision making and things that actually do change and will impact their livelihoods.

That’s a big part of our work and even just changing that mindset and inviting, inviting others to join us in our approach.

Journey with Purpose: People have great imaginations, but I like what you said that a lot of times they might not have the vocabulary, which is very arcane, right? Like you and I could nerd out about [00:09:00] FAR and setbacks and things like that, but then even I think you and I would might be like, Oh, let’s take a break on that. And so I, I wonder. Is that the hardest part is being that facilitator or translator, or it’s the hardest part. It’s all hard. I feel like, cause part of it is also that I find hard is going to where the people are and making sure that you are actually talking to a representative set of the community and even that concept of what is community is highly debatable and contingent from your point of view, what are some of the hard parts of community engagement that we shouldn’t shy away from?

Alexandra Gonzalez: There are so many. And I think there are obstacles of various scales too, which I think it’s important. The one that you just mentioned, it’s a very real one, right? And it’s like, how do you know that you are reaching as [00:10:00] many people as possible? How do you know that you are visiting the right places?

And the short answer to that is it takes time. It takes time to build that understanding. and for us spending as much time on the ground as possible. And we have two different approaches. We have what we call our pop ups or our kind of visioning sessions. And those are when we we. Bring our team on the ground to events or things that are already happening and not just events, but also large festivals.

We go to ice rings, skating rings, libraries, farmers markets like really where people are and during those sessions. That’s what we call visioning because it’s really broad bro strokes like what is your dream for this park or the project, whatever that is. When we don’t have a lot of the time what we have to do that means that we have to rely on others.

So that means that we have to find [00:11:00] partners on the ground that have had the time to figure out and create those networks. So I think that’s the part of the place making right? Like we as Hive do not have to come and claim that we know every single person in the community, but we will be able to identify some people in the community and within those we can weave What the community is like.

We can certainly create what that cross section is. So I think that’s an important one that we what it just means is that spend time out there, go out and meet as many people as possible. I do want to say the other one and the other issue, it’s a matter of trust. this happens for many reasons.

And I think especially in BIPOC communities, it’s There’s a lack of trust because of the extractive exercises and processes that have been going on for ever. So therefore, people just don’t feel like their [00:12:00] opinion matters. They don’t feel like being part of this system really will make a change.

They don’t see that, it really is a personal benefit to them to Spend or devote the time to do the survey or to go to that community meeting that’s really problematic, right? Because despite of all of the great intentions of our team if we’re not connected to a person That’s a dead on arrival issue so I think for us That’s why we try to use art and play as a way to just like slowly building up that trust.

Also for storytelling too, right? Because when we’re able to play and we say Oh, tell us about when you were playing as a kid, right? What did you do? Where did you go? And then suddenly being able to capture those ideas that are purely coming from play really is giving us As designers on understanding about connectivity and like how they moved and how the experience different spaces [00:13:00] that is now beginning to give us paint a different picture of things that were not necessarily directly said to us, but that we’re extracting from those conversations.

And I think even zooming out even more is, of course, all the systemic level issues that have happened in terms of public spaces and all of this work. So the other part of it is, for us, is to really understand that we’re still a very tiny part of the system, right? We’re still like a tiny part of this constellation of stakeholders.

City agencies often private entities that have a say in into our public spaces. So at times the final decision is not necessarily what is best for the collective good, but it’s just a reflection of the power dynamic. And that is one that I constantly have to remind myself [00:14:00] that even if we don’t get to accomplish as much as you can, if you’re at the very least moving the needle a little bit.

I want to say that at that point that’s as far as we could do. So yeah, so it’s challenging and that part is definitely something to always keep going back to, because there are so many challenges on this work.

Journey with Purpose: I like to take a do no harm ethos here. And as long as the ratchet goes towards more justice and equity, then, we win. I’d like to talk about a counter example. And I’d like you to challenge or complicate this thesis. Okay. In some cases, we might need less community engagement, especially in terms of say life safety things. that could be a list that might include bike lanes or urban road diets We have too many veto points that, don’t allow that to happen or doesn’t allow us to build, say more homes for more [00:15:00] people.

I love for you to complicate, contradict, or confirm from your point of view.

Alexandra Gonzalez: I’m going to challenge this for sure, because I think what we urgently need to do. Is a different process. I think limiting the community’s decision making power because the experts know better. It’s in my mind is straight out of white supremacy kind of playbook and it couldn’t be farther from the approach that we try to take a high public space.

But I do have to say that there is a desperate need to educate the people to educate the public so that they can have. I think it’s why they’re saying and they making certain comments. I’m sure in most of your community engagement, all you hear about is parking very often is one of the loudest comments in any room when it comes to public spaces.

And I think that’s something that. [00:16:00] Probably any anyone that works in this round would probably agree with us and We have the data. We know how important it is, but it’s really tricky to change someone’s decision just with one meeting, So I think what’s important is that we focus on co creation and shared decision making.

I think when we’re asking the public for a decision we should be able to give that. Give them this is what’s happening, and this is what the outcomes could be so that they can then see themselves because I think this comes back to what we were saying of not speaking the same language now having the same level of understanding about what the outcomes of the projects could be.

what happens is that people are basing their decisions and their comments on how that is going to affect them tomorrow or next week, right? They’re thinking, it’s going to take me 20 [00:17:00] minutes longer to find my parking spot when I get home from work and I’m tired. They’re not necessarily thinking about how amazing it is that they’re going to have a better life.

Park that is close to their home and that they’re going to be able to exercise and their kids are going to be able to have a place to play. They’re not thinking of the pros and many of these decisions come into play. what we always like to do is how do we educate people? How are we showing them that?

The full understanding of what that decision is going to make and also see the implications in the short term, long term. Because often we get bugged down by the 20 extra minutes that parking is going to take as opposed to focusing on the long term or saying, think about the property value of your home.

It’s back to, again, education and it’s about sharing knowledge and the more that we know, the more power that we can have because I think if there’s one thing that I want us to [00:18:00] take away from this is how powerful public spaces are and how important they are into making healthy cities and really connecting us to each other.

There’s so much that is super valuable about lived experience that we should be always looking forward to decipher and understand into the design.

Journey with Purpose: This is such a hard thing because the implication of the question I asked is sort of a Robert Moses type thing of some old white guy who lives in Long Island and. 80 years doing what he thinks is right. And the impact of that is still being felt from increased asthma rates in the South Bronx to, the fact that you can’t drive a bus on parkways on purpose.

I struggle with. We know that protected bike lanes that are protected by concrete barriers or say they’re [00:19:00] raised up to the level of the sidewalk. We know that those are quantitatively safer, but the trade off might be that we need to take away a little bit more space.

Maybe I would reframe it from education to connect to something, what you said earlier how can we help people imagine wider so that they’re not just focusing on near term negatives, which I think is a human nature to think about how this might negatively affect me.

Journey with Purpose: And I think it’s harder. To think long term what the positives are. I think city bike is a great example of that. How many fights did we have around city bike dock locations? How many fights did we have about times square? How many fights are we having right now about congestion charge?

Part of the tension here is that just like [00:20:00] city bike and, the time square pedestrian plazas. Like right now, those feel like they were always that. But I don’t know about you, but when I moved to New York, none of that stuff was there times there were still peep shows in time square.

Journey with Purpose: And I’m always curious, like when congestion charge will fall back into that like, ah, ah, that’s always how it’s been. And so I, I’m always curious about that when we have these changes,

Alexandra Gonzalez: Yeah. And I think a couple of things of what you just said, when you said the 80 year old white man from Long Island, first of all, things change. So that’s also why we need younger experts and people that are really keeping up to the fact that people change and the way we move is very different than the way we’ve moved 50 years ago, .

So I think it’s important to be aware of that constant changing and the constant adaptation as a need. But the other thing is, again, really going back to the language. I think [00:21:00] data and statistics are easy to digest for people that are in the field. It becomes very abstract for someone again that is purely just thinking about the implications of that bike lane or that bike share doc.

the more that we can show it, the more that we can demonstrate things that’s what we also like to do this. Like we mark up things so people could see. This is how big is going to be. This is how, wide your bike lane is going to be. So you see it and you feel it because people have a hard time seeing what that is, right?

Like for designers, like we can see in our brains very easily. Okay, that’s five feet that’s so. And so, but that’s not necessarily a spatial understanding that people have. So demonstrating it is super critical. Again, trying to find a way to connect with them because I think that we get really jargony and we’re not speaking the same language and we get I’m generalizing, but we as designers often get [00:22:00] upset because the public does not understand What is so crystal clear in our minds that it’s a win for everyone. Maybe it isn’t for everyone if you’re not still bringing people up to speed So maybe it means that we as designers have to do a little bit more Work so we can try to educate people so we can try to bring everyone up to speed so that we are speaking the same language.

We can’t just assume and put all the blame on the end user or on the future users of the space to catch up with us. As opposed to us trying to meet them halfway. So it’s a lot of work and it’s definitely not one that we have a crystal answer to, but I think the more that we can just try to reach people and educate the better that we will be.

My name is Alexa Gonzalez. I’m an Colombian American urban designer, placekeeper, and spatial [00:23:00] justice advocate. When it comes to what I do, it really changes every day. But I think what’s important is my commitment to fostering connections and memories in public spaces.

Journey with Purpose: My thanks to Alexa Gonzalez, founder of hive public space for this conversation today, for more information, you can check out their work at hive, public It’ll be in the show notes.

I’m still not convinced that for some interventions to the city, such as life safety interventions. Traffic calming infrastructure. Things like that, that we know. Increase the safety to people. That it’s really serving our residents well to create and maintain so many veto points. I think I fully appreciate that the end implication to removing some of those veto points to some possible Robert Moses like experience. That’s not what I’m proposing. I think that when we know something [00:24:00] works, we should implement it.

As usual, these things are super complex thorny problems, which defy soundbites.

So if you like this episode in our backlog, we spoke with Joanne Chung on her work with play in the city. And it’s a great companion episode. You can see the link to it in the show notes. It’s well worth the listen. And while you’re there in the back catalog, you can listen to more episodes, go at

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This has been another episode of Journey with Purpose.

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