Of late there have been numerous beautification programs in the urban spaces such as the streets, back lanes, Dataran and pocket spaces. Improve the quality of the urban spaces in terms of appearance should be applauded but such efforts must be seen as a means to the end but not the end in itself. In any urban design exercise, the ultimate goal would be to retain or recapture a sense of place. Sense of place is a quality that affords a place to have its own identity, unique character, memorable and fostering place attachment. It is the quality that transcends functionality aspects of a place, to giving spiritual connotation to a place. A contextual approach based historical, physical, psychological and behavioural premises must be adopted before any attempt in retaining the sense of place of a space can be designed.
Integrating all these factors as a basis for the placemaking can make it site-specific and unique. The basic approach should be replicated in most placemaking endeavours but should invariably yield different quality of space identity because of the difference in at least, the locational context. These unvaryingly also can help to foster a strong sense of belonging and those affected by the place will develop a strong attachment to the place. This is an important consideration to promote sustainable communities.
Beautification, on the other hand, place more emphasis on the physical appearance where the whole approach is to improve mainly the visual impression or qualities of the place. Whilst this may be a more popular approach and would deliver very quick effects and response from the users, it is rather temporary in nature and having a cosmetic effect. This surface approach will incur a high cost of maintenance and sustainability will be compromised in the long run. Beautification or surficial embellishments are generally not held in high regard when comes to urban design due to the lack of appreciation to the complex nature of placemaking challenges when constructing changes to a place. The common and customary approach is to engage in shade tree and ornamental shrubs plantings as well as placing mass-produced street furniture along footpaths and open spaces. The topical ‘arty’ approach is to paint murals on walls or pavement with the aim of adding colour to the townscape. However, we tend to lose sight of the critical issues such as bland facade designs, uncontrolled design and placement of billboards and signage on building facades, in addition to a sense of scale and proportion of spaces. The grain and texture of the urban fabric have also not being given due attention. The overall incoherence in identity and legibility of the urban spaces as well as the overall urban structure lends itself to the city not being pedestrian-friendly and visually haphazard.
I am not saying that we should not engage in any beautification program but such actions should not be the end in itself rather one of the means to retain the sense of place. If the priority is for sustainable development, then the approach must be right because to be sustainable one has to really understand the concept and develop the culture to embrace it fully. Beautification is not a sustainable approach to placemaking as it is an only surface effort in accessorizing and ornamentalizing the physical appearance that only pleases the eyes but not the spirit or emotions of the public.
A design approach that takes-on the contextually responsive concept based on the physical setting, social, historical and cultural context as well as meeting the needs of the users can ensure a place of use that is more sustainable. The effect to the physical setting might not be immediate as in a beautification program but it is more culturally sustainable. This effort requires creativity on the part of the designer as well as empathy and sensitivity from the side of local authorities towards the significance of true and profound identity as well as the need for a sense of belonging. PEREKABANDAR believes that we could create cities and places with identity through good urban design solutions that stem from proper urban design principles and methodology. This must be accompanied by a passion to instill local values, customs, arts and crafts and traditions that will make a place contextually responsive. We will continue to champion good urban design solutions to improve the quality of our urban environment.