Friday, 11 January 2013

The cruise post aka what I learnt about placemaking from eighteen nights eating myself senseless

The prospect of my first cruise was exciting on many levels. As a placemaking nerd, I was looking forward to checking out the cruise ship that we would soon be boarding. As a closet fan of 'The Love Boat' (thanks mum), I was thrilled to be spending eighteen nights cruising the high seas with, if television could be believed, a mix of fellow passengers who were either having problems with their love life or getting into amusing scrapes (but all devoted to eighties hairstyles). And as someone who enjoys the odd meal or two, I approached the Fremantle Passenger Terminal in a mood of quiet determination, steelily focused on the mission at hand: eating Princess Cruises into insolvency.

Now that I'm over my cruiselag, I thought that I'd share some of my thoughts about our cruise.

Placemaking on the high seas

1. Food

Placemaking legend William H. Whyte once wrote: "If you want to seed a place with activity put out food." Never a truer word has been spoken.

So, in honour of Whyte, I felt that I really did owe it to placemakers around the world to become intimate with the various dining opportunities around the ship. (The sacrifices I go through for Freo Doctor Blog readers.) Sitting at my usual spot at the buffet, I enjoyed watching the social exchanges that food encourages amongst people.

I discovered that not only does food indeed help foster activity, but it is pretty cool how easily it acts as a social lubricant. Groups of people just like hanging out together and shooting the breeze over food.

2. Memorable experiences

Another placemaker, David Engwicht, firmly believes in the importance of creating memorable experiences for people. I can see his point. Why would people return to a place if their visit wasn't memorable?

Our experience was made more memorable by immaculate customer service. It was so good that it kind of started to freak me out a little bit. That wouldn't come as a surprise to fellow Perth residents who have had to endure good, old fashioned customer service, Perth-style. The "I'm going to make you regret handing over your hard earned cash by making your experience in my shop/cafe/restaurant as pleasant as attending a Council meeting" type.

That wasn't the case aboard our ship. The waiters were efficient, friendly and sincere. They actually seemed to enjoy their jobs, and more to the point were extraordinarily good at them.

The Crooners Bar became our favourite place to hang out. Why? The bar staff. They made us feel welcome. Simple as Carlos, the bartender, took me under his wing when I told him he made a mean cocktail. After our second visit, we were made to feel like regulars by the bar staff - whereas I could name several places in Freo where waitstaff still pretend not to recognise me after four years of tri-weekly visits. On the ship, the choice to return was made easy for my wife and me.

3. Programme of activities

The good placemakers at Project for Public Spaces believe that the more activities that are going on and that people have an opportunity to participate in, the better.

Fred Kent would have been impressed with what was going on on our ship. Each day was crammed full of different activities. From our vantage point sitting on a comfy chair and sipping on one of Carlos' tasty martinis at Crooners, my wife and I would watch the other passengers going from one activity to another.

Trivia games, art auctions, table tennis competitions, wine tasting, singing classes - you name it, there was probably an activity for it. All the activities got me thinking about how programming was an important tool in the cruise ship's placemaking arsenal. It felt like that there was something for anyone to be enjoying on the ship at any time of the day. (For me, it generally involved laying around doing nothing, although I did attend a wine tasting class.)

4. Adaptive uses

Another thing that I'm certain would have earned two placemaking thumbs up from Fred Kent was how the ship made use of its places during the day and evening.

For example, Crooners, our martini bar, operated as a cafe during the day. Cafe Corniche (the Italian themed restaurant) functioned as a space for people to sit with friends and to socialise when it wasn't operating. The Champagne Bar doubled as a mini-piazza during the day when it was closed. Much to the chagrin of the Arts Director, the Wheelhouse Bar (a British themed pub) hosted the art auctions.

These spaces were used as much as possible. I got the feeling that the goal was to provide as many options for people as possible to use a space to gather, socialise and to have fun.

5. Lots of people helps with placemaking

Our ship had 1,950 passengers. That's more than double the number of residents living in Freo's city centre. I can't recall feeling like the ship was overcrowded. (Although there were really long lines outside the Bingo events.) As experienced people-watchers my wife and I enjoyed the hustle and bustle around the ship.

For me, the number of people on board helped to inject the ship with a life of its own. Busy restaurants and bars, active spaces during the day, people lounging around and people walking from activity to activity imbedded a real sense of vibrancy.

This sense of life and vibrancy isn't quite matched by Freo these days. I don't expect it to be, given the parameters of our ship compared to our city. Eight hundred and fifty odd residents in our city centre isn't good enough. Such a low population means that we've got to work that much harder to make our placemaking efforts succeed.

Dare I say it: More people living and working in Freo's city centre...full steam ahead!

6. You're never finished

One of the placemaking  principles espoused by Project for Public Spaces is that placemaking is ongoing. I must be a slow learner, but I didn't have that epiphany until seeing it in action on the cruise. Day in day out and night in night out the placemaking didn't stop and it was consistently awesome. One thing that I learnt is that placemaking isn't a one and done, flash in the pan type of project. It's all about turning up and emptying the bins, cleaning the footpaths, replacing dodgy bollards every single day.


That's about it for now folks. Six things I learnt from placemaking on the high seas: Food; memorable experiences; programme of activities; adaptive uses; lots of people help with placemaking; and you're never finished.

After our cruise, my wife and I spent some time in Sydney (at The Rocks) and in Melbourne. Look out for another holiday inspired post about our experiences in these cities soon.

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