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In this material, Laska Nenova takes us through the history of the placemaking movement, reaching the role it plays nowadays in the development of public spaces in Bulgaria. What placemaking actually is, what the challenges are and how the national network Placemaking Connected was established in 2023. These are the questions that Laska, founder of the BG Be Active Association, answers through the prism of her many years of professional practical and strategic experience in the field of placemaking in public environments.

_Place in Silistra. © BG Be Active.

There is nothing in the world simpler and cheaper than creating cities that provide better conditions for people. – Jan Gehl

We all dream of cities that make us feel cozy, pleasant, safe and at home. In our minds, children can once again play safely in the street or in the park, among greenery and appropriate facilities, adults have a place to sit and share the news in peace. The truth is, there are such cities that could be more people-friendly. And there are many ways in which we can change cities in this direction, and one of these ways is placemaking (creating of places), which transforms urban spaces into places that are comfortable, beautiful, healthy and loved, with a view towards people's needs and sensations.

Hello, my name is Laska Nenova and it took me almost five years of learning and making places before I can calmly define myself as a placemaker. In the years from 2017 to today, through many attempts, projects, realized and unrealized ideas, I can say "I am a placemaker". But what is a placemaker or a person who "makes places"? One definition would be that it is a person who works to create more vibrant, functional and attractive urban spaces. The role of the placemaker can be taken on by urban planners, architects, artists, designers, landscape architects, municipal officials and, of course, all those active people like me who want to contribute to better public spaces. The main thing about placemaking is that it puts people and community at the centre of planning spaces. It emphasises the involvement of local communities in the design and management of public spaces, or more directly put, there is no placemaking if there is no community involved in the process.

Where does the placemaking movement come from

The origins of placemaking are rooted in a variety of disciplines and have evolved over time, reflecting changes in urban planning, community development, and social theory. As a concept, placemaking focuses on the idea of creating spaces that promote people's health, happiness, and well-being by taking advantage of the assets, inspiration, and potential of the community.

The term placemaking began to gain prominence in the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction against the car-oriented and functionally separated urban planning practices of the mid-20th century, which were often perceived as neglecting the human needs and social dimension of space. Scientists and practitioners from fields such as urban planning, architecture, landscape architecture and social sciences have contributed significantly to the development of the principles and practices of 'place-making'. This period saw the emergence of influential works such as Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which criticized the modernist planning policies of its time for ignoring the subtleties of real urban life and the importance of community-centered spaces.

The spread of placemaking is also linked to broader social and cultural movements that emphasize community participation, environmental sustainability, and the democratization of public spaces. These movements advocate a more inclusive approach to urban planning and design, focusing on the needs and desires of the people who use public spaces. The research of William H. White on human behavior in urban environments, documented in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), provide empirical evidence of how well-designed public spaces can improve community interaction and the quality of urban life. Fred Kent also worked during the so-called "golden age" of public space research in the 1980s. His collaboration with Holly White studying public spaces laid the foundation for his future work in placemaking.

Note: Be sure to also watch Placeman (2024) – a documentary produced and directed by Guillermo Bernal that traces the roots of placemaking by examining the life of Fred Kent. The film documents Fred's journey with the organization Project for Public Spaces, which he founded in 1975. The film will soon have English subtitles.

Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and urban planning consultant, is an extremely important figure in the development of "cities for the people". His entire career has been dedicated to improving the quality of urban life by reorienting urban design towards pedestrians and cyclists. He is a founder and partner of Gehl Architects. One of his books, Cities for People, was presented in Bulgaria in 2016 during One Architecture Week in Plovdiv, and subsequently, following an invitation from Sofia's Chief Architect Zdravko Zdravkov, the team of global urban planner Jan Gehl came to Sofia to analyse the urban environment and provide suggestions for its improvement.

There have also been many definitions of placemaking over the years, and I would go with the definition of the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization founded in New York in 1975 and one of the pioneers of this movement:

„Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.“ 

Where is placemaking now

The concept of "placemaking" has been promoted by various international organisations and movements, initially by Project for Public Spaces, since 2018 by Placemaking Europe, and since 2019 by PlacemakingX. Placemaking is spreading like wildfire and there are now regional organisations for Asia, Africa, Latin America and national networks from Nepal to Bulgaria. All networks, regional and national, aim to make placemaking a sustainable practice to improve cities and public spaces by supporting capacity building locally and creating platforms to share ideas, events, projects. In September 2023, we also initiated the Placemaking България network in Bulgaria, through which we bring together activists and experts in a platform to share experiences and disseminate good practices in the creation and development of public spaces with the active participation of the communities that use them.

Basic principles of placemaking interventions

© BG Be Active.

The community is the expert when it comes to public spaces. The people who use these spaces are the best source of knowledge on how to improve them. They can identify the problems affecting the space and suggest ideas for transforming it. Incorporating their ideas and talents is essential to creating a space that meets the needs and preferences of the community.

Place, not design. Our goal is to create a living and functional place, not just develop a design. Although design is an important element, it is not the only factor for the success of a place. Providing equal access and creating active applications and economic opportunities for usage of the place are often essential and can have a greater impact than the design itself.

We don't do things alone. In creating a "good" public space, it is important to collaborate with partners who can contribute with innovative ideas, financial or political support, as well as activities from different fields. These partners are essential to the success of the project as they can extend the impact of the community space by coordinating the schedules for programming and supporting of different initiatives. It is important to work together with a variety of stakeholders to ensure broad community involvement and participation in the public space creation and management process.

There will always be people who will say, "It can't be done." However, this is not always an indicator of impossibility, but rather a lack of contact or information about the possibility of the community to support the transformation of public spaces, it may be a lack of experience or, as in Bulgaria - a forgotten sense of community. In placemaking, we always strive to join forces and create positive examples that inspire and motivate others to join our efforts. In this way, the community becomes a force for change and innovation instead of a hindrance.

We can learn a lot just by observing. In placemaking initiatives, it is essential to observe and consider how to adapt the space to suit people's needs. It is often the case that people use the space in unexpected and innovative ways, such as using a raised kerb as seating. It is very important to observe how people use the space and to consider different ways to adapt and improve its comfort and functionality. This may include adding new elements such as benches, games or plants, as well as changes to existing structures and objects. By observing and responding to the ways people use the space, we can make it a better and more functional place for everyone. This is one of the key aspects of placemaking - to adapt the space to the needs and preferences of the community, making the most of its potential.

We need a vision. The common vision of what a place/space should look like should come from the people, the community that lives, works, studies around or in that space. The vision for any public space should include what kinds of activities can take place in it, what will make it comfortable, safe, cozy and loved, a place where people would love to go.

We need triangulation. "Triangulation is the process by which some external stimulus provides a link between people and prompts strangers to talk to other strangers as if they knew each other" (Holly White). In public space, the choice and placement of different elements in relation to others may (or may not) trigger the process of triangulation. For example, if a bench, a waste bin and a playground are placed without relation to each other, each of these elements can be used, but quite limitedly. When these elements are arranged together, or other elements are added - for example a café or a place to sell ice cream, they will naturally bring people together (or triangulate).

We start with petunias. We are all aware that changing a public space can be a long, expensive and complex process. That's why one of the best approaches in placemaking is to experiment with short-term improvements that can be tested and refined on an ongoing basis. These improvements can be: the placement of movable and different seating furniture, planting of flower gardens along buildings, public art initiatives, temporary pedestrian streets or streets closed to cars and open for sport and recreation. "Petunias" are improvements that can be implemented in a short period of time, or as they say in the placemaking world: "easier, faster, cheaper."

Money is not the most important thing. Lack of money is often used as an excuse for inaction and for changing public spaces. Everywhere in the world, and especially in Bulgaria, the funds allocated for improving the urban environment are often scarce, but even in our country this apologetic statement can be refuted. Partnerships between all stakeholders living, working and wanting to improve a space can be the impetus for fundraising or donations of materials, time and resources.

Places are never finished. Inherently good public spaces that meet people's needs require constant attention. People change, the needs of a space change, installed elements wear out, other things happen around that space. Placemaking isn't just installing new elements, it's constantly iterating the process and evolving the space together with the community.

Placemaking in Bulgaria

Graphics by Stuido Punkt. © BG Be Active.

The first mention of placemaking in Bulgaria was in 2011 in a publication by Elena Madison, director of Project for Public Spaces and a veteran in placemaking, who shared her joy and impressions from an event she participated in in Sofia. This first event combines a workshop and an exhibition organized by Architects for Sofia, an NGO founded in 2010 that works for better public spaces in Sofia. A few years later, in 2016, during One Architecture Week, the first experiments were made in the field under the name "Talk in the neighborhood" by the association "|No|Formal". This project was initiated and implemented as an attempt to find an alternative approach to the improvement of public spaces in panel housing estates, and is partly based on the principles of placemaking.

In 2017, a mother from Sliven sent a letter to our BG Be Active Association in which she asked us to do something about places for sport and recreation. The letter was accompanied by a picture of her son trying to ride a bike on an abandoned playground. This letter, this request and the meeting with Jan Gehl in Plovdiv prompted me to write the first project based on placemaking principles. The project called Spot aimed to transform abandoned public spaces - gardens, inter-block spaces, playgrounds - so that they become places where young people can gather, play, socialize and play sports. "_Spot" targeted mainly ten communities and youth organizations among settlements with populations under 75,000, and this limitation is another story related to the mission of the association. Within the framework of the project, we brought in two expert urban planners - Todor Kesarovsky and Angel Bondov from the association "|No|Formal". The first project, and especially the feedback from those involved in it, gave us confidence that placemaking has a future in Bulgaria, and so in 2018 we jumped into the deep, involving ten more communities in the process of transforming ten abandoned spaces.

Graphics by Stuido Punkt. © BG Be Active.

At the end of 2018, _Spot and the project team supported the transformation of more than 20 public spaces in 20 different locations across the country. Berkovitsa, Varna, Vidin, Vratsa, Dobrich, Zlatitsa, Kazanlak, Kalofer, Karlovo, Pleven, Plovdiv, Samokov, Sandanski, Silistra, Sliven, Sofia, Trudovets, Haskovo and Shumen. The transformation of these spaces was realized through the active participation of local communities and youth. The process of improving the spaces was divided into four phases: (1) Contact, (2) Consensus, (3) Action and (4) Celebration, with the placemaking approach being the basis of the whole process.

The lessons from 2017-2018 are many. The infographics on placemaking initiatives in each locality can be viewed and downloaded here and important findings emerged in a survey commissioned by BGBA and conducted by the Institute for Financial Research and Innovation, Plovdiv, which covered 1,152 representatives of local communities from all the localities included in the project.

The evaluation of the effect of the implemented improvement activities shows that the majority of the participants in the survey, with a share of around and above 90%, expressed an overall positive opinion of the implemented initiatives. The results also highlight the positive impact and change in the living environment, with better conditions being created for the implementation of other specific activities. This clearly demonstrates the necessity and importance of the projects in improving the environment and activating the civic community.

A large majority of participants in the survey noted that the implementation of the _Spot projects has made their settlements more attractive to young people and families with children. Positive evaluations also referred to the role of the projects as a model for addressing other local community issues, strengthening interaction and increasing trust between people. Respondents also praised the implementation of the projects as a model of partnership between local administration and communities (municipality - NGO).

The social effect of the constructed places is also personally significant for the surveyed persons themselves - on average around and over 70% of them visit them several times a month or more often. The implemented projects are regularly visited by members of the local communities - according to 44% of the respondents, they are visited by more than twenty people a day, and according to 26% - up to 20 people a day.

One of the missions of Spot Bulgaria is to contribute to the capacity development of the participating organizations. The biggest support the association gives is something much more valuable - knowledge, information and capacity. According to the survey, the implementation of the projects in 2017/2018 has been a valuable learning process for the teams of the organisations and communities involved, allowing them to gain experience, skills and inspiration. Almost all of them would initiate and get involved in future projects. Gaining new practical knowledge and skills, working with organisations and partners and making new friends and supporters are the three effects that those involved in Spot value most highly for themselves.

As a consequence of these two projects, _Spot has become a program that encourages rethinking how public spaces are shaped in Bulgarian cities to facilitate social interaction. Next projects aimed at the development of placemaking in Bulgaria are: Movement Spaces, Me, You, Plovdiv, Placemaking for active recreation, Placemaking for Democracy.

Trends and lessons learned in Bulgaria

Based on the analysis of the development of placemaking in Bulgaria, conducted by the team of BGBA association, we made several main conclusions. Placemaking in Bulgaria is mainly done by the NGO sector and young active citizens who are enthusiastic about making changes in the cities they live in. The majority of placemaking initiatives are focused on transforming parks and public spaces that are neglected and in poor condition, in order to engage local residents and promote positive changes in local attitudes towards these public spaces. Following analysis of secondary survey and interview data, four main themes emerged: (1) initiating and partnerships; (2) participation and engagement; (3) planning, vision and communication, and (4) goals and sustainability.

1. Initiating and partnerships

It is important to note the trend that the majority of placemaking initiatives are led by civil society organisations. Thus, most projects are led and implemented by NGO staff or students who want to make positive changes in urban areas, but may not be connected to the space for long-term project sustainability. Some municipalities are involved in providing and supporting urban interventions, but there is no balance between working with the municipality and supporting them in creating a sense of local belonging. Connecting with a local institutional partner (such as a library, local public authority or school) is a way in which some of these projects have been able to mitigate this challenge and support local identity over the space. Many of the researched urban interventions have a large number of partners, and they provide a variety of expertise. Although broad partnerships are recommended, our research found that 'having the right' type of partners was more important than having a large number of partners. Another important element of the review is that the roles of partners need to be clearer to improve the democratic process of these city initiatives, as most partners play a role in implementation but far fewer in decision-making processes.

2. Participation and engagement

In terms of engaging local residents, there are a wide variety of ways in which placemaking initiatives allow local people to get involved. Workshops, the use of art, open public discussions and events, festivals and working together to build structures and gardens are some of the ways that citizens can participate in transformations. Most people involved in local community initiatives are volunteers, and stimulus for them to participate include sharing food, joining an event, and expressing an opinion about what and where should be located within public spaces. Most interventions are short-term activities that only cover the period of planning the transformation and then renovating the abandoned public space. This is probably due to budget limitations as well as the inability of NGOs, businesses and informal groups to make long-term plans due to political constraints. Consequently, the level of participation of local residents is usually limited to pre-project consultations, during planning and decision-making, and during the implementation of the transformation.

3. Planning, vision and communication

Prior to project planning, many of those that have been identified as successful have started with a process of gathering baseline information and mapping the space to be transformed (using for example placemaking tools such as stakeholder identification, car counts, interviews and surveys etc.). This pre-planning process, together with flexibility in the planning process, is very important because it enables the initiator, the community and in some cases the public administration to have a shared vision from the very beginning and to manage public expectations for the project - especially since the main target groups in most placemaking projects in Bulgaria are local residents. Project plans and events are mainly shared through social media, flyers, information boards, advertising in local media and by word of mouth.

4. Goals and sustainability

 According to the researched practices in Bulgaria, the main goal is to change the local identity so that it creates a sense of belonging, strengthening civic participation. This goal is not clearly defined and many of the organisations working on a given place have not outlined the objectives and steps needed to achieve it, but interventions are nevertheless reported to have helped improve civic participation and a sense of belonging.

The weaker sustainability of placemaking initiatives is also conditioned by insufficient description of the objectives and steps of the interventions that are undertaken. It is suggested that due to lack of clear understanding and definition of objectives and steps, maintenance of space is a challenge in many of the initiatives. Even with an existing partnership with a local municipality, maintenance of the space being worked on is often left to the community, and in some cases the municipality does not even empty the trash bins. In other cases, structures built during the intervention are demolished, not maintained or are strewn around. Part of the challenge regarding the long-term sustainability of transformations is that it is often easier to get permission from municipalities and public support for temporary interventions. This leads to many short-term projects that do not have advance planning time to set a clear vision for the community and public administration, and also to many projects using temporary materials that degrade quickly over time.

Main conclusions

Leadership, partnerships and accountability are key elements in delivering Placemaking initiatives. Most of these initiatives are led by NGOs. Linking with a local institutional partner is seen as beneficial for the long-term sustainability of projects. Although most partners play a role in project implementation, they are less involved in decision-making processes.

1. The degree of local involvement in place-making initiatives is usually limited to consultation and decision-making during implementation, which corresponds to level 4 in Arnstein's ladder of participation. However, there is a wide variety of ways in which local residents can be involved in these initiatives, which contributes to wider community engagement and participation in project design and implementation.

2. Before beginning project planning, most successful initiatives, as our research shows, have completed a process of baseline information gathering and mapping of the space to be transformed. This approach is important because it provides a basic foundation for understanding the environment and community needs in advance.

3. There is a clear observation that placemakers often seek to change local identities, affirm a sense of belonging, and strengthen the active role of citizens in the community. In many cases, however, these goals are not

About the forums we organize as well as key and interesting points that participants shared

The forums we organise as BG Be Active Association are a reflection of our vision for a more active and engaged society. Each of the events we do is basically organized around the word "connectedness". For us, for me, these events are the tool through which we make possible meetings between different people, experts in different fields, visionaries on different topics, and through these meetings we learn and motivate each other to keep working for better places, cities, people, country. Some of the most exciting moments in these forums are the success stories shared by participants who have made a difference in their communities. Also very valuable are the discussions about challenges and how they can be overcome through collective efforts and innovative approaches.

Video links to recordings of various events.

What is the point of placemaking now and in the future? What partnerships are needed, how can organisations better feed the placemaking process?

For me, we all need placemaking because our cities are more than just buildings and streets - they are home to communities where we live, work and play. Placemaking provides us with the opportunity to transform public spaces into places that not only meet our basic needs, but also excite, inspire and connect us. This process makes cities more beautiful and functional, but it also strengthens community ties and encourages active citizen participation. We all deserve to live in cities that reflect our values, meet our needs and inspire our dreams. This is why placemaking is so important - to create cities that not only meet our physical needs, but also our spiritual lives.

And to the second part of the question, organizations need diverse partnerships to add to the diversity and richness of projects. It is important to create collaborations with local authorities, public institutions, the business sector, NGOs and, above all, the community. Local authorities can provide financial support, resources and legal protection, while ensuring the necessary permits and support for project implementation. Community organizations and groups can be valuable partners by providing good ideas, commitment and manpower from within the community itself. The business sector can contribute funding, expertise and resources to the implementation of projects, while at the same time benefiting from opportunities to improve the business environment and strengthen community links. NGOs such as BG Be Active Association can provide experience and knowledge in planning, project management and community interaction. It is important to develop long-term, partnership and transparent relationships between all stakeholders to ensure a sustainable and successful placemaking process that meets the needs and ambitions of the community.

LASKA NENOVA is a dedicated social entrepreneur at the intersection of placemaking, urban health, and public health. With master’s degrees in international trade relations and public health, combined with a robust business administration background, I lead transformative projects that enhance community well-being. As the general manager of BG Be Active Association, a founding board member of Placemaking Europe, and a founding partner of innovative ventures like WOW Gym and Urban Nudges agency, I drive initiatives that foster health-enhancing physical activities and sustainable urban environments. My expertise in EU project management and cause marketing allows me to craft impactful programs that resonate on both a local and European scale.



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