Events-Based Placemaking: How do festivals enhance sense of place and community solidarity?

After this blog’s prolonged recess, the time now seems right for its resuscitation. I’ve had some almost-finished posts lying dormant for a while, and now have time to publish some. This one features commentary that I wrote while working in the Community Services department, after participating in the Rotary Sundays in the Park and Canada Day festivals at Centennial Park. As this is an older post, forgive me if some of the language is a bit out-of-date . . .

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time  in Community Services. This is the department that plans events, manages/beautifies public spaces, offers athletic and cultural programming, manages FCSS, builds community, and performs a whole range of “feel-good” functions. As you can probably tell, the mandate for this department is very broad, and despite spending a few weeks there I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of what's going on. Nonetheless, I did get assigned an interesting array of tasks  with Community Services, ranging from purchasing to clerical work to weed-whacking. I also had the opportunity to help implement some of the many Town events hosted at Centennial Park, including a 16-and-a-half hour shift on Canada Day!

I should comment a bit on these festivities, which reflect nicely the overall spirit of the department. These events are not only frequent, well-attended, and supportive of local arts and music, they are also of a much higher calibre than I would have expected for a small Albertan community. I think it is pretty rare for such a community to have all-day outdoor concerts featuring genuinely adept musicians, and less rare still for such concerts to run every few weeks. In my view, this regularity really helps to cement the association between events and the specific community in which they are held; they become almost a permanent feature of the cultural landscape in much the same way that a community's streets, buildings, trees, etc. comprise its physical landscape. The Sundays in the Park, then, can be seen as an ingrained part of the fabric of Edson’s summers that  shapes residents’ sense of what Edson "means", hopefully heightening their affection for, and sense of belonging in, the town.

I know that this was the case for me in my hometown of Dawson Creek, BC. I still recall fondly the annual Christmas tree light-ups held on Main Street, and in my more nostalgic moments I can feel the atmosphere at this event once again: the biting cold offset by the warmth of three layers of winterwear and a hot apple cider, the emotional confluence of anticipation and relaxation, and the joy of being out late without being haunted by the specter of school the next day. And, of course, the sense of awe which accompanied the illumination of the tree. These memories stuck with me despite the poor quality of the cider and the relative shabbiness (in retrospect) of the tree.  Unless I am just unusually sentimental, it is therefore clearly possible for community events to ingrain themselves in permanent and valuable ways in people’s psyches, altering their understandings of their own childhood as well as their past, present, and future experiences of place.

Upon reflection, one of the most interesting  aspects of these memories is how disproportionately vivid they are. The event itself certainly wouldn't have been mind-blowing for the neutral observer, and  the impact it had on me seems high relative to its objective grandiosity. This can only be a good sign for governments and other groups (with limited time and resources) hoping to build sense of place through events, even with the caveat that other people might be less emotionally impressionable than me.

The other interesting thing about my recollection of the Christmas tree light-up (as well as Canada Day and other such events) is how intimately they are linked to place. My fond memories are dependent upon the event having taken place in a very specific geographic area; no other location would have created precisely that experience, and thus had precisely that emotional impact. The layout of the vendor space, the position of the tree, the size of the crowd, and the main-street facade all shaped the character of the event, while the event in turn impacted upon my interpretation of the space. Essentially, new emotional depth is added to a place when it is the site of a memorable experience; the mundane Main Street of my hometown took on new meaning and value through its association with the Christmas tree light-up. In this way, the experience was more about the place than about the event itself. Simultaneously, my notion of what that place (Main Street) could be used for, and indeed who had ownership/usage rights over it, was reconfigured, a fact which speaks to the value of "open (pedestrian-only) streets".

Hopefully events such as this, or the more impressive  Sunday Pavilion series in Edson, continue to have such a strong and long-lasting impact on today's young people. The more we can improve the lived experiences of residents by capitalizing on public space and resources in ways that promote fun and interpersonal bonding, the more people will in turn respect and contribute to their society and its spaces.

This leads me to further wonder about the role of sense of place in social functioning. Obviously, events like the Sundays in the Park would intuitively improve community by the very act of bringing people together. However, can mere affection for a place, independent of whether people gather there or not, affect our social lives? To me, it seems plausible at least. Indirectly, the improved life satisfaction associated with feeling rooted in a place could reasonably be anticipated to enhance people's general demeanour and treatment of others.  More directly, sense of place, if the place in question is a shared one (such as a park, a municipality, etc.), might add to a sense of common experience, purpose, and meaning among residents within that place, thereby facilitating social cohesion.

What do you think? Do public events build community, heighten appreciation of place, and encourage interaction, or are they simply  a "free lunch"?  Do you consider festivals and other public events to be an important public service? What do you think are the main factors which make places  special to people, and what is the best way to build a positive sense of place?

Thanks for reading!