Affordances and Their Role in Placemaking

Placemaking can be understood as a collectively planned design process of nurturing & cultivating a space’s optimum affordances

Ira Sanyal
3 min readDec 14, 2016

In his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, James J. Gibson put forth the Theory of Affordances, in which he suggested that “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill.” According to Gibson, the elements and features in outdoor spaces aren’t just objects, but micro-environments that afford people possibilities. Each aspect of an environment, like surfaces, objects, other people, animals, etc. have affordances. Gibson said that “The possibilities of the environment and the way of life of the animal go together inseparably. Within limits the human animal can alter the affordances of the environment but is still the creature of his or her environment.”

“When a space is designed to have multiple affordances, it solicits people with clues to express themselves through their bodies.”

These affordances could be positive or negative depending on our perceptions and abilities. For example, a large set of steps can be perceived as a positive affordance by an abled adult while being a negative affordance for a toddler or a disabled person. Affordances are properties perceived by an individual. More affordances make a space more human, by allowing people to break their passivity and open up to each other.

When a space is designed to have multiple affordances, it solicits people with clues to express themselves through their bodies. These clues aren’t always only visual physical clues( steps, slopes, benches), but aural (the sound of music playing, the buzz of people talking, silence), olfactory ( the smell of freshly baked goods, flowers blossoming on a nearby tree), haptic (the soft sand underneath one’s feet, bristly bushes along a path) etc.

Image courtesy B|D landscape architects

On this basis of our understanding of affordances, placemaking can be understood as a collectively planned design process of nurturing and cultivating a space’s optimum affordances. When all stakeholders come together, discuss and bring forth their needs and expectations from a particular place, the chances of there being negative affordances in the space are reduced or even eliminated. Placemaking is a continuous process, and as people and places change, the affordances of a place must evolve too. In today’s context, wifi is an affordance, a space offers to the people in it.

A lot of planning goes into designing cities that exclude and hide people who are not a part of the city’s aspired image. Such planning leaves the possible affordances in the cityscape un-utilised, which in turn prevents the place from reaching its true potential. Exclusionary design is endorsed by policies which are centred around a certain demographic and are thus eventually harmful to the rest. Those whom society grants the least agency are hit the worst by these tedious processes of strategically harming the built and social fabric with exclusionary interventions.

Placemaking calls for active and equal citizen participation in the process of altering the affordances of cities for the benefit of all. Successful public spaces are inclusive, inviting and vibrant because they offer multiple affordances, which encourage people from multiple backgrounds to express themselves.

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