Today’s cities could use a little soul, says city planner Mark VanderSchaaf. For much of his nearly 12-year tenure as director of regional planning for the Metropolitan Council of the Minneapolis and St. Paul area, VanderSchaaf has been arguing for something he calls deep placemaking. Like the ancients, he believes that every city has a personality—and that planning efforts guided by its spirit will enjoy greater success.
Inspired by the work of the late psychologist (and noted critic of psychology) James Hillman and the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, which Hillman co-founded, VanderSchaaf began promoting his soulful approach in the early 1990s. Back then, the idea was an outlier. Today, he’s begun to find a broader audience for his ideas, and hopes to devote more time to the notion after his impending retirement. Public Art Review’s Joe Hart asked for an overview of his thinking.

What is the origin of the notion of “deep placemaking”?
MARK VANDERSCHAAF: From my humanities background, I was aware that up until really quite recently, people throughout the world and throughout the ages have always thought of places as having personalities, and had the sense that the local deity or the local saint corresponded to the personality of the place.

How has your thinking has been influenced by the work of the Dallas Institute?
It was one of those eureka! moments when I discovered them. The Institute was founded by three psychologists on the premise that the city of Dallas has a personality that can be engaged. They said we should ask the question, what does the city want to be? Not what do we want the city to be—that’s a different question. What does the city want to be? To listen to this personality we call the city. It is an unusual question to the modern mind. But they said, well, let’s just play with this for a while and see what we can learn from it.

What did they discover?
They asked, where would we go to find out what the city wants to be? We can look at iconic landscapes. Dallas has a natural landscape underlying it, just like everywhere does. But we can also look at iconic elements of the built environment. They ended up fastening their attention on the historic skyscraper in downtown Dallas, known as the Magnolia Building, which was the headquarters of the Mobil Oil Company. And if you know Mobil Oil, you know their symbol is Pegasus—the flying horse. Hmm, this could be really interesting. What if we explore the myth of Pegasus and ask, does this give us a clue as to what the city wants to be?
The myth tells the story of this horse that just wants to keep flying off into the stratosphere, but if it can be brought down to earth, the waters of imagination will spring forth. And they said, boy, isn’t that a lot like Dallas? You know, we always have these inflated notions of ourselves, but if we could bring this imagination down to earth it could be really fruitful. So that was the insight they gained, and it guided the creation of Pegasus Plaza in the heart of downtown Dallas, as well as a major riverfront revitalization project.

And you applied the same kind of exercise back in Minnesota, correct?
What struck me was that we also had a historic skyscraper, almost exactly the same age as the one in Dallas: the First [National] Bank Building, which had a flashing neon sign on top as well, but it flashed “First” on and off. I began to reflect on that—you know, does that say something about the personality of St. Paul?
St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman came in in 1994, and one of the centerpieces of his agenda was a riverfront redevelopment. The two things that struck me were, we were first a river city and then we turned our backs on the river, and now we’re trying to return to it again. And I was also struck by St. Paul being haunted by the fact that it was the first of the two Twin Cities, but then it lost out to Minneapolis and never regained its luster.
I began doing reading on the history of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, since I knew the mayor wanted to do something with it. I discovered what seemed a remarkable coincidence to me: the story of the Grand Excursion of 1854.

Remind us of that event.
The year 1854 was when the first seamless railroad connection between the East Coast and the Mississippi River was completed. The nation was on the march from coast to coast, and reaching the Mississippi River was an important milestone. To celebrate, the builders of the railroad gathered together 1,200 dignitaries from the East Coast and invited them to take free passage to Chicago, where they would get on an excursion train to Rock Island, Illinois, where the railroad ended, and then ride a riverboat all the way up to the brand-new city of St. Paul, Minnesota, chartered one month before this excursion. So it was brand-new; there was no Minneapolis.
I did a little bit of math: Ten years from 1994 will be 2004, which would be the 150th anniversary of the Grand Excursion of 1854. Why don’t we do another one of those? So the short version is we did do it. It took ten years to plan it. It turned out to be an incredible success. Fifty-five different communities along 400 miles of the river put on festivals and did various sorts of public art.

You’ve given a couple examples of deep placemaking—this notion of discovering the soul or personality of a place. Can you help differentiate them from straight-on placemaking, or creative placemaking, where an artist helps guide the vision?
They’re all three really good processes, and I really want to emphasize I don’t think one is better than another. But with each, there is a different methodology or approach.
Standard placemaking is a process of putting together a budget and a schedule and a set of deliverables. It’s a little bit more of a recipe type of thing. There are some standard elements of basic placemaking: a mixture of uses, public spaces, connectivity for pedestrians, maybe transit as well.
When you add artists into the mix, it becomes a little bit less certain exactly what you can deliver and when you can deliver it, because you are looking for imagination and inspiration to enter the project.
When you get to the level of deep placemaking, it becomes even less certain what the deliverable is going to be, but on the positive side, it may turn out to be something really marvelous. The element of surprise is much more built into the deep placemaking process.
Simply by asking the question, “What does this place want to be?” and exploring clues that might suggest an answer, good surprises will come along pretty quickly. When you begin to look more deeply into the natural history of a place—what are the patterns of birds and animal activity there? When you look into the actual human history of the place—what are the local legends or stories of haunted houses or what-have-you? These are things that might get neglected in a standard planning process, but they might reveal some really interesting buried treasure. That’s certainly what happened in both the Dallas case and in the Grand Excursion case.

JOE HART is senior editor of Public Art Review.