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New Chapters in People-Centered Placemaking

Notions about the importance of placemaking to the quality of community life are not new. The virtues of special spaces/gathering places were championed by no lesser luminaries than Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, and William Whyte as far back as the early 1960s. In recent years, a chorus of voices has bemoaned the era of suburbanization, the rise of franchises and big box stores, the neglect of the pedestrian and people part of the public realm, and the homogenization of communities and places. Others lament the loss of character and special places that often follows redevelopment of central cities. The disturbing common thread is the loss of a unique, organic personality that distinguishes a community from Anywhere, USA.

Today’s focus on healthy, walkable, equitable communities, with a mix of uses, and complete streets harkens back to many of the principles advocated by Jacobs and others.  These (re)emerging trends dovetail neatly with emerging roles and concepts for placemaking.

I’ve recently encountered some articles, reports, and resources that take a fresh look at placemaking and public spaces. They share a common message that community members must play a central role in shaping these places, if they are to be used, valued and embraced by the community. So placemaking is more than just creating a gap in the built environment and some breathing room. The MIT study below observes that by bringing the community together, place-making  potentially can “spark public discourse, create beauty and delight, engender civic pride, connect neighborhoods, support community health and safety, grow social justice, catalyze economic development, promote environmental sustainability, and of course, nurture an authentic ‘sense of place.”

Regarding the potential economic benefits, Ed McMahon argues convincingly that there is a significant placemaking dividend. In a 2012 keynote conference presentation he observed “if you can’t differentiate your community from any other, you have no competitive advantage.” He further notes, that “the more one place…comes to be like every other place, the less reason there is to visit or invest.”

The recent economic downturn has likely triggered a reset in our thinking about grand schemes and how we spend our public dollars. At the same time, it may have opened the door for considering the potential for small changes to make big differences in community lives.

Here are a few of those resources:
  • Places in the Making: How placemaking builds places and communities, Susan Silberberg, et al, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, 2013 – This newly released, highly readable report draws on an array of case studies and finds that placemaking has expanded beyond its roots to encompass an “astonishing range” of projects and programming. At its core, placemaking aims to both improve the quality of a place and to enhance the quality of community and peoples’ lives. The MIT study finds that the placemaking process – the social      interactions, engagement, and community capacity-building that are engendered – has as great of an impact on the community as the resulting place. Also, it is an iterative      process – never really finished, but evolving with the community. It’s important to measure what is and isn’t working to extract lessons that may be shared for the future. The study highlights temporary or pilot placemaking efforts that provide immediate benefits, and pave the way for longer term successes. (San Diego’s experiment with “parklets” carved out of city rights-of-way provides another example of how a small      project can add to a sense of place.)
  • Great Places in America, American Planning Association – APA has an awards program that recognizes great neighborhoods, great streets, and great public spaces.  The award winners provide some fine examples of communities that have created special places where people want to be, and that distinguish them from all others. In addition to the 2013 award-winners, you can view winners dating back to 2007. There are also links to APA’s characteristics and guidelines used to judge applications for these three types. The guidelines provide food for thought about characteristics that we may want to foster in shaping our own special places.
  • Project for Public Spaces – PPS offers an entire website of resources devoted to helping people “create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities.”  It highlights resources on the “Placemaking” process intended to help citizens transform their public spaces into “vital places” that build on unique local assets, serve the needs of the community, and can even spur rejuvenation. The site also offers place-making guides, articles, and a searchable database of over 650 examples of various types of great public spaces coupled with commentary on why they work.
  • Chuck Wolfe’s blogs including: Why the ‘Sit-able City’ is the Next Big Idea, posted at Planetizen, 10/09/2013 - Wolfe offers a wealth of intriguing ideas and commentary on public spaces, some informed by travels and observations of great spaces here and abroad. In an earlier blog, he argues convincingly for “no net loss” of third places.  Third places, a concept prompted some years back by Ray Oldenburg, are places other than home or work, which are important as “informal gathering places.” Chuck Wolfe posts blogs regularly in several places including his own “pontification corner” at, and at his Planetizen blog spot.
  • Food Cartology: Rethinking Urban Spaces as People Places, Urban Vitality Group,      Portland, OR, 2008 – We all know that food facilitates sociability, and that cafes and restaurants are gathering places.  UVG partnered with the city of Portland to examine the role that food carts can play in fostering social interaction and bringing life to city streets, neighborhoods, and public places. See also: Food Carts in Portland.
  • Where Community Is at Work Making Itself, Shelterforce, Fall 2012 (Posted 02/11/2012) – A thoughtful conversation about the importance of creating third places for low-income communities, and why the community itself must be instrumental in shaping the gathering places that will meet their needs.
  • 2013 Placemaking Conference, Institute for Quality Communities, University of Oklahoma – Videos of the conference presentations on topics such as the economics of preservation, retrofitting suburbia, the future of place, creating livable communities,      engagement and building community. The Website also includes some project      examples. Also an Urban Land Institute (ULI) conference in 2013 highlights place-making for large projects. See especially: In the Mix for slides of some well-used urban spaces.

Many of these resources emphasize the central role that the community should have in making these spaces their own. In my opinion, the form and design of a place also matter in drawing people to a place, and enticing them to linger. Planners, designers, and artists who understand that their paramount purpose is to serve the community’s needs can contribute greatly to making a place special. They can help a community to visualize what is possible, inject elements of “beauty and delight,” assure that elements work together, and assure it functions well with good access, comfortable seating, and the other fundamentals of site design. As an Artscape DYI article observes, “the critical intersections of creative people and unique places (is a) dynamic that serves to unlock the potential of both.”

Communities that come together to create special places - places that reflect the community’s uniqueness and diversity - will reap multiple dividends that enrich community life.

Image Courtesy City of Seattle.

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Photo of Sue Enger

About Sue Enger

Sue served as one of MRSC's Planning Consultants for many years and wrote about a variety of local government planning issues. She is now retired.