Place and space matter

Recently we came to understand “Placemaking” and how it is the process by which we have been engaging in the completion of community projects. In recent years, we have completed several private-public projects that have involved community input and engagement during the stages of conceptualization, planning, design, investment, construction, development, and evaluation to assure that spaces fully engage their constituents.

These Placemaking projects have involved full participation from private investors, volunteers, nonprofits, elected officials, municipal staff members, foundations, health care providers, schools, state government funding sources, engineers, urban planners, researchers, developers and other consultants to bring together all the elements required for success.

The Project for Public Spaces defines Placemaking “as both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region. 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.

To achieve this collaborative evolution of space to be the places where people want to live, we have learned and experienced that the following principles are necessary for successful Placemaking.

1. Private-public partnership

Many people make the mistake of expecting municipalities to envision, fund and drive urban revitalization efforts. The fact is cities do not have the human and financial capital to develop and fund the $100MM and more investments required for the transformative change needed in most communities. Overall, we have experienced private-public partnerships work exceptionally well with the initial distribution of funding for new revitalization projects comprising of 60% private funds, 20% local public funds, and 20% state/federal funds. After the first couple of projects, the market should takeover and investments should be primarily privately funded.

2. Full support from elected officials

Often, public officials representing different districts can be the biggest critics of any one project. It is their interest to assure that the people they represent are being heard and considered. Important projects involving large amounts of local private-public investment should not have opposition from elected officials. If there is opposition, you need to stop and address their questions and concerns. The public rightfully looks to their local leaders to gauge support. If you don’t have support, you need to accept that you are doing something wrong -- either you don’t have a compelling story, clear plan, or strong financial return. Fix it before moving forward, as it won’t get any easier as the project progresses. Public turmoil over a project can taint its success for decades to come.   


3. A vision for place

Hiring designers and creating pretty renderings may look nice, yet they mean little. We’ve hired top national planners for projects and their credentials only go so far. The process must start with a vision for what the place will be.  What will it offer? Who will live there or visit? Why is it important to the community? What are the activities? How will it feel to be there? The vision as a story, explaining how the place will be relevant to the community’s needs, is a critical connection to make -- and the story or vision cannot be shared throughout the community often enough.   


4. Frequent community engagement

Project success is typically equivalent to the degree of community engagement that was involved during the whole process.  As taxpayers, the community deserves frequent opportunities to hear plans and have the opportunity to assist with prioritizing features and providing comment cards at milestone moments. Everyone wants to feel like they are on the inside track. If the community at large, and especially impacted land owners, are not engaged to be a part of the invention process, all momentum can be squandered with bad press and opposing votes that can halt projects.

5. Collaborate with knowledgeable experts and planners

During big projects, everyone tries to be and wants to be the expert. City planners see external planners as not always being relevant to their reality. Yet, their reality can often present opportunities for new solutions that they may not have otherwise considered without outside input. The fact is, no great place is created in a vacuum. The key to success is project process and role definition. While there will always be those who feel they can arrive at solutions on their own, collaboration is imperative to success. There should not be the option to skip steps in the process or discount roles. The outcome will be compromised. Transferring learning through others’ experiences should be presented and expected to be the team’s standard operating procedure.   


6. Economic development is about attracting people and not jobs

Old school economic development to this day, touts job creation. Yet, with record low unemployment rates and record high number of available jobs, clearly many communities have jobs. Due primarily to population migration to urban areas, many tertiary cities and towns are desparate to attract people to live in their communities and fill open jobs. This makes quality of place and creating spaces where people want to live as the primary driving force for future economic development. Click here to read more.   


7. Walkability requires streets with edges

People stop walking where streets stop being lined with buildings.  Parking lots and deep setbacks with no purpose or use create a discontinuation of interest and appeal. Vacantly lined streets can even present to pedestrians a sense of being trapped somewhere remote and not safe. It is pretty simple and a rule not to deny – buildings attract people and with people comes vibrancy. First, line primary urban streets with at least two-story buildings. Then, work out from there. As the market develops, surrounding neighborhoods will emerge.


8. Thriving urban environments start with housing, not retail

One of the first questions raised in many of our projects is wanting to know what retail will be targeted. Franchises and chain retailers do not go to where there is no population density. If a community lacks concentrated residential housing, especially market-rate apartments, retailers will not invest. The first step to creating a thriving community is attracting rented housing, which will be 75% of the U.S. housing stock by 2030. Having this captive residential audience for main street and signature street retailers will provide the stability they need to support their rental rates and operational requirements.  


9. Form follows function

Good design follows the needed and required function of space. Not vice versa. For instance, one of the biggest disruptions happening among planners today, is the function and placement of parking. Parking in urban areas is purposely hidden and placed behind buildings and along streets. Whereas, in suburban areas, everyone drives and less (if any) people walk. Thus, in suburbia, there are seas of dedicated parking surrounding singular retail stores. However, in urban areas, there is becoming less demand for parking and parking garages due to more use of public transportation, carpooling, Uber/Lyft and eventually autonomous vehicles in metro areas. Therefore, programming spaces and mutually understanding how spaces will be used by the specifically intended users should be the start of all design. Many bad investments can be made by over or under designing space and later needing to adapt and align it to the truly intended context of a place.  


10. Draw boundaries with phases

Solid revitalization and redevelopment will never end. Therefore, it is necessary for the purpose of responsible resource management to break projects into phases based on available private and public funding and land control. These boundaries set realistic expectations for the pace of development, along with clear opportunities to engage developers. This keeps interest and activity moving forward for ongoing development momentum.  


11. Transparency

All planning documents, financials, designs and public announcements should be highly visible at all times. All projects should have a dedicated website posting all details. Cities and towns should post official decisions and actions on their websites from public meetings. Regular and frequent planning meetings between private and public partners should take place with a clear agenda and process for tracking actions, budgets, bids, designs, approvals and appropriations.  Open communication and problem solving is critical to gain continuous public confidence that community leadership is in alignment and working together to better the community.


12. Learn from the DNA of other communities and define your own

Community redevelopment has been successfully achieved by many cities. Places like Asheville, Greenville, Grand Rapids, Des Moines, Omaha, Nashville, Columbus, Durham and others have made huge strides in reinventing themselves. While each city has its own distinct DNA, which cannot be authentically replicated, there are characteristics of each to borrow and learn from. Don’t recreate the wheel where you don’t have to. In all cases, you will see how the tenants above were represented in the best part of their projects. However, find what is real and distinct about your city, crystallize it, and bring pride to your community as it grows. 


Source: Modified content from resources by the Project for Public Spaces

Shelley Moore