Placemaking for Sustainable Development

Introduction

Communities everywhere are looking for ways to strengthen their economic competitiveness and to do so in less wasteful and more sustainable ways. Placemaking and branding are sometimes considered too ephemeral to be a development strategy, yet, they are very cost effective. Given the importance of retaining and attracting talent, placemaking can be the centerpiece that helps coordinate and give other development tools coherence.

What is Sustainable Placemaking

Local leaders should think about placemaking as a process of facilitating the collective private initiatives of businesses and residents in each neighborhood. This may seem counter to the common notion that placemaking is a way of making your community more attractive to those fickle and footloose creatives. We believe that the sustainable success of every community will come from those who are already there and those who may want to join them in raising families and building local businesses. So the primary goal of placemaking is to do things that make the community better for those already there.

Placemaking and branding isn’t about turning a community into something it is not. It is about helping communities make the most of what they have, nurturing a shared vision that attracts local private interests to make their unique contributions. The community will experiment and generate businesses to meet the needs of the local neighborhoods. Some will fail, but others will survive and over time the business community will be fine-tuned to the needs of local and visiting customers.

Placemaking is important to making our cities and towns more sustainable because it increases the power of local businesses and residents to succeed in ways that reinforce local assets and nurture uniquely appropriate ventures to each community. These kinds of neighborhoods will have a much easier time satisfying their needs with locally grown businesses employing local residents.

The private sector does most of the placemaking. Local government can still help coordinate, reform regulations and provide small scale incentives that help guide private efforts in ways that multiply the impact. We recommend a bottom-up approach where local leaders engage the community to encourage competitive experimentation. These experiments can take a variety of forms, but they share a few things in common. First, they are the idea of residents and businesses, not outside consultants. Second, they should be small scale.

Placemaking only works at a fine-grained level. Generally, the place is somewhere that can be explored on foot. This reinforces people’s perception of the area as a place. It is hard to create a sense of place if you have to drive from venue to venue. Cities and larger districts can be supported by branding efforts. Branding can help communicate the assets of a place, but is secondary to place making. We always recommend that when working on a placemaking effort that the stakeholders actually walk it. They should also watch how others walk it.

Two Placemaking Tactics

Once you have engaged your community, it is okay to give them some broad parameters or concepts if they have trouble identifying some immediate initiatives. Two options include improving local connectivity and events.

Building connections helps local residents take advantage of existing assets. Most neighborhoods have separated land uses. In many cases, however, these land uses are nearby. Yet, they lack the physical infrastructure that would permit households and businesses to more easily access each other. There are often relatively low-cost ways to lower the barriers to connecting uses. This can increase value for residents and businesses. Ask what connections the community thinks would be most valuable. You can also observe pedestrian patterns to see where people are trying to overcome a failed public infrastructure. The presence of dirt paths along roadways or through abandoned parcels is a clear sign that pedestrians are trying to make connections. Painting crosswalks and other visual ques that let drivers know the route is used by pedestrians improves safety. Where low-cost interventions improve connectivity, and increase use, in the next round, the community may decide to reinforce these links with more permanent fixes like better signage, lighting and sidewalks.

Placemaking can be facilitated by regular events. Events can help build social capital in a community. These need not be extravagant. Indeed, they should start small with little cost. Gather the stakeholders and ask what they would like to do. With a small budget, several experiments can be tried by different interests in the neighborhood. The successful ones can be singled out for additional support. In every case, however, these programs will be more sustainable if they grow organically. Planning a first time, major blow-out event is a good way to build excitement that is hard to maintain the following year. Financial sustainability is also hard to maintain when you start with a big budget in year one.

Placemaking strategies are focused on helping a neighborhood identify its strengths and opportunities and make the most of its assets. Every neighborhood is unique and they will vary in their successes. Regardless of its potential, every neighborhood can become a sustainable, identifiable place. This gives its residents a sense of pride and makes a net contribution to the social, economic and fiscal sustainability of its home city.

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