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How Placemaking Impacts the City

An article by Lalita Ounsakulseree


What is Placemaking?

Placemaking is a term often heard and seen when new urban projects are announced, where it is stated that ‘placemaking’ is being used in the process. But what does this actually mean? Placemaking is an approach to planning, design, and management of public spaces. Placemaking makes the most of a local community’s assets and inspiration to create public spaces which promote health, well-being and happiness to the community. The key is to strengthen the connection between people and the spaces that they share. To help them create a sense of place and a sense of belonging. Placemaking starts with a collaborative process, building a shared understanding of the critical issues facing a community or place, and helping to reimagine how everyday public spaces—from parks, plazas, streets, and markets—can address these issues for the benefit of the community and city. Most importantly, placemaking is more than promoting better public spaces and urban design, it focuses on building physical, social, and cultural identities and characteristics that define a place.

According to Michigan State University Professor Mark A. Wyckoff, FAICP, there are four different types of placemaking depending on what you are trying to accomplish: Standard, Strategic, Creative and Tactical. Standard Placemaking can be categorized as any project where the goal is to create quality public spaces. Strategic placemaking involves strategic projects and activities in certain locations targeting talented workers to encourage further development and job creation in the area. Creative Placemaking is more to encourage creative thinking through the arts and culture to bring new life to public spaces and create more of a community identity. While Tactical Placemaking is using an approach to change through short-term and low-cost projects, most of these projects are low risk as well as cheap, but may lead to more long-term, permanent change.


Placemaking is community-driven - Community’s role in Placemaking

Community participation is necessary for a placemaking project to be successful. Community-based placemaking usually requires community participation to create an effective process that focuses on the local community assets and potential. In many communities, there are people who can provide historical information, valuable insights and perspectives on how the area functions, and an understanding of critical issues. Placemaking adopts the approach of the community as the expert.

Community-based placemaking processes start with meetings with community representatives from different sectors who have interest and some connection to the space in question. These representatives are key to point out the issues and specific areas of focus for future plans. The next step is to evaluate the space and its issues. A placemaking workshop is used to make a more effective and intuitive process to not only help the community point out its issues, but also visualize the potential of the space. The next step is to create a ‘place vision’ based on the placemaking workshop. This place vision includes, a statement of goals, a definition of how the space will be used and by whom, a description with a clear idea of what the space will be, a concept plan for how it could be designed, and an action plan for both short-term and long-term improvements. The next, important step is short-term experimentation. This means putting the vision into action with short-term projects. This helps to find improvements that help the project grow. The final step is often the hardest, and includes ongoing evaluations and long-term improvements, as public space projects never truly finish, and are an evolving process. The best projects have designated people responsible for constantly evaluating the space, with a process of using this information to further improve the project.

The types of interventions most often applied through this placemaking process are arts and public space-based. For example, renovating an abandoned building as studios for artists to gather, or reimagining parking lots that are not in use as an outdoor drive-in movie theater. It can be something temporary that leads to an effective program, such as hosting a public event or festivals in the neighborhood. This kind of activity can transform from a one-weekend event to an annual or monthly event that can lead to lasting change the way outsiders’ perceive a neighborhood.


How does placemaking shape people and the city?

Placemaking has the potential to shape people’s behavior for the better. Lifestyles can change dramatically according to where you live. It is often discussed that cities can be isolating, and people living in urban neighborhoods feel no connection to the people or places they live. How often do you share a meal with a neighbor, or even stop for a conversation? This is an example of one way the city shapes us in ways that we do not often realize.

But do we shape the city, or does the city shape us? It is an architectural belief that human life is shaped by the built environment. Placemaking practitioners understand the importance of how physical places influence our lives, and suggest that through the process of placemaking, you can actively shape the way in which the built environment impacts you and your community. For example, if there’s a scary abandoned area in the neighborhood that children are afraid to walk by, then perhaps you and your neighbors can build an outdoor playground on that plot, changing the perception of the place completely, and strengthening community in the process.

Perhaps a fitting mantra for placemaking can be found in the wise words of Winston Churchill when he stated, “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”


Project for Public Spaces, 2007, “What Is Placemaking?”

The Fun Theory, Piano Stairs Nikhil Naik, Scott Duke Kominers, Ramesh Raskar, Edward L. Glaeser, and César A. Hidalgo NBER Working Paper No. 21620, October 2015,Revised October 2015, Do People Shape Cities, or Do Cities Shape People? The Co-evolution of Physical, Social, and Economic Change in Five Major U.S. Cities Michigan State University, Placemaking

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