Public spaces should be equitably distributed, open to everyone, and inclusively designed. It’s no wonder that many urban planning processes now focus on placemaking, the people-centered approach to planning and design of public spaces.
The inequities of community development were hard to ignore in 2020. Whether you lived close to grocery stores for essentials, green spaces for socially distanced outings, or libraries for access to public wifi, your location had a significant impact on your day-to-day life.
Now, as many cities begin to ease lockdown measures, they’re finding that their residents have new expectations around their community’s public spaces. More than before, they recognize the importance of neighborhoods and the significance of factors such as walkability, public transportation, access to jobs, and diverse housing options. And even beyond their immediate neighborhoods, people’s expectations have changed. For instance, with many office jobs moving remote most downtown areas, which traditionally served as hubs for office spaces, now have to rethink how they serve their communities.
“Effective engagement of community tops the list of crucial characteristics of successful placemaking.” —Places in the Making, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning
Following this trend, there’s been a rise in support of urban planning techniques such as activity centers and 15-minute cities, both of which focus on proximity to the basic daily needs one needs for work and leisure. With all the facets local governments now have to navigate as cities “re-open”, using placemaking in community engagement efforts can help ensure cities grow alongside their residents.
What is placemaking?
Placemaking is about improving the quality of public spaces and the lives of the people who use them. As MIT’s “Places in the Making” report stated: “Put into practice, placemaking seeks to build or improve public space, 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.”
Place-based initiatives aim to create change for the benefit of the whole community. As the Project for Public Spaces noted, “the community is the expert” – they know a lot about the assets and needs of their public spaces and it’s vital to engage them. When community engagement and the process of placemaking intersect, we have the potential to reimagine the future of our cities. After all, shouldn’t we ask the very people who live, work, learn, and play in a city what they want it to look like and how they need it to function?
If you’re ready to incorporate placemaking in your next community engagement effort, here are 5 projects to inspire you:
1. Improve your city’s walking and biking infrastructure
Stirling Council launched their ‘Walk, Cycle, Live Stirling’ project to better understand how to transform key transportation corridors. Their main goal? More pedestrian and bike-friendly spaces that the public could use to get around and to the city center. The Council didn’t just stop with creating a path – they also considered how to create spaces for rest, play, and connection along the way. Through this placemaking project, the Council addressed several issues their community had raised, including traffic and air quality, in the specific part of their city that was most affected.
2. Build nature preservation into development projects
Together with the Flemish Land Agency, the City of Maasmechelen launched its community engagement platform to develop towns and the nature that connects them in tandem. For those who couldn’t participate online, the City encouraged engagement via paper surveys along a walking path that connects the three main towns in their project, and they set up an information booth at their local farmers market. They asked residents to share their favorite landscape in the valley, weigh in on which roads could be improved for cyclists and pedestrians, and what the town square of their dreams would look like. Using the platform’s mapping feature, the City asked residents to pin on a map, with optional comments, their favorite spots in the town as well as locations where they saw room for improvement for cyclists and pedestrians.
3. Bring nature into your city
The City of La Riche was inspired by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki’s urban forests and decided to create one for its residents. The City decided to plant over 600 trees and shrubs for their community to lower temperatures in dense areas and bring the nurturing elements of nature into an urban setting. To decide where to make the investment, they launched their online engagement platform and asked residents to choose their preferred location for the urban forest. During the voting process, a second location was so popular with residents that the City also decided to invest in a second green space by creating an urban orchard for the community.
4. Create safer streets for all
When the City of Lancaster launched their engagement platform, they knew they wanted to consult their residents on how to make South Duke Street, a popular corridor, safer and more community-friendly. They did their research and found that things like slower speed limits, more lighting, and designated bike lanes could help a central corridor like theirs, but before they broke ground on any plans they wanted to hear from the very people who experience the streets daily – their residents.
Using the platform’s mapping feature, Lancaster’s Department of Neighborhood Engagement uploaded their own map layers to display important local information and attributes. This provided residents with additional context to orient themselves on the map and help the City pinpoint which sidewalks and crosswalks needed the most improvement, which intersections were prone to speeding drivers, and where more trees and lights were needed. Through their placemaking project, Lancaster’s South Duke Street is moving towards a more pedestrian, bike, and car-friendly corridor.
5. Think both big and small for placemaking
The City of Nieuwkoop uses its community engagement platform to “think alongside” its residents on a variety of topics. One of the City’s leading projects focuses on their Regional Energy Strategy, through which they consulted residents and other local stakeholders on the placement of eco-friendly power sources. Using the mapping feature on their platform, the City uploaded custom map layers that highlighted the locations of the most promising areas for solar and wind power generation. This helped inform people’s input by giving them an understanding of opportunities and constraints from the beginning of the process. To promote green living at the hyper-local level, they also launched a project for residents to share tips on gardening as city dwellers, whether on a small balcony garden or in a full courtyard.
Incorporate placemaking for impact
By implementing placemaking in your community engagement initiatives, you can tailor your approaches to issues like cut-through traffic or a need for more green spaces. When real-time data from your community, such as that collected through mapping their needs and ideas, informs ongoing improvements to your city, you can concentrate resources in a specific location to achieve greater impact. After all, as the Project for Public Spaces noted, “Public spaces can only exist for everyone if the conversations in which they are envisioned include everyone”.