By Bree Davies, P.U.M.A. Equitable Communities Strategist

What does it mean to make a place? Who decides that a place is to be made? Once a place is made to the standards of a certain set of people, who then is allowed or not allowed to be in that space? Can placemaking truly happen without the removal or erasure of the place that already exists?

If placemaking is seen as an “investment” in a community, there is an implied desire for a “return.” But what if, when a place is organically “made” by a community and without the guise or funding of placemaking, there is no measurable return? Does it make this place less “successful” because it wasn’t “made”?

There is something inherently colonialist about the idea of placemaking — for me, I cannot look at placemaking without also examining the history of how those with means and power take, use and commodify land in the United States.

Entering the planning world as an outsider, I think about the impact of someone like Frederick Law Olmsted, a name that comes up time and time again when we talk about the idea of “shared public space” in the form of parks and modern park design. But how can we as people in planning look at Olmstead’s vision for Central Park and not see what had to happen in order for that place to be “made” in the first place? Where does the story of Seneca Village, established in 1825 as New York City’s first free Black settlement, fit in? Where in the grand tale of Central Park’s birth is the story of dozens of Black landowners who lost their community, equity, homes, businesses and churches to eminent domain? Seneca Village is honored by a plaque now. A plaque that operates in the interest of “placemaking.”

In 2019, we are continuing to – depending on your own place in society – do battle with or benefit from gentrification. The idea of “equity” in planning is a buzzword, one that seems to too often be positioned as the “solution” to gentrification. But the reality is, gentrification is the continuation of colonization, led by those of wealthy means and higher class status, that determines so much of the places and spaces we interact with every day. Gentrification and placemaking both hinge on the idea that a particular place was devoid of something before money and a specific vision for what makes that place comes along.

On Welton Street in Denver, placemaking has played a visible role in gentrification. There are plaques along the strip dedicated to telling the stories of the Black Denverites who once lived, worked, and owned businesses and property in the neighborhood. At one time this neighborhood, Five Points, was a rare place in the city where Black folks were able to be a part of the longstanding measurement of wealth — landownership and its equity. The key word here is was; those plaques – efforts of placemaking – are all that is left of much of the community. While Black-owned businesses and homeownership still exist in Five Points, much of it has been bought up, demolished and rebuilt to cater to and be sold to white folks. What is left of that community’s stories and impact on Denver has been distilled down to a plaque – a piece of placemaking. What does it mean to make a place?