By Cole Judge, P.U.M.A. SeniorAssociate

My thoughts on placemaking: Placemaking should be intentional and collaborative – with the goal of enhancing a shared space to benefit community building and place-based economic development. Local context is critical – as enhancing a place should fit within a local understanding, identity and imagination. As city builders, our placemaking projects should incorporate access and equity, while reflecting the history and current needs of a community. I struggle with this term – because it has efficiency when describing positive interventions within the built environment and public realm – but places already exist. How do we address the misgivings with the actual nomenclature of placemaking given the colonial history of our country? Aren’t we place-enhancing? Or do we intentionally call it “inclusive placemaking?” (Or is that just another buzz word?) How can we create entryways into participating in placemaking projects? For example, if community members have ideas, how can they help shape their place?

What exactly is placemaking? Basically, placemaking initiatives merge both form and function to enhance the experience, comfort, safety, economic vitality, and interest of the public realm. It activates an amenity – often an underutilized or overlooked shared space – for the community to make a space unique, interesting, experiential and user-friendly. I subscribe to the PPS definition that successful placemaking initiatives will strengthen a sense of place within a local context. These efforts should encourage a sense of well-being and make a place feel open and welcoming, distinctive, and a place where people want to return to. This aspect of enhancing the place to fit a local understanding, identity, imagination and sense of a place is critical. One of P.U.M.A.’s top 10 global trends impacting downtowns in 2020 is that “the power of place” and contextualization are crucial.

Placemaking initiatives focus on the site-specific, tangible enhancements within the public realm that address experience, comfort, and safety. Often linked with place-based economic development and community building strategies, these efforts are scalable – from size, duration to cost – a small tactical intervention or a long-term capital improvement. Within the place management profession, placemaking tools can include the design of the built environment, daily management, beautification, cleaning, maintenance, outreach, amenities, activation and programming. It’s about the experience of shared places (both large and small) that can impact our lives, leading to a sense of belonging and community.

One common practice is “creative placemaking,” integrating arts and culture into the public realm. According to the International Downtown Association’s (IDA) creative placemaking report, places “can be animated and enhanced by elements that encourage human interaction- from temporary activities such as performances and chalked poetry to permanent installations such as landscaping and unique art.” These tactics can help communicate an identity and sense of place, connect gaps between destinations, can engage and bridge different cultures, allow for the ‘surprise and delight’ of shared public spaces, improve the human-scaled experience, collectively reimagine a space, and enhance the local vitality, identity and potential of a place.

Place management organizations have initiated compelling “placemaking” efforts in recent years: Downtown Memphis’ Main Street Sounds, Downtown Fresno’s public art and sculptures along the iconic Fulton Street (or their Downtown Ale Trail), Downtown Denver’s “cat alley,” Downtown Oklahoma City’s reimagining of Kerr Park, Mount Vernon Triangle’s “ONE” interactive exhibit, and Golden Triangle DC’s enormous “Burning Man” art installations placed throughout the business district. Other efforts bring life to unused places such as alleyways, interstitial spaces of the built environment, or even construction zones to make the areas more fun and welcoming, such as Downtown Hartford’s “Getting Diggy With It” or Downtown Louisville’s “Alley Gallery.”

More informal placemaking initiatives such as the little neighborhood Barbie Pond on Avenue Q (well-known in the community and even has its own Instagram account), the purposeful graffiti and painted street signs in New Orleans that popped up after Hurricane Katrina, the duck bridge on Bayou St. John, and even the former painted mailboxes in love in Denver’s Cheesman Park neighborhood, are also ways to build community and strengthen a sense of place within a local context. Even airports incorporate elements of placemaking – when one flies into Fresno, you can’t help but notice the large, faux redwood trees inside the terminal, which is appropriate because this is the airport you fly into when visiting Yosemite. As mentioned in the examples above, the actual site can range from someone’s public-facing yard, to downtown alleys, to medians, to public squares, walls and facades, parks, fences, etc.

With placemaking accepted as a common tool, several questions arise. How can place management organizations continue their work of enhancing the public realm while finding innovative financing mechanisms to keep these spaces as a public asset? How do we address the misgivings with the actual nomenclature of placemaking given the colonial history of our country? (Places already exist. Aren’t we place-enhancing? Or do we intentionally call it “inclusive placemaking?”) And more tangibly, how do we ensure that we take access and equity into consideration along with the history of a place and current needs. Further, how can we create entryways into placemaking? For example, if community members have ideas, how can they help shape their place? (read: How can I get that hideous façade in my neighborhood to get a mural on it?) Also, as the place management profession evolves into place development, how can cooperative placemaking emerge as a basis for raising investment and re-investing into co-created places within the public realm?

For now, I continue to look at the “best practices” from places around the world- see what has worked and what hasn’t (and why)- and encourage communities to find the best placemaking initiatives and implementation strategies for their unique places. It comes down to enhancing our everyday lives- and hopefully, finding some magic and joy in connection, experience, and community.