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Placemaking (Part I): What is Placemaking?

Think for a moment of your nearest strip mall. Try to recall its details.

More likely than not, the strip mall you’re thinking of features a few big box stores looming over an expansive parking lot.  Chances are good it’s in a line of similar strip malls strung along an intimidating multi lane road. Chances are better, you’re not even imaging a specific strip mall, but an amalgam of the many, indistinguishable strip malls you’ve visited throughout your life.

Now this post is not a diatribe against strip malls, although they are easy targets.  And this is not to say that the existence of strip malls in a community make it a worse place to live. However, that we can repeat this exercise with other such fixtures of urban sprawl, like office parks and subdivisions, and come away with the same kind of vague composite mental images, reveals the fact that there might be a problem in towns and cities dominated by these kinds of generic, single use, car-centric environments.

Enter: Placemaking.

Placemaking is a movement begun in the 1970’s that brings the people of a community to the very center of its built environment. It draws on the principal that we are deeply influenced by the design of our physical environment and so our urban development should reflect this.  If we think back to preindustrial societies, public spaces were the very lifeblood of a community.  These were the places where people came together in markets and forums to exchange ideas and participate in the fabric of daily life.  However, with industrialism came the drive to build spaces according the the gospel of economy, efficiency, and order.  We chose roads over walkability and malls over markets.    This ethos brought about a loss of “place” as it relates to a city’s history and heritage.  Think again of the strip mall.  This is a space with no connection to what came before it, any traces of the past erased by concrete and asphalt.  One does not spend unnecessary time in spaces like these and so they become areas within cities where the community ceases to exist.

Placemaking works to undo some of that damage by creating indispensable public destinations that invite people to linger and invest in their community. Placemaking as a term can apply to a wide array of efforts to improve the public realm but it ultimately centers on the idea that cities need space for people to congregate, recreate, and conduct life, and, importantly, the creation of these spaces should capitalize on a community’s existing assets and resources.  By doing this, a city can maintain and celebrate its history and heritage while meeting a public need.

Placemaking as a process has myriad benefits including the increased health, happiness, civic engagement, and economic well-being of community members. A multi-use park, for instance, has the potential to transform a public resource into a thriving urban asset by generating beauty, encouraging fitness, drawing in revenue, creating jobs, and driving community involvement.  A successful ‘place’ bolsters the resilience of the city as a whole.

Through Placemaking, urban planners can reject the impassable roads and cookie cutter developments of ‘Anywhere, USA’ for public spaces that are uniquely and proudly ‘Here.’

Check back in next week to learn more about Placemaking in action as we discuss successful public spaces developed across America for Part 2 of our Placemaking Series.

Zac Jaindl

Written by Zac Jaindl

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