Placemaking: People at the Center of Design

December 6, 2016

What do the Metrocable in Medellin, Bryant Park in New York, and Urban Greening in Atlanta have in common?

You’re right if you guessed that all of these initiatives are products of what we call Placemaking, a new and rising trend in urban design.

Placemaking is a philosophy, policy, and strategy that empowers people to design their neighborhoods. This design technique, rising fast among urban planners, involves listening to neighborhood residents in order to design a space specifically for the people who will use it. The process shifts the power to make decisions about shared places from individuals to the community at large, so residents have a say in how they work, live and play.

Placemaking responds to the unique needs and desires of each community, which allows for community development strategies that can differ greatly from one neighborhood to the next.

It is a powerful approach because it recognizes there is no magic bullet in community development. Every community has unique needs, characteristics, and resources. Transit-oriented development that relies heavily on an existing network of busses and subways may work well in cities with a robust public transit systems, like New York. However, the same strategy will not work in cities with weak public transportation systems, like Memphis. Similarly, rehabilitating existing affordable housing stock is a successful strategy to decrease housing insecurity in Chicago, but it will not work in a rapidly growing city that lacks affordable housing, like Palo Alto.

Placemaking may seem like a “no-brainer” approach to urban design and community development, but it stands in sharp contrast to the status quo for public policymaking and program design. Policies and programs around housing, transportation, and urban planning have traditionally been a typically a “one size fits all. By overlooking individual community needs, broad brush-stroke national and state policies have led to failed programs

For example, many cities have subsidies available to people in low-income communities to purchase homes. Residents in those communities often live pay-check-to-pay-check, making them unable to afford their monthly rent, much less save for a down payment on a home. These communities need workforce training and access to jobs that pay living wages, not homeownership subsidies targeted at the upper and middle class. Instead of politicians in the State Capital or Congress diagnosing a neighborhood’s needs, the residents of that neighborhood should be empowered to design development plans that will work successfully in the unique context of their individual neighborhood.

But placemaking is not merely a philosophical exercise in autonomy nor an aesthetic practice, because “place” matters fundamentally.

Where you live and where you grew up determines everything from your life-span to your employment. Researchers at the Health Inequality Project found that residents of low income communities have significantly shorter life expectancies than residents of high income communities. Even more troubling, where your community is located in the US has a large impact on your life expectancy. For example, a low-income person in Seattle is expected to live a full 3 years longer than a low-income person in Corpus Christi. Poor children who grow up in majority low-income neighborhoods have significantly less economic mobility than equally poor children who grow up in mixed-income areas. Clearly, creating places unique, equitable, beautiful, and useful for the people who live in it has a fundamental influence on wellbeing.

Through taking into account the opinions, desires, and challenges of all community stakeholders, it is now possible to design unique spaces that foster stronger communities. For example, to fight the rising obesity epidemic you can’t just raise awareness of unhealthy eating habits though a national public health campaign. You also need to design neighborhoods with accessible grocery stores. Placemaking gives urban planning the ability to do just that by giving them the ability to use existing best practices and interpreting them in ways that works for each specific community.

This approach is needed now more than ever. Government funding for community development has declined consistently since 2010, even though cities have grown faster than suburbs. Funding for Community Development Block Grants, for example, has been cut in half. Given this constrained funding reality, placemaking is a particularly potent approach. It offers a targeted strategy to create higher quality and more functional urban spaces while making the most of shrinking available resources.

In an era when we are increasingly realizing that one-size does not fit all, and the impact of where you live on your lifestyle, we need to encourage creative and unique community development strategies. Placemaking is a solution to put people back at the center of urban design for effective change.