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The Benefits of Placemaking Go Beyond Urban Beautification

Cardiff Bay, a regenerated dockland area that is a model of placemaking

Cardiff Bay, a regenerated dockland area that is a model of placemaking. © Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Cities can be places of beauty. Many cities inherently have a rich history passed down through generations. The "story" of a city can captivate its listeners and its citizens. As more city governments, chambers of commerce, and urban planning organizations recognize this, the potential for turning metropolitan areas into large "canvases" full of culture, wonder, and excitement can be realized. 

Placemaking is one of the best strategies for boosting engagement among citizens and improving city properties and services.

What exactly is placemaking? It's a creative and inclusive process that brings people together to develop a neighborhood's social, economic, and cultural identity. Placemaking projects present opportunities to highlight unique aspects of a city's history and draw attention to areas that need improvement. Most importantly, these projects make people feel established in the places they live, which leads to greater civic participation and wealth within communities. 

Why Placemaking Works

Placemaking provides rich opportunities for utilizing resources that already exist, making it an economic and sustainable approach to revamping neighborhoods or shedding light on areas that need renovation. Here are a few ways placemaking affects cities holistically:

  • It encourages economic development. Dynamic cities with active, collaborative governments, organizations dedicated to sustainability, and engaged citizens attract companies that create jobs and invest in the community.
  • It creates a forum for exchanging ideas. Placemaking events provide an opportunity for residents, tourists, shoppers, and workers to interact and work together to improve their cities.
  • It converts underperforming areas into interesting places. Placemaking allows for radical reimagining about what underused or abandoned places can become. The best spots for placemaking are parks, alleys, public medians, streets, buildings, and sidewalks. Chicago Loop Alliance's alley activation initiative, ACTIVATE, turned the city's alleyways into places where people could observe and participate in art installations, take in performances, enjoy a drink, and socialize.
  • It makes the city a better place to live. In Brooklyn, the "Silent Lights" project brought together artists to create illuminated gates that lit up a dark underpass. The project beautified the neighborgood and made it safer for young schoolchildren who had to walk past that spot on dark mornings. 

The Economics of Placemaking

Creating community spaces and experiences isn't just about making citizens feel good for a few days with an art installation or unique event. Community investment leads to real economic development. Cities that are vibrant, dynamic, and progressive in their approaches to art and engagement attract talented people in many fields, including business owners, entrepreneurs, and skilled workers.

Consider the case of Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit, a Project for Public Spaces initiative that turned a concrete island into a dynamic year-round park filled with activities. The square became a major draw for businesses and community members and attracted $700 million worth of investments to that part of town. 

What made it so attractive? The park became the focal point of a diverse neighborhood, which benefited business owners and residents.

If you're considering a placemaking project for your city or neighborhood, keep in mind that while everyone likes to have a good time, they don't always like to pay for it. Any skepticism or objections you run into will likely be financial or time-related in nature. Here are a few ways to combat them:

  • Communicate with the city government. If your project requires a permit, you'll need to get the city government on board. Communicate early and specifically about what the project is, why you need the permit, and how it might affect the government.
  • Convey the benefits to taxpayers. If the city government is sponsoring the event, taxpayers may be concerned about how exactly their money is being spent, and they'll want to see clear benefits from the placemaking effort.
  • Reassure local businesses. You may need to reassure business owners in the neighborhood where an event is being held that it won't negatively impact their customers. Create sponsorship opportunities for businesses to generate goodwill in the community and attach their names to something that is perceived as new, positive, and productive.

Placemaking is not simply about attracting businesses or economic development. It's about giving people a sense of belonging and ownership in their city and incentivizing healthy lifestyles, creativity, and dialogue about how the city's spaces and resources are being used. Placemaking brings life to a city by creating a unique experience that unites its residents and fosters a sense of community pride.