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How Physical Places Define Local Economies


"People develop, not places."

So writes Jim Russell in a recent post over at Burgh Diaspora, in arguing that cities are wasting their money on Placemaking when they should be focusing more directly on talent development. In his view, widely held these days, Placemaking is about plunking down "cool urban amenities" and increasing token diversity to make a city seem edgy or superficially interesting. It's a simple cut-and-paste process of taking some signifier of young, contemporary, urban hipness (a bike lane, public art, a funkily decorated coffee shop) and inserting it into a neighborhood in the hopes of re-framing that neighborhood as the Next Big Thing.

That's not what Placemaking is. Or at least that's not how many of us who use the word mean it. For every person who thinks that you can 'placemake' unilaterally by dropping in cool amenities, there is another who believes that Placemaking is as much about the discussion that participants have with each other as it is about whether a space contains public art or picnic tables when all is said and done. The physical attributes of the space in question are important, but they are the means, not the end. If you're not building social capital in the community where you're working, you're not Placemaking; you're just reorganizing the furniture.

Context (the size of a site, its location within the city, its present configuration) gives the people who choose to participate in a Placemaking process a universally agreed-upon starting point. But for that raw space to become a place, people have to identify priorities, make decisions, and take action. Involving the intended users of a public space in that process helps the resulting design to be responsive to the community's needs—including the inherent need of all communities for people to connect with each other. Any organization can pave a plaza, but it's not a place until people are using it. By bringing people together around a shared starting point to define and work toward shared goals, Placemaking can play a critical role in strengthening local economies.

For hard evidence of this, look to Tokyo. Writing for Next City's new Informal City Dialogs, urbanologists Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava explain how the Japanese government relied on the citizens of Tokyo to rebuild their (literally) bombed-out neighborhoods incrementally after WWII, while top-level funds were used to build state-of-the-art infrastructure to connect those neighborhoods and facilitate their growth, both physically and economically, over time. "After the war," they write, "one of Tokyo's few abundant resources was memory." That the city rebuilt on the foundation of those memories—of local traditions, building techniques, shared needs—is now one of the world's biggest economic juggernauts is no coincidence.

In his critique of Placemaking, Russell looks a bit closer to home, at Detroit. The city, he writes, is currently benefiting from a big fish, small pond talent migration, where talented young professionals are moving back because, as one such person asks in a quoted passage, "Where else in the country can you make an actual impact on a whole city when you are in your 20s?" Since Detroit is infamously lacking in amenities and diversity, Russell argues, people clearly don't move there "to live out [their] Portland fantasy on the cheap. You certainly don't leave Seattle in hopes of a place-making upgrade. You migrate for opportunity, despite the challenges and the warts."

There's a disconnect here that bothers me: in so much of the contemporary mainstream discussion of Placemaking, the signifier has become the signified. "Placemaking" is now often used as a stand-in for the finished product; if a parklet is built or a cafe popped-up, it doesn't matter who asked for it, or whether anyone even asked in the first place. The people behind the project will tell you that it's Placemaking, regardless. The implication in these instances is that a place can be imposed on a community, rather than created with it. That's the exact same logic that was used to justify slum clearance and build tower-in-the-park complexes in the US during the years when Tokyo was going through its incremental resurgence.

In Detroit, an / Photo: Brendan Crain

In Detroit, an abundance of cheap space lowers the barrier to entry for participating in urban revitalization / Photo: Brendan Crain

That brings us back to Detroit: a city that is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Tokyo when it comes to the development of Place Capital over the past half-century. But what's happening in Detroit right now is not the result of some inherent "opportunity" that can be pulled from the air. Like Tokyo after the war, Detroit's "challenges and warts" are the opportunity; they create a physical context that people can make tangible changes to, even as upstarts in their 20s with modest resources. The abundance of cheap space lowers the barrier to entry for participating in urban revitalization, and while most cities don't have Detroit's elbow room, people can still take part in the shaping of their communities by working together to define their shared public spaces. As my colleague Ethan put it recently, "Human capital and creative talent increasingly goes where it likes; talent increasingly goes to great places; but talented people become most attached to places that they help create."

Like Russell, many people today are beginning to voice the concern that Placemaking is "counterproductive" to economic development, because they've been led to believe that the process is simply about cutting and pasting things that worked somewhere else into struggling spaces. But great places and strong local economies are created in the same way: by getting people together to define local challenges and come up with appropriate solutions to address them. Placemaking makes tangible the opportunities inherent within a place so that they might be taken advantage of. People develop places; thereafter, places develop people.