How Placemaking Drives Resilient Cities


Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else, (…) lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over  for problems and needs outside themselves.

– Jane Jacobs

A community’s connection to place is at the very heart of resilience. In fact, resilience on its own has limited value if residents feel little attachment to, or investment in, a place. Placemaking is the process of building and nurturing this relationship between people and their environment. Through a broad focus on creating quality places, Placemaking builds the shared value, community capacity, and cross-sector collaboration that is the bedrock of resilient cities and thriving communities.

Thriving places have a direct impact on our ability to address major societal challenges. As numerous studies have shown, a strong sense of place is an important factor not only in our own health and well being, but also in the physical and economic health of our cities. Part of this experience of a place comes from actively participating in the creation of its meaning and use—and people are less likely to develop a strong relationship to, and investment in, a place if there is a high risk of the place not being sustained. We need to focus on Placemaking in order to generate resilience, just as resilience is necessary for investing in place.

The conversation on resilience has emphasized the importance of creating smarter infrastructure and enhancing community disaster preparedness. A resilient community also leverages its investments for broader outcomes – this is what Dr. Judith Rodin has dubbed “the resilience dividend.” Whether the goal is improved transportation infrastructure, better utility networks and civic technology investments, or sea level rise protection (see the extensive proposal for post-Sandy lower Manhattan), putting place, and the creation of “place capital,” at the center of our policy and planning frameworks can more effectively, and more cheaply, address multiple issues at once.

Many movements and causes are starting to converge around place as a way to generate innovative solutions and achieve multiple outcomes at once.

In creating self-sustaining places, Placemaking needs to be a community-based process, not just a strategy or solution that has been imposed and implemented by city leaders or planners. Further, community members must not only feel like they belong there, but that they can play an active part in its creation and continued success. When approached in this way, Placemaking can be an essential factor in building a community’s social capital as well as a sense of belonging amongst its residents.

A place-led agenda for cities, while still committed to securing better services and infrastructure for its citizens, focuses as well on strengthening a community’s capacity for disaster relief and crisis management. Evidence and experience has shown that it is this scale of governance that is most useful and effective during times of emergency. Indeed, most of the aid that is generated during disasters comes from existing social networks. At PPS, we are seeing the intermingling of Placemaking and resilience initiatives at various scales and in many contexts.

In Detroit, for example, Placemaking is becoming a vehicle that enables all community members to contribute to and share in the rebirth of their city. From long–time residents to young students and artists, from small business owners to billionaire investors, people of all ages, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds are coming together to contribute to the cultural, social, and physical life of the place. The revival of Campus Martius Park, for example, with an investment of $20million, anchored the resilience of Downtown Detroit through the worst of the global financial crisis and the near-collapse of the American auto industry. Vitally transforming the city’s core, the success of this project had a ripple effect throughout much of the city. In many ways, Detroit, and the state of Michigan more broadly, are pioneering a model for place-led development that can be adapted and applied in cities across the country and throughout the world.

With Downtown Detroit’s success anchored by place-led development, city residents and neighborhood organizations are also using Placemaking to define and create new neighborhood resources, such as area around Peaches and Greens grocery.

In Adelaide, Australia, a city seeking to build its resilience without the impetus of disaster or deficits, Placemaking and place governance have become a central strategy for building resilience and community capacity over time. The crisis facing this otherwise prosperous city is one of community investment and shared responsibility. The city is in many ways seeking to replicate the place governance of more informal, limited resource, parts of the world. It is devolving governance to the district and community-scale, and the measure of success for each sector is based on its continued production of place capital and community capacity.

acemaking has become a cross-cutting agenda for defining how we work together to shape cities. Click here to download PPS’s 2012 report for UN-Habitat, Placemaking & The Future of Cities.

In addition, through our work with UN-Habitat and the Future of Places partnership we forged, to advance public space, place, and Placemaking agendas in global policy initiatives, it has become clear that issues of sustainability, resilience, and place are especially urgent in the fast developing and rapidly urbanizing Global South. In these highly social environments, adopting a place-led development agenda can be an effective way to generate the kind of investments and outcomes that are necessary for building healthy, equitable and resilient communities.

As Jane Jacobs once observed: “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else, (…) lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” Indeed, what is often missed in top-down planning and policy—or upstaged by the loud voices and competing interests that generally dominate the discussion—is a community’s own capacity to evolve and self-govern.

It is only by focusing on our capacity to sustain and create places that we will find real and integrative solutions to the most pressing concerns of the 21st century. Not a single one of the major challenges facing today’s cities—whether it’s poverty, environmental degradation, social segregation, transportation, or inequality—exists in isolation of the others. A focus on Placemaking offers a practical, proactive, and integrated approach for addressing global change and resilience at every scale.

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