What is Placemaking?


“’Placemaking’ is both an overarching idea and a hands-on tool for improving a neighborhood, city or region. It has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century.” -Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago

From the Heart of a Community

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Put simply, it involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations. This information is then used to create a common vision for that place. The vision can evolve quickly into an implementation strategy, beginning with small-scale, do-able improvements that can immediately bring benefits to public spaces and the people who use them.

Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being. When we asked visitors to pps.org what Placemaking means to them, responses suggested that this process is essential–even sacred–to people who truly care about the places in their lives.

True Placemaking begins at the smallest scale.

When you focus on place, you do everything differently

For us, Placemaking is both a process and a philosophy. It takes root when a community expresses needs and desires about places in their lives, even if there is not yet a clearly defined plan of action. The yearning to unite people around a larger vision for a particular place is often present long before the word “Placemaking” is ever mentioned. Once the term is introduced, however, it enables people to realize just how inspiring their collective vision can be, and allows them to look with fresh eyes at the potential of parks, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, neighborhoods, streets, markets, campuses and public buildings. It sparks an exciting re-examination of everyday settings and experiences in our lives.

Unfortunately the way our communities are built today has become so institutionalized that community stakeholders seldom have a chance to voice ideas and aspirations about the places they inhabit. Placemaking breaks through this by showing planners, designers, and engineers how to move beyond their habit of looking at communities through the narrow lens of single-minded goals or rigid professional disciplines. The first step is listening to best experts in the field—the people who live, work and play in a place.

Experience has shown us that when developers and planners welcome as much grassroots involvement as possible, they spare themselves a lot of headaches. Common problems like traffic-dominated streets, little-used parks, and isolated, underperforming development projects can be avoided by embracing the Placemaking perspective that views a place in its entirety, rather than zeroing in on isolated fragments of the whole.

For more than 35 years, PPS has acted as an advocate and resource center for Placemaking, continually making the case that a collaborative community process that pays attention to issues on the small scale is the best approach in creating and revitalizing public spaces.

Cities ultimately fail or succeed at the “place” scale

The Bedrock Foundation of Placemaking

A Placemaking approach provides communities with the springboard they need to revitalize their communities. To start, we draw upon the 11 Principles of Placemaking, which have grown out of our experiences working with communities in 26 countries and nearly every state in the U.S. and province in Canada. These are guidelines that help communities integrate diverse opinions into a vision, then translate that vision into a plan and program of uses, and finally see that the plan is properly implemented.

Community input is essential to the Placemaking process, but so is an understanding of a particular place and of the ways that great places foster successful social networks and initiatives. Using the 11 Principles and other tools we’ve developed for improving places (such as the Power of 10 and the Place Diagram, below) we’ve helped citizens bring immense changes to their communities–sometimes more than stakeholders ever dreamed possible.

The Place Diagram is one of the tools PPS has developed to help communities evaluate places. The inner ring represents key attributes, the middle ring intangible qualities, and the outer ring measurable data.

Improving public spaces and the lives of people who use them means finding the patience to take small steps, to truly listen to people, and to see what works best, eventually turning a group vision into the reality of a great public place.

Placemaking is not a new idea

The concepts behind Placemaking originated in the 1960s, when visionaries like Jane Jacobs and William “Holly” Whyte offered groundbreaking ideas about designing cities that catered to people, not just to cars and shopping centers. Their work focused on the importance of lively neighborhoods and inviting public spaces. Jane Jacobs advocated citizen ownership of streets through the now-famous idea of “eyes on the street.” Holly Whyte emphasized essential elements for creating social life in public spaces.

Applying the wisdom of Jacobs, Whyte, and others, PPS gradually developed a comprehensive Placemaking approach for helping communities make better public spaces beginning in 1975. The term can be heard in many settings–not only by citizens committed to grassroots community improvement but by planners and developers who use it as a fashionable “brand” that implies authenticity and quality even when their projects don’t always live up to that promise. But using “Placemaking” to label a process that really doesn’t focus on public participation or result in lively, genuine communities dilutes the true value of this powerful philosophy.

Placemaking is at the heart of PPS’s work and mission, but we do not trademark it as our property. It belongs to anyone who is sincere about creating great places by drawing on the collective wisdom of those who live, work and play there. We do feel, however, it is our responsibility to continue to protect and perpetuate the community-driven, bottom-up approach that Placemaking describes.

We believe that the public’s attraction to the essential qualities of Placemaking will ensure that the term does not lose its original meaning or promise. Making a place is not the same as constructing a building, designing a plaza, or developing a commercial zone. When people enjoy a place for its special social and physical attributes, and when they are allowed to influence decision-making about that space, then you see genuine Placemaking in action.

Placemaking Grows into an International Movement

As more communities engage in Placemaking and more professionals call their work “Placemaking,” it is now essential to preserve the integrity of Placemaking. A great public space cannot be measured simply by physical attributes; it must serve people as a vital place where function is put ahead of form. PPS encourages everyone–citizens and professionals alike–to focus on places and the people who use them.

Placemaking strikes a balance between the physical, the social and even the spiritual qualities of a place. Fortunately, we can all be inspired by the examples of many great Placemakers who have worked to promote this vision through the years. Placemaking belongs to everyone: its message and mission is bigger than any one person or organization. PPS remains dedicated to spreading the message of Placemaking, offering our resources and experiences to all the other Placemakers out there. Teaching them to preserve and create successful places is the most important part of our mission.

What Placemaking Is–and what it isn’t

Placemaking IS:

  • Community-driven
  • Visionary
  • Function before form
  • Adaptable
  • Inclusive
  • Focused on creating destinations
  • Flexible
  • Culturally aware
  • Ever changing
  • Multi-disciplinary
  • Transformative
  • Context-sensitive
  • Inspiring
  • Collaborative
  • Sociable

Placemaking ISN’T:

  • Imposed from above
  • Reactive
  • Design-driven
  • A blanket solution
  • Exclusionary
  • Monolithic development
  • Overly accommodating of the car
  • One-size-fits-all
  • Static
  • Discipline-driven
  • Privatized
  • One-dimensional
  • Dependent on regulatory controls
  • A cost/benefit analysis
  • Project-focused
  • A quick fix

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