Dear friends and colleagues,
The pandemic has led many, including myself, to rethink, reexamine, and even revalue public spaces. During so many months of physical separation, taking advantage of outdoor spaces has been vital to our health and well-being. But access to outdoor public places has been far from equitable, and indoor public places—whether civic assets, like schools and libraries, or “third places,” such as coffee shops or restaurants—have been extremely limited. In truth, the pandemic has highlighted how public spaces are not available to communities in ways that reflect their interests, needs, and demands.
As we build toward an inclusive post pandemic recovery, how can we better ensure equitable access to outdoor public spaces?
One way is through the concept of “placemaking.”
Placemaking is the practice of designing spaces that reflect the priorities of the community and foster a sense of belonging and improve residents’ quality of life. It is an approach to planning and design based on a core belief that people should have a say in what their surrounding spaces look like and how they’re used. In practice, placemaking can take many forms: the development of more equal-access parks, art installations to make places more colorful and welcoming, safer pathways for pedestrians and bicyclists, and other innovations to enhance public spaces.
And placemaking can make a difference. Urban Institute research finds access to recreational areas and safe places to live, work, and play is associated with more positive feelings about the community—feelings people with low incomes and people of color ranked as more important than access to jobs, affordable housing, or quality schools but were still less likely to find in their own communities.
What placemaking looks like
Placemaking efforts contrast more traditional urban planning that often prioritizes economic development over residents and can contribute to large-scale displacement. From Jim Crow–era segregation to redlining, housing discrimination, unequal investment in public assets like parks or libraries, and racial bias in property valuation, our nation’s history of prioritizing whiteness and wealth represents a problematic context for communities grappling with planning questions today. Placemaking instead treats resident voice as a fundamental input to guide development.
Urban Institute researchers Kimberly Burrowes and Mark Treskon have studied placemaking. They note that although engagement can look different depending on the project, a few principles are consistent:
- Dialoguing with the people who already live or work in a place—and committing to shared planning and decisionmaking—is fundamental to an effective placemaking strategy. Like in many other communities, people living in Oakland, California, began walking more because of the pandemic, a situation that made a slow streets initiative, with local law enforcement present to help cordon off streets for pedestrians, seem ideal. But actively listening to Black and brown residents about overpolicing in their communities led Oakland planners to redesign their approach. Eventually, the city introduced the Essential Places initiative informed by residents’ concerns over pedestrian safety, speeding, and the need to create safe pathways for people to get to grocery stores, clinics, and other needed services.
- True engagement isn’t transactional; it’s a long-term process for building community trust and finding effective solutions. When officials in Baltimore, Maryland, were considering how to reopen small businesses without compromising public health, they brought together city planners, developers, public health experts, and local stakeholders, including businesses, artists, and residents, to reimagine public spaces. This cross-sector partnership launched a $1.5 million tactical urban design competition: Design for Distancing. Out of 162 submissions, the partners chose 10 low-cost design innovations across several districts to meet the immediate need of reviving businesses while elevating the longer-term goal of ensuring residents feel more connected to each other and their neighborhoods.
- Effective placemaking demands an understanding of history and social context. Build Baton Rouge began with a focus on developing the city’s urban neighborhoods in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But a new public transit line along a major commercial corridor (PDF) encouraged the coalition to embark on an experiential, participatory community engagement process. The two-year plan included understanding the resiliency and vibrancy of the Plank Road corridor through relationship-building efforts like collecting residents’ memories of the neighborhood, listening to participants’ visions for specific sites, and conducting community events. The planners also examined the area’s wide socioeconomic disparities, the impacts of past projects, and the deep history of intentional disinvestment and segregation. The plan’s features—including development projects for new housing and child care services, a civic center, a food incubator, and a park—underscore the partners’ commitment to understanding the spaces’ social contexts and the community’s existing assets.
What cities should keep in mind
Placemaking, with emphasis on thoughtful community dialogue, a commitment to long-term partnership, and an appreciation for historical and social context, can be an effective tool for inclusive recovery. When placemaking reflects the priorities of the community, it can foster a sense of belonging and improve residents’ quality of life. But placemaking isn’t a foolproof model for addressing inequality in community planning. Without addressing disinvestment, marginalization, resource imbalances, and barriers to participation, efforts to engage in placemaking can instead lead to prioritizing more affluent residents, raising desirability for a community so people who already live there are priced out of participating, worsening feelings of mistrust. Ensuring that placemaking efforts engage people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences will be critical. Moving forward without those voices and experiences—without intentional inclusion and informed action—almost guarantees the benefits of placemaking won’t be equitable either.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and reflections. Feel free to email at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime.