The study’s other key finding was that there is an empirical relationship between higher levels of attachment and cities’ GDP growth. This is important because, in Loflin’s words, “We have not recognized, as a society, the importance of [place]. Studies like Soul of the Community are helping to give us all permission to spend some time working on this stuff—and not in a kumbaya way, but an economic way.”
Placemaking, in other words, is a vital part of economic development. And yet, there has long been criticism that calls into question whether or not this process is actually helping communities to develop their local economies, or merely accelerating the process of gentrification in formerly-maligned urban core neighborhoods. We believe that this is largely due to confusion over what Placemaking is, and who “gets” to be involved. If Placemaking is project-led, development-led, design-led or artist-led, then it does likely lead to gentrification and a more limited set of community outcomes.
Who is the community, and what is their role?
The key question right now seems to be about ownership and belonging, in regard to who has a right to participate when a Placemaking process is underway. In an article for Next City last fall, Neeraj Mehta started a great deal of chatter after raising this very issue when he asked:
“Which people do we want to gather, visit and live in vibrant places? Is it just some people? Is it already well-off people? It is traditionally excluded people? Is it poor people? New people? People of color?”This builds on a common frustration among people who work in community development and related fields: oversimplification of what we mean when we talk about “the community.” Places are almost never the product of a singular, evenly-connected community, but the intersection and overlapping of multiple or many diverse groups. “The community” often includes people who never speak to each other, or may not even notice each other, depending on the quality and availability of welcoming public spaces in which to connect.
This is the very problem that Placemaking aims to address. The most important tenet is that the process must be open and welcoming to all who want to participate. This is not to say that everyone will get what they want out of Placemaking. The point is that there will be an opportunity for people not just to share what they want, but also to listen to their neighbors’ ideas, and to be part of the process of shaping the public spaces that they share with those neighbors. The end result should be a space that’s flexible enough to make room for many different communities, and encourage connections between them.
What role do artists play?
Perhaps one of the most significant changes that has taken place in the public dialog around Placemaking, over the past several years, has been the rise of the “creative” modifier. Creative Placemaking’s proponents (including the Knight Foundation-supported ArtPlace) have contributed substantially to the public awareness of the importance of public space, and the role of public art in creating great places, by positioning artists at the center of the Placemaking process. Unfortunately, this privileging of one type of activity over others also seems to be the source of many of the recent questions around who benefits, and who is allowed at the table.
Whether we like it or not, “creativity” has come to mean something quite specific over the past decade or so. Dr. Richard Florida’s movement-sparking book, The Rise of the Creative Class, was boiled down into sound bites so frequently and consistently after its publication, that the idea of “creativity” became the purview of a specific group of people. Suddenly everyone was talking about “creative types,” and scheming to build more coffee shops and bike trails in order to lure young people with liberal arts degrees to their city to create design blogs and tech start-ups. The idea, perversely, and in contradiction of what Florida was actually arguing, became that a certain kind of person with a certain kind of creativity was most valuable to local economic development, and cities should try to be more like the places that were already attracting that kind of person in order to steal them away—rather than fostering the creativity of people who were already living in a given place.
Roberto Bedoya hits the nail on the head in a provocative post originally published shortly before Mehta’s:
“What I’ve witnessed in the discussions and practices associated with Creative Placemaking is that they are tethered to a meaning of ‘place’ manifest in the built environment, e.g., artists live-work spaces, cultural districts, spatial landscapes. And this meaning, which operates inside the policy frame of urban planning and economic development, is ok but that is not the complete picture. Its insufficiency lies in a lack of understanding that before you have places of belonging, you must feel you belong. Before there is the vibrant street one needs an understanding of the social dynamics on that street – the politics of belonging and dis-belonging at work in placemaking in civil society.”In other words, while the intentions of Creative Placemaking’s proponents are undoubtedly good, and their work very frequently wonderful, the fact that a lot of people just don’t consider themselves to be “creative types” limits the potential outcomes. No doubt, part of the drive is to expand creativity and the arts to impact community development and open the arts up to more people, but to start off by limiting the Placemaking process to a certain set of outcomes from the get-go is not the way to go about it.
Every place can be vibrant. Vibrancy is people.
Also problematic is the fact that so much debate has centered on a flawed definition of “vibrancy” that further limits the Placemaking process’ capacity for transforming communities. Ann Markusen, who co-authored the original paper on Creative Placemaking for the NEA, highlights this problem in an essay that she wrote for arts management hub Create Equity, questioning the movement’s early evolution. Markusen asks:
“Just what does vibrancy mean? Let’s try to unpack the term. ArtPlace’s definition: ‘we define vibrancy as places with an unusual scale and intensity of specific kinds of human interaction.’ Pretty vague and…vibrancy are places? Unusual scale? Scale meaning extensive, intensive? Of specific kinds? What kinds?”This definition is not just vague, it’s unnecessarily limiting. If vibrancy is defined explicitly as an “unusual” condition, it furthers the idea that Placemaking is geared toward the production of specific kinds of spaces and amenities, rather than toward the enabling of citizens to use their public spaces to highlight their neighborhood’s unique strengths, and effectively address distinct challenges. We may have come to think of vibrancy as a finite quality after seeing our cities stripped of their dense social networks through decades of freeway-building and suburbanization, but that is a misconception.
Every neighborhood—every plaza, square, park, waterfront, market, and street—can be vibrant, but if people don’t feel like they can contribute to shaping their places, vibrancy can’t exist. Period. Gentrification, which is often blamed on honest attempts to create more vibrant, livable places, is what happens when we forget that vibrancy is people; that it cannot be built or installed, but must be inspired and cultivated. Says DC-based community organizer Sylvia Robinson: “I consider gentrification an attitude. It’s the idea that you are coming in as a planner, developer, or city agency and looking at a neighborhood as if it’s a blank slate. You impose development and different economic models and say that in order for this neighborhood to thrive you need to build this much housing, this much retail.”
Cities’ “soft” sides matter—and so does how we talk about them.
When Placemaking is perceived to be geared toward a specific set of outcomes, it undermines the work that everyone in the field is doing, and leads to the kind of criticism that we saw from Thomas Frank, whose blistering takedown of Placemaking in The Baffler should make even the most seasoned Placemaking advocate wince. Frank writes:
“Let us propose a working hypothesis of what makes up the vibrant. Putting aside such outliers as the foundation that thinks vibrancy equals poverty-remediation and the car rental company that believes it means having lots of parks, it’s easy to figure out what the foundations believe the vibrant to be. Vibrant is a quality you find in cities or neighborhoods where there is an arts or music ‘scene,’ lots of restaurants and food markets of a certain highbrow type, trophy architecture to memorialize the scene’s otherwise transient life, and an audience of prosperous people who are interested in all these things.”And then, toward the end of the article, the clincher:
“Let’s say that the foundations successfully persuade Akron to enter into a vibrancy arms race with Indianapolis. Let’s say both cities blow millions on building cool neighborhoods and encouraging private art galleries. But let’s say Akron wins…What then? Is the nation better served now that those businesses are located in Akron rather than in Indianapolis? Or would it have been more productive to spend those millions on bridges, railroads, highways—hell, on lobbyists to demand better oversight for banks?”This is a straw man argument that many of us are tired of hearing: that focusing on the ‘soft’ side of cities, the very things the Soul of the Community study found most important, is a waste of money when cities should be focusing on hard infrastructure. But if we allow Placemaking to be framed (or even worse, practiced) in a way that leaves people feeling unwelcome or excluded, we’re setting ourselves up for exactly that sort of criticism.
Better communication between the people who share rapidly-changing neighborhoods is vital to the future success of our cities—and, considering the fact that 70% of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, to the future of global society. That is what we advocate for when we advocate for Placemaking. We do not work for better public spaces so that people will have somewhere to sit and eat gelato; we do it so that they will have somewhere to sit and talk with their neighbors. Whether or not that conversation is about art (or politics, or food, or education, or sports…) is beside the point.
You know that you’re in a great place when you’re surrounded by all different sorts of people, but still feel like you belong. When people feel encouraged to participate in shaping the life of a space, it creates the kind of open atmosphere that attracts more and more people. In their inclusiveness, our greatest places mirror the dynamics of a truly democratic society. As we put it in our introduction to the Guide to Neighborhood Placemaking in Chicago (written for the Metropolitan Planning Council), “Placemaking allows communities to see how their insight and knowledge fits into the broader process of making change. It allows them to become proactive vs. reactive, and positive vs. negative. Simply put, Placemaking allows regular people to make extraordinary improvements, big or small, in their communities.”
Over the next few weeks, as we prepare for the first meeting of the Placemaking Leadership Council in Detroit on April 11th and 12th, we will be exploring the relationship between individuals and the Placemaking process in further detail. More to come soon.
This is the first of a three-part series on transformative Placemaking. To read part two, click here. To read part three, click here.
A great place is something that everybody can create. If vibrancy is people, as we argued two weeks ago, the only way to make a city vibrant again is to make room for more of them. Today, in the first of a two-part follow up, we will explore how Placemaking, by positioning public spaces at the heart of action-oriented community dialog, makes room both physically and philosophically by re-framing citizenship as an on-going, creative collaboration between neighbors. The result is not merely vibrancy, but equity.
In equitable places, individual citizens feel (first) that they are welcome, and (second) that it is within their power to change those places through their own actions. “The huge problem with citizenship today is that people don’t take it very seriously,” says Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College. “The two dominant frameworks for citizenship in political theory,” he explains, “are the liberal framework, where citizens are voters and consumers of goods, and the communitarian framework, where citizens are volunteers and members of communities. In other words, for most people, citizenship is doing good deeds, or it’s voting and getting things. We need to develop the idea of civic agency, where citizens are co-creators of democracy and the democratic way of life.”
It is bewildering, when you take a step back, to realize how far we’ve gotten away from that last statement. We have completely divorced governance from citizenship, and built thick silo walls around government by creating an opaque, discipline-driven approach to problem-solving. Busting those silo walls is imperative to creating more equitable communities. Rather than trying, haplessly, to solve transportation, housing, or health problems separately, as if they exist within a vacuum, government should be focused on building stronger place.
Revitalizing citizenship through Place Governance: Why we need a Copernican revolution
As the link between bustling public spaces and economic development has grown stronger, some government officials have started advocating for change in this arena. After so many decades of top-down thinking, the learning curve is steep, and many officials are trying to solve human problems with design solutions. But a new citizen-centered model has also begun to emerge, that we’ve come to call Place Governance.
In Place Governance, officials endeavor to draw more people into the civic decision-making process. When dealing with a dysfunctional street, for instance, answers aren’t only sought from transportation engineers—they’re sought from merchants who own businesses along the street, non-profit organizations working in the surrounding community, teachers and administrators at the school where buses queue, etc. The fundamental actors in a Place Governance structure are not official agencies that deal with specific slices of the pie, but the people who use the area in question and are most intimately acquainted with its challenges. Officials who strive to implement this type of governance structure do so because they understand that the best solutions don’t come from within narrow disciplines, but from the points where people of different backgrounds come together.
One of the key strengths of Place Governance is that it meets people where they are, and makes it easier for them to engage in shaping their communities. We have seen the willingness to collaborate more and more frequently in our work with local government agencies. Speaking about a recent workshop in Pasadena, CA, PPS President Fred Kent noted that “The Mayor and City Manager there fully realize and support the idea that if the people, lead they [the government] will follow. They recognize that they need leadership coming from their citizens to create the change that will sustain and build the special qualities that give Pasadena a sense of place.”
Finding ways to help citizens lead is critical to the future of community development and Placemaking, which is exactly why we have been working to form cross-disciplinary coalitions like Livability Solutions, Community Matters, and, most recently, the Placemaking Leadership Council. “Democracy is not a government, it’s a society,” argues Boyte. “We have to develop an idea that democracy is the work of the people. It’s citizen-centered democracy, not state- or government-centered democracy. That doesn’t mean government doesn’t play an important role, but if you think about government as the center of the universe, we need something like a Copernican revolution.”
Attachment then engagement: Co-creating a culture of citizenship
The engagement of citizens from all walks of life is central to Place Governance, and while a great deal of Placemaking work comes from grassroots activity, we need more change agents working within existing frameworks to pull people in. As the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community Study has shown for several years running, “soft” aspects like social offerings, openness, and aesthetics are key to creating the attachment to place that leads to economic development and community cohesion. But counter-intuitively, civic engagement and social capital are actually the two least important factors in creating a sense of attachment.
As it turns out, that’s actually not bad news. It’s all in how to read the data. When the SOTC results came out, Katherine Loflin, who served as the lead consultant for Knight on the study, recalls there being a great deal of consternation at the foundation around this surprising result. But SOTC does not measure the factors that are most important to place generally; it measures the factors that are most important in regard to peoples’ attachment to place. Working off of the specificity of that premise, Loflin dug deeper into the data to see if she could find an explanation for the curious lack of correlation between engagement and attachment.
“By the third year of Soul,” Loflin says, “we decided to start testing different variables to see whether civic engagement has to work with something else to inspire attachment. We found that one thing that does seem to matter is one’s feeling of self-efficacy. You need civic engagement plus the belief that you can make a difference in order for it to create greater attachment. We can’t just provide civic engagement opportunities, we also have to create a culture of success around engagement if we want it to translate to feelings of greater attachment to a place.”
Matt Leighninger, the director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (a Community Matters partner) echoes this need when talking about his own work in engaging communities. “The shortcoming of [a lot of community dialog] work,” he says, “is that it is too often set up to address a particular issue, and then once it’s over, it’s over. You would think that people having an experience like that would lead them to seek out opportunities to do it again on other issues, but that often doesn’t happen. Unless there’s a social circle or ecosystem that encourages them and honors their contributions, it’s not likely that they’re going to stay involved.”
How Placemaking helps citizens see what they can build together
Creating that support system is what Place Governance is all about. In addition to their capacity for creating a sense of attachment to place, great public destinations, through the interactive way in which they are developed and managed, challenge people to think more broadly about what it means to be a citizen. Place Governance relies on the Placemaking process to structure the discussion about how shared spaces should be used in a way that helps people to understand how their own specific knowledge can benefit their community more broadly. “We can set up the conversation, and help move things along,” Kent says, “but once the community’s got it, they’re golden. Just setting the process up for them to perform—that’s what Placemaking is.”
If the dominant framework for understanding citizenship today is passive, with citizens ‘receiving’ government services and being ‘given’ rights, then we need to develop affirmative cultures around citizen action. We should also recognize that elected representatives are citizens, just as surely as we are ourselves. We need officials to focus on creating great places with their communities rather than solving isolated problems for distant constituents. Equitable places are not given, they are made, collaboratively. Everyone has a part to play, from the top down, and from the bottom up. “The default of consumer culture,” Boyte says of this much-needed shift in thinking about citizenship, “is that people ask what they can get, rather than thinking about what they could build, in terms of common resources.”
Governance is social, and citizenship is creative. The only things standing between where we are and where we want to be are those big, thick silo walls.
Now, here’s the million dollar question: in that vision, what are you doing to add to that bustle?
If vibrancy is people, and citizenship is creative, it follows that the more that citizens feel they are able to contribute to their public spaces, the more vibrant their communities will be. The core function of place, as a shared asset, is to facilitate participation in public life by as many individuals as possible. Ultimately the true sense of a place comes from how it makes the people who use it feel about themselves, and about their ability to engage with each other in the ways that they feel most comfortable.
“There is an undeniable thing that each resident brings to the table,” says Katherine Loflin, who led Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community study. “It has to do with the openness and feeling of the place; it’s not something that you construct, physically, it’s something that you feel. And it is us as humans that convey that feeling to each other—or not!”
Getting Started: How You Can Make a Place Great Right Away
As Sustainable South Bronx founder and advocate Majora Carter famously put it, “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.” Each of us can participate, right now, in creating the city that we want to live in. If you think of enlivening a place as a monumental task, remember that great places are not the result of any one person’s actions, but the actions of many individuals layered on top of one another. It may take years to turn a grassy lot into a great square, but you can start today by simply mowing the lawn and inviting your neighbors out for a picnic.
In an essay for The Atlantic back in 1966, then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey touched on this when he wrote about his father’s public spirit, and his active participation in the life of the small town of Doland, South Dakota, where the family lived. Hubert Sr. was a pharmacist, and he strove to make his pharmacy into a community hub, a place where neighbors came to meet and discuss the issues of the day. “Undoubtedly, he was a romantic,” writes Hubert Jr. of his father, “and when friends would josh him about his talk about world politics, the good society, and learning, he would say, ‘Before the fact is the dream.’
When you think about making your neighborhood a better place, think Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (LQC). In public space design, the LQC strategy is framed as a way for communities to experiment with a place and learn how people want to use it before making more permanent changes. That experimental attitude can be adopted by anyone. Just ask yourself: what’s one thing I already enjoy doing that I could bring out into the public realm?
Make it Public: Bringing Existing Activity Out Into the Streets
For some of us, there may be opportunities to take the work that we do in our professional lives and turn it into a way to engage with our neighbors. Perhaps there’s a certain activity we perform that could be moved to a nearby park, or a skill that we could teach at a local library. One graphic design firm in Cape Town, South Africa, has taken the idea of public work to a delightful extreme through their Holding Public Office initiative, where they move their office out into a different public space for one day each month and interact with curious passersby. “It keeps us on our toes,” says Lourina Botha, one of the firm’s co-directors. “It forces us to be aware of our role as designers and is a fairly stark reminder that what we design has a real effect on the world.”
In other words, this project illustrates how taking a LQC approach to work enriches not just the public space where the intervention takes place, but the work that the firm does, as well. This kind of activity blurs the line between private and public, and re-frames work as a mechanism for building social capital. According to Harry Boyte, director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, “We need professionals to think about themselves not narrowly disciplinary professionals, whose work is to simply solve a narrow disciplinary problem, but as citizen professionals working to contribute to the civic health and well-being of the community.”
Many people may not have any particular job function that can become more public, for whatever reason, but there are still plenty of activities that mostly take place in private that can be used to enliven public space. Active citizenship needn’t be all work and no play, after all. “Any kind of community [that is supportive of engagement] is not just going to be about the problems that residents want to solve,” explains Matt Leighninger, the director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. “It also has to be about celebrating what they’ve done, through socializing, music, food.”
Building off of that last point, the organizers of Restaurant Day have turned cooking into an excuse for a carnival, giving residents of Helsinki, Finland, a chance to showcase their creativity in the kitchen and turning the city’s streets into a delectable buffet in the process. Their idea to organize a one-day festival where anyone could open a restaurant anywhere (from living rooms to public plazas), started when Antti Tuomola was struggling through navigating the onerous process of starting up a brick and mortar restaurant in the city. Recalls Kirsti Tuominen, one of the friends who works with Tuomola on organizing the event, “We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do something that would be fun, easy, and social at the same time. Something positive. We didn’t want to go the protest route. That’s the not-so-efficient way of trying to make a difference; it’s often better to show a good example and then it’s harder for the opposition.”
The first Restaurant Day took place back in 2011; today, it has been celebrated in cities all over the world. The festival is a brilliant example of how a completely normal daily activity can totally transform a city’s public spaces when approached in a creative way. “The street experience itself was a joy to behold,” wrote City of Sound blogger Dan Hill after participating on one of the festivals. “It truly felt like a new kind of Helsinki. International, cosmopolitan, diverse yet uniquely Finnish…It felt like a city discovering they could use their own streets as they liked; that the streets might be their responsibility.”
Tuominen echoes this in her own reflection on the event, explaining that “[Finland] is so full of regulations that people tend to see regulations even where they don’t exist! That’s been hindering things for a long time, but Restaurant Day has encouraged people to use their public spaces in a new way. Sometimes people just need someone to show them, or give them a gentle kick in the butt, and things will start happening.”
Understanding this is key for citizens who want to take a LQC attitude toward activating their neighborhoods: public spaces have a way of amplifying individual actions. One thing from the above comments that is not uniquely Finnish is the tendency of people (particularly in the developed world) to see regulations where they don’t exist. After decades of society turning its back on public life in favor of the private realm of home, office, and car, a lot of people now feel that they need permission to use public spaces the way they’d like to. We can give that permission to each other.
Leading From the Bottom-Up: Work Fast, Work Together
If you are a change-oriented person, we need you to lead. Whether you want to move your office outside, organize a citywide cooking festival, or start small by making a concerted effort to engage directly with your neighbors every day, know that your own actions are an essential component of your neighborhood’s sense of place, by virtue of the fact that you live there. Explains Loflin: “If you don’t spend at least some time thinking about the state of mind of Placemaking—every decision, behavior, everything that we do as residents in our place every day—on top of the infrastructure that’s provided by the place itself, then you miss a really important part of the conversation, where everybody gets to have some of the responsibility.”
Whatever you decide to do, know that there will be bumps in the road. One of our 11 core Placemaking principles is that they’ll always say it can’t be done. But keep pushing. Meet your neighbors, and find your allies. Creating great places is all about getting to know the people who you share those places with. Thinking LQC doesn’t just mean experimenting with what you do, but with how you do it. Look for unconventional partners, and always be willing to consider doing things a bit differently.
In an interview for the Placemaking Blog late last year, Team Better Block co-founder Andrew Howard explained how his own LQC street transformations in cities around the US have caused his understanding of how people engage with places to evolve. “As a planner,” he explained, “I always thought that, if I made the best plan, that would attract the right people to come from somewhere else and make that plan happen. What I’ve realized through Better Block is that every community already has everybody they need. They just need to activate the talented people who are already there, and shove them into one place at one time, and that place can become better really quickly.”
Great places are not created in one fell swoop, but through many creative acts of citizenship: individuals taking it upon themselves to add their own ideas and talents to the life of their neighborhood’s public spaces. The best news is that we seem to be living at a very special time, when people are once again realizing the importance of public life. It’s something we’ve seen first-hand in communities where we have worked around the world, and something we’ve heard from many others. “I think that these are the early first steps,” says Tuominen, “but I think we’re heading to something that is very good, and interesting. I love this time. You can feel it, it’s almost tangible: that things are happening and moving forward.”
Before the fact is the dream. Just a few minutes ago, at the beginning of this very article, you conjured up a vision of a better neighborhood. Go make it real.