Tailor place-making strategies to the neighborhood context.

Place-making has taken hold in a large number of communities across America and internationally. The Civic Development Corporation of Ashtabula County (CDC) plans to give greater attention to the issue in Ashtabula County.

Let’s start with a definition of place-making. According to the Project for Public Places, place-making is a quiet movement that inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, place-making refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban design, place-making facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution. With community-based participation at its center, an effective place-making process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being. When PPS surveyed website visitors about what place-making means to them, we received overwhelming evidence that it is a crucial and deeply-valued process for those who feel intimately connected to the places in their lives. Placemaking shows people just how powerful their collective vision can be. It helps them to reimagine everyday spaces, and to see anew the potential of parks, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, neighborhoods, streets, markets, campuses and public buildings.

A recent report detailing the views and values of place-making in Michigan, the Midwest and the nation is now available from the MSU Land Policy Institute. Rebuilding Prosperous Places in Michigan brings together much of the findings from various studies on place-based development and digs even deeper into issues of demand and value.

The study found that, at the national level, people believe that there is a connection between placemaking and economic development, as well as between placemaking and quality of life. Their perceptions about whether their neighborhood and community are better places to live now than five years ago appears to be associated with place-based characteristics, such as visual appeal, mixed-use, shopping, social activities, bike lanes or paths/trails, arts and culture experiences and public transportation.

Neighborhoods are living places, which makes them very important. Place-making efforts must be sensitive to needs and views of people living in neighborhoods. Gentrification is a common concern; that is place-making efforts can contribute consciously and unconsciously to the gentrification, which is the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.

So what are some of the neighborhood level challenges facing place-making efforts? Here are few suggested by Kip Bergstrom, Deputy Commissioner, Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development.

There are three very different kinds of place-making challenges at the neighborhood level that require a different leadership approach and policy tool kit:

  1. Low-income neighborhoods which have static or declining vibrancy, due to persistent rates of poverty and declining population and job growth.  These neighborhoods have the challenge of economic integration and upward mobility, of changing the bedrock conditions for their residents such that current residents get a larger share of economic growth and chose to stay in the neighborhood as it is redeveloped.  There are often deep creative capabilities among existing residents that can be unleashed and developed.  But, to be effective, arts initiatives need to be coordinated with housing redevelopment, workforce development and school reform (see Policy #10 below).  Working in low-income neighborhoods requires different policies and skill sets than those required in more prosperous neighborhoods.  But as soon as a low-income neighborhood becomes prosperous, it faces the next set of challenges described below.
  2. Distinctive, mixed–income neighborhoods with rising vibrancy.  These neighborhoods have the challenge of maintaining diversity and distinctiveness in the face of “commodification” as rising rents crowd out diversity of people and use.  The result is more high-income people, more chains and large companies, and less socio-economic diversity and less one-of-a-kind shops and startups.  This is extremely problematic as diversity is a fundamental precondition for innovation.  In these neighborhoods, there needs to be a deliberate effort to preserve lower rent uses, through housing policy and historic preservation policy, described in Policy #5 below, and through zoning policy that is permissive of funky uses.  For example, some cities allow commodification on main avenues, but maintain diversity through a free-for-all of permissive zoning on side streets, which typically command lower rents than the main avenues anyway.
  3. Generic chic neighborhoods with declining vibrancyThese neighborhoods have the challenge of using some of their prosperity to buy back some of the soul they sold to get it.  If they do not, they will lose the competition for talent to diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods, the next economy will pass them by, and they will become increasingly less vibrant, high-income enclaves.  I think this context is actually the most difficult placemaking challenge.  Better to avoid it by maintaining the diversity of distinctive, mixed-income neighborhoods.

Implied in all this is a fourth context:  the un-place, the vast expanse of undifferentiated strip malls, subdivisions and office parks in seas of industrialized agriculture that characterizes much of the American landscape.  Most of what we have done for the past 70 years is to make un-places.  It is actually hard to make a place from a greenfield.  Creative placemaking does not presume that a place does not already exist; it is in fact most successful when there is already a real place to build upon, made distinctive by past layers of development, of local character accreted over time.

Our cities, large and small, served as the primary ports of entry for waves of immigrants and were the engines of upward mobility that created the middle class in the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.  Their decline has been both a consequence and a cause of rising income inequality, and their revitalization represents our best chance to rebuild the middle class.  Income inequality and income segregation stifle economic growth and innovation.  To the extent that creative place-making helps to restart our cities as engines of upward mobility and innovation, it contributes to the solution of the most critical problem facing the nation.

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