Today a new white paper was released by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the subject of Placemaking. The team is headed by faculty Susan Silberberg, who helped put together the Urban Design curriculum at MIT and has focused for many years on “Revitalizing Urban Main Streets”.

Their press release indicates key findings from the report:

  • Process is equal to the outcome: The community engagement necessary in the organizing, deliberating, communicating, building, programming and maintaining of public places has an equally important benefit for communities as the physical outcomes. In short, the “making” of public places builds social capital and enhances community capacity for action and leadership.
  • Placemaking creates a virtuous cycle: The relationship of places and their communities is not linear, but cyclical and mutually influential. Places grow out of the needs and actions of their formational communities, and in turn shape the way these communities behave and grow. This mutual influence of community and place creates a virtuous cycle of placemaking that supports the mutual stewardship of place and community and the creation of civic infrastructure necessary for healthy societies and collaborative problem solving.
  • Public places are never “finished:” The iterative and interactive process inherent in the placemaking cycle creates multiple entry points for a wide variety of actors and actions; the engagement of community members, funders, advocates and public officials supports an expanding view of “community” and creates a foundation for positive change and healthy communities.
  • Temporary initiatives and tactical methods can be remarkably effective: Placemakers are adopting tactical methods that are low-cost, flexible, temporary and sometimes unsanctioned over permanent and costly bricks-and-mortar projects. Tactical methods such as the creation of temporary installations that host pop-up businesses, reclamation of parking spaces for human use and enjoyment, and reallocation of roads for walkers, runners, and cyclists, can be remarkably effective in remaking a public space quickly and cheaply while calling attention to the need for better placemaking on a larger scale.
  • Placemaking is open-source: The democratic ethos of the movement and the “trickle-up” nature of tactical placemaking demonstrate the growing influence of an Internet-influenced model where positive change can happen in real time and everyone is empowered to be a maker.
  • Public/Private partnerships elevate what’s possible: The growing prevalence of public/private partnerships in the practice of placemaking reflects new types of cross-disciplinary collaborations that mirror the complexity of communities and the issues faced. These partnerships often mix regulatory power and public ownership with private resources and efficient management to create and maintain well-run places that would not otherwise be possible.

You can see the full press release on the PR Newswire website here.

The following places were used as placemaking case-studies for this white paper:

  • Corona Plaza: Queens, NY
  • Better Block: Norfolk, VA
  • Guerrero Park: San Francisco, CA
  • Precedent Mini-Case: Project for Public Spaces©, New York, NY
  • Eastern Market: Detroit, MI
  • Precedent Mini-Case: Bryant Park, New York City, NY
  • City Repair Cleveland: Cleveland, OH
  • Shreveport Common: Shreveport, LA
  • Fargo/Moorhead StreetsAlive: Fargo, ND and Moorhead, MN
  • TAXI: Denver, CO
  • Precedent Mini-Case: Playborhood, Menlo Park, CA
  • Kentlands: Gaithersburg, MD
  • Discovery Green: Houston, TX

While each of these case studies presents unique challenges and has a unique set of goals, I came away with a central thesis that can define the entire report. It was from the Shreveport Common section where it talks about using art and culture as the driver for placemaking. While much talk in the world of planning revolves around the big urban centers in the US like Los Angeles and New York or the “Up and Coming” metros like Ft. Collins or El Paso, we don’t often hear about anything that happens in Shreveport. By any objective standard, it’s not where the families, hipsters, or yuppies are looking to relocate to in order to make a better life for themselves. After hitting its peak population of 205,000 people in 1980, Shreveport is now hovering around 200,000 people making it America’s 108th largest city. But the lesson here is that you don’t need blatantly recognizable city skyline, foundation money, expensive public-private partnerships, or an influx of millennial creative class baristas to make placemaking work. You just need a few things: Community and leadership.

Placemaking doesn’t need hot-market cities and young urban professionals to be successful: it just needs committed leaders and an enthusiastic community

You can download the entire report in PDF format here.