“Placemaking is a term that began to be used in the 1970s by architects and planners to describe the process of creating squares, plazas, parks, streets and waterfronts that will attract people because they are pleasurable or interesting.” – Wikipedia
According to Project for Public Spaces (the foremost authority on placemaking), “you can tell a city is healthy if it has a vital downtown full of public activity.” This concept goes against traditional thinking that has typically focused more on individual building design & use while paying little or no attention to the streets, sidewalks and other public spaces. While iconic buildings, stadiums and convention centers can play a role in a downtown’s identity and economy, by themselves they often do little for increasing the vibrancy of a downtown and in some cases may actually be obstacles to making downtowns lively. A few local examples would be the Dayton Convention Center, Fifth Third Field and the Schuster Center. Activity at these venues is very limited, with only a small percentage of the time in a year that something is actually happening in them. The majority of the time, these massive structures stand empty and do nothing to encourage activity around them. So while these and other expensive downtown projects held promise of bringing vibrancy back to downtown, none were ever going to do so outside of a few hundred hours out of the year.
Placemaking takes a different approach to creating a vibrant downtown, as its focus is on public spaces where activity can occur every day of the year, at all hours of the day. Public parks and plazas play an obvious role as their very purpose is to provide space for the public to congregate, socialize and even just relax. However, these spaces require proper design and programming in order to become vibrant places. Downtown Dayton has had some successes with placemaking in recent memory with Courthouse Plaza and especially Riverscape – a very good example of placemaking. Other public spaces like Cooper Park and Dave Hall Plaza could be vibrant public spaces but because of lack of programming, minimal maintenance and utilitarian design approaches that make them look quite neglected and uninviting, they do not attract people like they should. A great example of a formerly neglected park transformed into a vibrant public space is Bryant Park in New York. Here in Dayton, a brand new group has formed and is busy working on transformational plans for Cooper Park. Named the Cooper Park Alliance and working in conjunction with police representatives, city staff and downtown stakeholders, they are holding their first fund raiser on October 16, 2009 where they will also be presenting plans for the park’s new future.
The newest trend in placemaking goes beyond the public parks, squares and plazas whose primary purpose has always been to serve as public gathering places. Now streets and sidewalks are part of the placemaking equation, and in many respects they serve as the missing link to a completely connected and vibrant downtown. Ever since the automobile became the main form of transporation in this country, the sole purpose for streets and sidewalks has been movement and transportation. Utilitarian and automobile-centric design have done little to make these public spaces attractive to pedestrians in downtowns like Dayton, but vibrancy is simply not possible without a critical mass of pedestrians and human activity on our streets and sidewalks. In order to attract more people to our downtown and create more life and vibrancy on our streets, we must begin implementing (and not just talking about) elements such as those featured in the interactive graphic on GOOD.is Livable Streets. Things like street ambassadors (which we do have), proper pedestrian lighting, well marked & raised crosswalks, curb extensions, trees & flower planters, and bike lanes & bike parking are important basics. Uniform yet interesting signage pointing pedestrians to various points of interest can be relatively inexpensive but have a large impact. Programs that help encourage more outdoor cafes and street-level retail can make a huge difference. And a concept not yet done in Downtown Dayton that could add much interest to our sidewalks and streets is actual programming. The street programming concept could include an organized effort to attract street vendors and performers that serve as an attraction in and of themselves.
There are other significant ROI benefits to investing in placemaking that should also be considered. Safety and parking are almost always near the top of any downtown survey as negatives, and the standard solutions to both (add more police and more parking garages) are extremely expensive with questionable effectiveness. However, a vibrant downtown full of people everywhere offers a sense of security that is missing when you’re the only person walking down a dark and empty street. And a vibrant downtown that is full of life and interesting things to see and experience makes a four or five block walk something to actually look forward to – making parking much less of an issue.
Placemaking is being looked at by one of the several sub-committees that make up the Greater Downtown Dayton Plan. Hopefully this group can make a compelling argument for the importance of pedestrian-friendly streets and beautiful and active public spaces so that funding sources can be identified and these types of projects can go from being just ideas to actually being implemented. What do you think?
Other placemaking sources: