PLAN 86: Article
Places In The Making

Community Engagement in the Placemaking Process

New research into the power of community engagement in the design of public spaces was presented at SA+P in October with the release of a report entitled Places in the Making. Led by Susan Silberberg, lecturer in urban design and planning, the research was funded in part by Southwest Airlines which has invested in placemaking projects in Detroit MI and Providence RI.

Placemaking is the practice of designing, creating and programming public spaces around the needs and desires of the community of users. The research asserts that the placemaking process contributes as much benefit for community empowerment as it does for creating public spaces themselves, blurring the lines between laypersons and professionals to create a strong ‘community of makers’.

Examples of successful efforts examined in the report include the Fargo/Moorhead StreetsAlive program, a three-mile loop of roadway closed to car traffic two Sundays each summer as a temporary thoroughfare for pedestrians, cyclists and rollerbladers; TAXI in Denver, an oasis of activity in an industrial stronghold, an example of how a single developer with a signature vision can catalyze district-wide revitalization; and Eastern Market in Detroit, a 43-acre bazaar that sees up to 45,000 visitors on a market day, perhaps the only place where low-income Detroiters mingle on equal footing with more affluent suburbanites.

The placemaking approach evolved in response to the development trends of the 19th and 20th centuries when the design of public spaces was guided by industrialization, auto-centered planning and urban renewal. During that time, community voices were virtually eliminated by top-down planning, centralization of control and land use regulations, ultimately fracturing the bond between communities and public places.

In the 1960s, a movement began which asked the question, ‘What makes a great public place for people?’ Those early placemaking efforts focused on listening to the needs and wants of users to determine the physical design elements needed to create good public spaces.

The new research reveals that in the half-century since that movement began, the ‘making’ of a place has become as important as the place itself – by engaging in the deliberative process of shaping public spaces, citizens connect with each other, forge relationships, build social capital and engage with a diverse cast of individuals, institutions and organizations.

The research also found that the relationship of places and their communities is cyclical and mutually influential – places grow out of the needs and actions of their communities and in turn shape the way these communities behave and grow. The engagement of community members, funders, public officials and advocates also supports an expanding view of ‘community’ and creates a foundation for positive change and healthy communities.

Another finding of the work is that tactical methods – such as temporary installations to 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.

The research presentation included a panel discussion moderated by Laura Kusisto, urban development reporter at The Wall Street Journal, featuring Andrew Howard, Co-Founder, Better Block Project; Wendy Lewis Jackson, Senior Program Officer, The Kresge Foundation; Fred Kent, President, Project for Public Spaces; Aaron Naparstek, Founder, Streetsblog and Visting Scholar in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning; and lead author Silberberg, also the founder of CivicMoxie, LLC.

The research team included Katie Lorah, Rebecca Disbrow and Anna Muessig (all MCP’13) with visiting scholar Aaron Naparstek acting as special advisor. The report can be viewed and downloaded at http://dusp.mit.edu/cdd/project/placemaking. For more information, contact Susan Silberberg at scsilber@mit.edu.