What is Placemaking?

What makes a place great? It’s the question that keeps us up at night. When you think of your favorite places – your childhood home, the coffee shop up the street, a park across town, a city on another continent, etc. – do you know what makes them so special? Words like “safe,” “welcoming,” “friendly,” and “charming” probably come to mind. Or maybe you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is, but something about them just feels right.

These places – those that leave you with warm and positive feelings – aren’t coincidentally awesome. They’re made over time through careful planning, design and management. This multifaceted approach, also known as Placemaking, transforms spaces from simply being “there” into healthy, vibrant, memorable places. The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) defines placemaking as “a collaborative process by which we shape our public realm to maximize shared value.” Put more simply, placemaking is about creating places for people. Just like you wouldn’t design the rooms in your home without considering how your friends and family will use them, you shouldn’t design places without thinking about the needs of the people who live, work and play in them.

Placemaking is not a service

One of the biggest misconceptions about placemaking is that it’s a service – a quick means to an end – which has diluted its value. Placemaking isn’t about constructing an avant-garde building, planting some flowers or adding a fresh coat of paint. It’s a mindset for continuously helping people access, enjoy and contribute to a place.

Understanding that it’s a broad concept, at Guide Studio, we’re careful to frame placemaking in the context of what we do. We leverage our core services (branding, wayfinding and marketing) to bridge the gaps that exist between places and their audiences throughout their entire experience. We call this concept the “User Continuum.” For example, branding helps places articulate who they are and distinguish themselves from other places; wayfinding makes people feel comfortable as they explore everything a place has to offer; and marketing communications enables places to share everything they have to offer and stay connected with people, even after they leave.

Our services contribute to authentic placemaking, but they alone are not enough. While PPS offers 11 principles for effective placemaking, here’s our quick take on key considerations:

1. Placemaking is purposeful

The old notion, “If you build it, they will come,” doesn’t hold up anymore. In a world filled with endless choices, people need to feel a powerful connection to the places they spend their time in. Sure, it’s important to have clean, well-designed streets, sidewalks, parks, buildings and communal areas, but a place’s function (its ultimate purpose) will always trump its form.

Parks and trails are a great example. Despite their simplicity, they stand the test of time because they’ve been built to support people’s health, wellbeing and lifestyle. They don’t need the latest amenities and design to attract people day after day, just a little maintenance and care.

2. Placemaking is people-driven

Walt Disney once said, “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” Genuine placemaking is done by people, for people. It breaks down silos and brings together the planners, designers, engineers, political leaders and most importantly, community members, to focus on how a place can better serve the people who use it regularly.

A great case in point is Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. After realizing that their fans’ interests and expectations were changing, the ballpark championed a series of renovations, a new wayfinding strategy and enhanced entertainment options to elevate their game-day experience. While not every place needs to undergo such drastic improvements, it’s essential to put people’s needs at the center of decision-making.

3. Placemaking is perpetual

There’s nothing more depressing than coming across empty storefronts, vacant streets and desolate neighborhoods. Or think of those magnificent (and expensive) Olympic buildings and villages that have been neglected and reduced to rubble.

Somewhere beneath all of the dust that covers these once beautiful places is the promise and hope they brought to so many people. So where did things go wrong? Unfortunately, their management fell by the wayside. Place-based organizations must constantly anticipate and respond to people’s changing needs and aspirations. This involves actually looking at and listening to the members of your community so they don’t feel forgotten.

Placemaking is a dynamic, never-ending process, and the places that are open to the need for change and have the flexibility to act are the ones poised for success.

Are you reconsidering your place and don’t know where to begin? Visit Placeholder to learn more about our sister company that focuses on early stage planning and facilitation around placemaking initiatives.



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