Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Slow and steady wins the race: incremental placemaking

Underlying many of the problems of contemporary communities is the unresolved or unrealized necessity of Placemaking.  Placemaking is the beautiful and elegant result of building our communities and spaces by combining: creativity; systems and design thinking; and, human centered design.  Without Placemaking our communities lack the necessary form, function and aesthetics that support walkability; they lack the structure that facilitates the kinds of informal social interactions that have been shown to build community capacity; and they lack the contextual foundation from which to build a sense of community identity and appreciate cultural assets.  The end results go beyond poor aesthetics and a sameness of urban form that can be experienced anywhere; they include reduced community wellness, reduced rents and value of developments, and difficulty attracting new residents, to name a few.

At its best, Placemaking is about more than just designing grand public spaces or interesting mixed-use developments.  On a community-wide scale it involves: understanding and connecting physical networks and districts within the built environment; contextual sensitivity (both physical and cultural); and, human centered design.  Given the processes of evolution/development of our communities over the past few decades, there has generally been little attention to, or success with this kind of community-wide approach to Placemaking.  The challenge now is to realign the priorities of Planning, design, and development interests to correct this for the overall wellbeing of our communities.  We should be ensuring that the goals of Placemaking are expressed, understood, and sought-after with an enthusiasm at least equal to the over-simplified catchall goal of "growth" which has to a large part been the antithesis of Placemaking.

Even when its importance is understood, the exercise of Placemaking is very difficult for municipalities.  This is especially true for smaller cities and towns that often have more restrictive resources at their disposal and have a hard time with long term scope and community-wide interventions.  The result is often simplifying the focus to a grand public space or attaching overblown hopes and good intensions to singular interesting mixed-use developments.  While both of these play a role in community-wide Placemaking, they are not the only part.  Three main problems that are inherent with these approaches are: they tend to be very costly; they generally rely on projects which are out of the control of the municipality; and, as single projects they do little to impact the daily lives of the community-at-large.  I suggest that smaller projects developed as part of an incremental program of Placemaking across the entire community is more effective.  This kind of approach is easier to finance, allows for iterative prototyping and experimentation, impacts more people, builds on existing assets, and can be directly controlled by the municipality.

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to develop a simple plan aligned with this philosophy of Placemaking for the City of Oak Harbor - the Downtown Public Realm Plan.  This was a plan focused on generally small scale capital projects that: could impact the quality of life for all citizens; enhanced the function and understanding of the downtown/waterfront district; completed active transportation networks; enhanced the sense of place of public spaces; and built upon existing improvements and cultural resources, all within areas under control of the municipality.  I am happy to say that since its drafting, a fair number of these projects have been realized.  Below is a copy of the Plan.  

Downtown Public Realm Plan

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