Placemaking in Economic Development

I once heard Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito refer to a downtown as a community’s “haircut.” It may sound silly at first but it certainly stuck in my head. A downtown can be a first impression and the sort of mental “profile picture” you form in your head about what a community is all about and why you would spend time there. Streetscape and public space design — along with business and property facades— absolutely influence the time we spend in neighborhood commercial districts and our likelihood to patronize local businesses. Placemaking is an opportunity to distribute the decision-making power about how these spaces represent the community to visitors, residents, workers, employers, shoppers, and prospective investors.

Placemaking is an opportunity to distribute decision-making power about how the public realm represents the community and local economy.

Below I have laid out a few functions of placemaking in economic development and started some idea boards to capture precedents for implementation. I know this is all just scratching the surface on the link between placemaking and economic development so I’d love it if when you read this post you take it as a conversation starter. Let me know what you think is worthwhile, what’s missing, and how community members can work with the public and private sectors to co-create places that support inclusive local economies.

STICKY placemaking

The first function is the most often talked about. If we create a plaza outside of a café where a retail shopper would want to sit down and have a conversation in, we can convert a shopper into a coffee shop customer. If we create a street where a gym-goer likes to take their cool down walk, we expose a patron of one business to the range of products and services of many. These are “sticky streets,” a term coined by Vancouver-based urbanist Brent Toderian:

A street is sticky if as you move along it, you’re constantly enticed to slow down, stop and linger to enjoy the public life around you.”

“Flânage Obligatoire.” Montreal, Canada (Image source)

See ideas and precedents for creating sticky commercial centers here.

SHIFTING placemaking

Public spaces have a rhythm (season, day, time) and placemaking can adapt. Mobile and modular placemaking and tactical urbanism elements can make way for more active uses or move to where they are needed most.

Ground layer functions, like “bicycle playgrounds,” get to shine when a space’s primary function (for example: a surface parking lot) is off-peak or not in use.

When placemaking elements can shift or emerge based on use patterns, downtowns can activate “quiet spaces” and help to manage crowding or overflow in high-traffic areas.

A “traffic garden” in Seattle helps children learn to navigate traffic safety. (Image source)

See ideas and precedents for layering uses in the public realm here.

ENGAGING placemaking

Truth be told, this is one of the placemaking functions that I am most excited about. Although so much of what goes on in our downtowns and main streets has (thankfully!) some sort of public process attached to it, understanding how to weigh in and how your preferences and priorities fit within specific development constraints can be a big challenge. That’s why there is a real need to create places that bring community members together to learn about and engage with the complex local conditions and zoning or regulatory requirements that, once understood and digested, will allow them to participate more fully in civic life.

The St. Louis Map Room: a community space for exploring and creating original, interpretive maps of the city.

See ideas for spaces that empower inclusive planning here.

BUSSINESS-Y placemaking

Ok, so I know “bussiness-y” isn’t a word but that’s just to show that this category is still finding its shape. It’s sort of a catch-all for now but it includes placemaking strategies for testing the market, providing a launching pad for start-ups, co-locating businesses, introducing micro-retail, and improving the relationship between storefronts and sidewalks. All of these tactics can be used to help small businesses succeed in tough retail climates which in turn helps to address vacancy and attract new users downtown.

Minimal fit-out could bring shelf-stable products from a local supplier to vacant space. (Image source)

See ideas and precedents for enabling commercial uses here.

MITIGATING placemaking

From calling attention to a business hidden behind scaffolding to making the environment safer and more comfortable even when the street is all dug up, tactical urbanism can help downtowns and main streets mitigate the effect of construction on small businesses.

Springboard for the Arts worked with artists and businesses to mitigate impact of constriction. More here.

See ideas and precedents for supporting businesses through downtown construction projects here.

Other functions worth exploring include:

Mitigating the effects of stormwater or other environmental factors such as heat island effect.

Testing and refining plans for infrastructure or streetscape improvements — aka “cut once, measure [and inhabit] twice.”

Placemaking that improves connectivity by enhancing the public transit experience and active transportation infrastructure.

Projects — permanent and tactical — that make downtowns and main streets more family friendly.

Targeting some of the “softer” impacts like changing the narrative when it comes to outdated perceptions of a downtown or exposing outdated procedures or regulations (like restrictions on outdoor dining) which may be holding a commercial district back.