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:

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

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.

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

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.

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)

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.

Other functions worth exploring include:

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

Towards co-created places and urban policy. Real Estate Innovation Officer at MassDevelopment. All thoughts are my own.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store