Placemaking Twitter Talk- Recap Part II

I was pleased to take part in a Twitter event yesterday led by Sarah Szurpicki at Let’s Save Michigan. The on line event reached over 80,000 Twitter users and many more Facebook accounts. A copy of the second part of Sarah’s wrap-up blog is below. I will ask her to blog again in a couple of weeks when LSM rolls out its first-of-a-kind placemaking competition.

Entries from the Let's Save Michigan/Detroit Institute of Arts Poster Competition

Last week we held a great event–via phone and twitter–with several panelists who are experts in placemaking.

On Friday, I summed up their remarks (including links to some real placemaking projects) here.  Today I’m sharing an overview of the second part of our conversation, where they answered questions about placemaking from Let’s Save Michigan and those who were following the conversation on Twitter.  We asked:

You’re all saying that in many cases municipal officials need to let the community lead placemaking efforts.  But municipalities have to be involved.  What is the role for them?  Have you seen good examples of governments working with citizens on placemaking?

You absolutely need municipal engagement.  But local governments should be the host of the party, not the life of the party, said Dan Gilmartin.  Ethan Kent added that he’s seen innovation in placemaking happening at different levels in Michigan, and cited Campus Martius in downtown Detroit.

Every city department has an impact on the feeling of the place, and yet no city departments really consider that impact.  What if part of every department’s job was to create “place capital?”  For an example, check out the Public Plaza Program in New York, which is a Department of Transportation project to fund pedestrian plazas to ensure that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk of quality open space.  This is a great instance of a city department thinking about a broader mission.

What concentration or types of pre-existing attributes need to be located near a placemaking project for it to be successful?

People!  Panelist Diana Lind said that often, the most successful placemaking examples exist where a community of people was already organized.  For example, a block club, or neighborhood business owners.  Those people know how the community would want to use the place, which is critical for the design, and they can be engaged in maintaining the space on an ongoing basis.  Activation around the place is just the start–placemaking needs to be sustainable and constant.

Transportation infrastructure is a big issue in Michigan right now–whether it’s high-speed rail corridors, the expansion of I-94, or regional transit in metro Detroit.  How should these projects be related to placemaking?

Transportation is where so many big public investment decisions are made, so it’s important to consider placemaking early in the process of designing a new transportation project.  Ethan proffered that transportation can be the greatest opportunity or most limiting factor in creating a successful place project.

Furthermore, our panelists agreed that transportation is often thought of narrowly as mobility (moving more cars, faster).  Dan Gilmartin urged us to think about transportation in terms of getting people to places they actually want to go.  In this model, “transportation oriented development” could be re-termed “development oriented transportation.”  Nate Berg added that, especially considering that most transit trips are also walk or bike trips (between the transit stop and your destination), we need attractive, welcoming public spaces to make sure the transit we build actually gets used.  Investments in the public plazas, signage, and accessible stations that connect places to transportation have a huge impact on the number of people using transportation.

Michigan has lots of great smaller cities and towns, and we need strategies for them as well as for Detroit and Grand Rapids.  Is there a difference between the kinds of placemaking that work better in smaller vs. larger cities?

All placemaking is about the local, human scale, so the principles are the same regardless of the size of city.  In some ways, placemaking is even more vital to smaller towns, since one or two projects or infrastructure decisions can totally change the feeling of a 5-block downtown.  Ethan Kent suggested that small towns are potentially more vulnerable to building around traffic instead of people.  On the other hand, creating a good street corner in a small town can be as defining as a larger project in a big city.

Right now, city leaders are very concerned with their budgets.  What’s the best argument you’ve heard (or made) to convince reluctant city leadership that placemaking investments pay off?

Nate Berg mentioned that there are case studies out there for cities with a range of populations, which show that investments in place have a great return.  There are a number of data sets you might want to consider, such as pedestrian counts, business revenue, lower vacancy, better air quality, and other health factors.  Diana Lind suggested that you have to encourage people to think beyond the most direct benefits.  Turning a triangular intersection into a park might encourage a restaurant to add outdoor seating.  That outdoor seating not only increases their revenue, but can lead to increased traffic for neighboring businesses.

Ethan Kent wrapped us up with a few resources that might help make the case:

  • The Strong Towns Movement, which focuses on how re-thinking development can create wealth tied to our particular places.
  • The Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community Study, which “has found that three main qualities attach people to place: social offerings, such as entertainment venues and places to meet, openness (how welcoming a place is) and the area’s aesthetics (its physical beauty and green space).”

You can find additional context and comments on this conversation by searching for the hashtag #LSMplace on Twitter.  Thanks again to our brilliant panelists and to those who participated in the conversation via Twitter.  Now it’s time to take these lessons to the ground, all around Michigan.