Last Friday I had the pleasure of meeting my friend Robin Boyle, Chair of the Department of Urban Studies & Planning at Wayne State University, for a morning discussion on the latest placemaking news. We were joined by about a dozen of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows. The fellowship is an executive-style education program that provides academic and technical training, additional programming designed to develop leadership skills, and exposure to a wide variety of economic redevelopment and urban revitalization initiatives and issues in Detroit and other urban settings. Fellows are placed in full-time jobs during their two years in the program in addition to their training at Wayne State. Needless to say, they are an impressive bunch with lots if inspiring ideas.
After some brief opening remarks on the state or urban redevelopment and placemaking from yours truly, the discussion quickly became a bit heated. We focused on the unfortunate reality of decades of local, state, and federal disinvestment in cities. Nowhere is this more obvious than the city of Detroit. Several fellows questioned whether the practice of creating (or recreating) spaces within the built environment is an appropriate replacement for long term infrastructure spending, and for a while we found ourselves in a Placemaking vs. Public Investment debate.
“What good is a re-imagined city space if it sits upon hundred-year-old failing water pipe?”
“Streets with new energy are wonderful, but if the pot holes are the size of picnic tables you still have major problems in the neighborhood.”
“A lot of great placemaking projects are temporary. Long term sustainability is needed in many places.”
All of these are excellent points. All have merit.
However, I believe that a debate between the two sets up a false choice. Nobody can rightfully argue that micro-level placemaking is a worthy substitute for sustained investment in a city. Only through a long term government commitment to public infrastructure can a city fully realize it’s potential. Recently leaders in New York, Chicago and other cities have proposed -investments in public infrastructure because they know that there is an enormous rate of return on such expenditures through increased economic opportunity and improved quality-of-life. But we can’t underestimate the importance of smaller scale placemaking projects as a partner to such programs or as a catalyst for creating a public will to invest in an area. We should think of placemaking as both a tool for energizing a space and as a key leverage point for future public investment. After all, functional sewers and roads are important to anybody living or working in an area, but the next song that I hear about somebody falling in love with a place because of the drainage systems and curb cuts will be the first one.
In a perfect world we would have both. In many places we have neither. For those of us who advocate on behalf creating great places, we should feel free to encourage more of both.
Note: The Canfield Social Yard and Film Series is a finalist in Let’s Save Michigan’s “It’s About Place” competition. Check out the other finalists, too.