1. Know who you are.
Every community is distinct and offers unique characteristics. What’s so remarkable about your community’s history? What significant cultures, cultural influences or industries have impacted your community? Does your community embrace certain local values, beliefs or trends that are indicative of what your city, downtown, district or neighborhood is all about?
Undertake a discovery process to really understand who you are as a community. Dig deep for the most interesting features. Maybe it’s a colorful local personality or icon, a strong history of music, arts, or just a funky and quirky approach to life shared by residents. Look through historical postcards, photographs, old maps, and newspaper articles. Talk to residents – old and new. Then visually introduce – and integrate – aspects of these attributes and local stories into the public realm.
2. Know where you are.
Your community’s physical environment and natural setting should present plenty of inspiration for placemaking. Take advantage of interesting flora, fauna, geology or a distinct climate. Understand the historical architecture or perhaps the alignment of past rail lines, the importance of agriculture or maybe even the influence of military installations.
Weave these character attributes into the design of your spaces. Every community offers a unique combination of defining physical characteristics that can become part of the public aesthetic. Think wind-activated sculptures, use of locally quarried stone or creative signage along important sites and routes.
3. Identify the physical canvases.
Communities present a myriad of “canvases” upon which to tell that story of who and where they are. This is where the magic of placemaking happens. Potential community canvases might include architecture (individual homes, common buildings, blank walls, fences and other physical structures), infrastructure (sidewalks, streets, utilities, benches, street lights or bicycle racks), and landscape (parks, gateways, gardens and plant materials).
For instance, a blank wall or fence offers space for murals or public art projects, backdrops for a performance stage. The sidewalk, street or other hardscape provides sites for integrating icons and stories, or color and materials specific to whom and what your community represents.
4. Involve the community.
What’s the best way to conduct an effective discovery process? Involve key members of your community. Connecting your community represents the most important aspect of placemaking. Engage residents in storytelling, walking workshops and even design charrettes to not only better understand local values, history, culture and environment, but also to help you develop inspired placemaking projects and ideas.
Such engagement will generate a powerful and sustainable level of energy and enthusiasm in your residents and other key stakeholders who care about your community. Remember, placemaking is as much about the community involvement process as it is about the outcome.
5. Leverage local resources.
Funding, or the lack of it, sometimes hinders the pursuit of placemaking. However, if your community has been involved in the discovery process, and the emerging placemaking concepts resonate with them, you’ll find that many financial resources needed for implementation already likely are available.
Residents, organizations, social services, foundations and the private sector can help fund projects through “buy a brick”-style campaigns or by sponsoring benches, trees, signs, lights, tile squares and other lasting design features. Robust community engagement also likely will improve the probability of winning grants from foundations, government agencies and others to support your development efforts. When possible, you might invite members of your community to invest their sweat equity in the project, which enhances local ownership.
Placemaking will allow you to foster greater resident-to-resident and resident-to-place connections in your community. This process doesn’t have to be about big, flashy projects. It’s more about touching people by developing projects they can relate to and ones that prove meaningful to them, make them smile, and make them feel good.
This article is based on Placemaking on a Budget, a publication co-authored by Susan J. Harden.