9 Mostly Additional Principles of Placemaking

I’ve been working on a super duper top secret project for a while now (it’s not really top secret, but it does have the potential to be super duper and I’m keeping mum about the details until things seem a bit more concrete) involving placemaking. Project for Public Spaces may not have come up with the term, at least I don’t think they did, but over the past two or three decades they’ve developed the placemaking brand better than anyone else. In The Great Neighborhood Book – published by PPS – author Jay Walljasper uses  PPS’s 11 Principles of Placemaking as a jumping off point for a book about actions people can take to improve their neighborhood.  They are as follows:

  1. The Community is the Expert
  2. Create a Place, Not a Design
  3. Look for Partners
  4. You Can See a Lot Just by Observing
  5. Have a Vision
  6. Start with the Petunias (Baby Steps)
  7. Triangulate (Make Connections)
  8. They Always Say “It Can’t be Done”
  9. Form Supports Function
  10. Money is Not the Issue
  11. You are Never Finished

I’ve decided to add a few principles of my own to the list, mostly in order to bring the macro to the micro. Not all of them are applicable all the time, and some of them overlap with the aforementioned 11, but I think they are all worth considering (and too often ignored) when plans are drafted in towns and cities across the country. So, without further ado, here are my 9 Mostly Additional Principles of Placemaking.

…If That’s Your Real Name

Know thyself. Rule number one in placemaking. Too many towns and cities, especially ones most in need of placemaking, describe themselves in terms of other – more successful – towns and cities: It’s a lot like Charleston, just without all the historic buildings. Or, you’d never know you weren’t in Paris. Or, even stranger, the movie pitch: you’ll love it here, it’s Copenhagen meets San Antonio. I recently heard Sarasota described as Florida’s Cambridge. Having lived, worked, and studied in both Sarasota and Cambridge – two wildly dissimilar places – I was initially flummoxed by the suggested correlation. But then I realized that one town compares itself to another in this fashion because it wants to emulate some aspect of the other.

It’s good and healthy to draw inspiration from other places, but only if a clear understanding of a town’s actuality is maintained. A ramshackle fishing village might aspire to emulate Portofino, but aspirations won’t change the fact that it is still a ramshackle fishing village. Honest, critical, passionate placemaking can. Before a place can become truly special it must learn to look itself in the mirror and see the truth, warts and all.

Know Thy Neighbor

What is meant by placemaking? It’s not simply the physical shaping of materials and spaces into identifiable forms. Placemaking is about community. It is the conscious act of creating spaces and places for people to gather in, observe from, interact in and with, and even escape to. It has often been said that the city is the people, but that’s not entirely accurate. The city also includes buildings, trees, rivers, streets, cars, pets, sounds, and smells. A more precise statement would be that the community is the people. Placemaking provides the community opportunities to commune. So, if you want to make places, you need to know who the places are for and how they might be used. Know thy neighbor, know thy place.

Think Small

Daniel Burnham famously advised, “Make no little plans. They have no power to stir men’s blood and themselves will not be realized.” Countless town planners have heeded his advice and coaxed sprawling developments to rise from misty swamps, seas of prairie, and oceans of sand. Such is the power of language. The crux of Burnham’s statement is not to be found in “no little plans,” but rather, “no power to stir men’s blood.” Inspire people and the likelihood of your plans being realized increases, regardless of their scope. Big plans, however, must overcome far more obstacles than small ones, and are often doomed by the very complexity necessary to achieve the results that are more organically arrived at by the accretion of many successful small plans.

Basically, it comes down to this: make small plans that stir men’s (and women’s) blood and they might not only come to fruition but also inspire others along the way, catalyze the community, encourage other small plans, and eventually reduce or even negate the need for that big plan that was never going to happen in the first place while resulting in something far more interesting.

Improve Before You Add

Make the places that exist better before trying to add new places. Not only does creating a new place typically cost more and use more space, it can more easily be thwarted by people and processes that are unable to envision the outcome. And if you add a new place because an existing place is unsuccessful you still have the unsuccessful place to deal with afterwards. Improvements to unsuccessful existing places are easier to visualize, easier to “sell” to the community, easier to achieve. If necessity is the mother of invention, then limitation is the mother of innovation. Empty lots rarely inspire greater creativity than renovations.

Livable Cities Need a RIBcage

Planners and other folks who study cities often analogize them to living organisms. The Santa Fe Institute even did a fascinating study on urban metabolism. It can be tricky, though, and misleading, this business of viewing cities as whole organic entities bordering on sentient instead of agglomerations of organic and inorganic parts joined by proximity. That said, indulge me for a moment…

Let’s consider the built environment of a city to be its skeletal system. Streets, paths, and transit lines form the circulatory system. The vital organs are the places people live, work, play, shop, and socialize. The people themselves are like cells, coursing through everything, relatively insignificant on their own but extraordinarily powerful when they come together. In the human body, a ribcage protects the vital organs. Cities, too, need RIBcages, with RIB in this case an acronym for Renovation,InfillBuild-out. This is the order of operations cities and parts of cities (neighborhoods, streets, spaces) should follow.

Picture a typical American downtown. A handful of dilapidated historic buildings, either on or adjacent to Main Street. Stretches of one and two story buildings oddly juxtaposed with stretches of four or five story buildings, the street wall dominated in places by a ten or even twenty story tower and broken in others by empty lots, some of which might offer parking.

In order to sustainably revitalize this downtown, the first step is to renovate existing buildings and make them into special places, places the town can be proud of, places that show off the best of what the town has to offer. Now the town may not have everything it needs, but at least what it does have works. The next step is to fill in the gaps. Infill at an appropriate scale mends the urban fabric, makes a street (and hence the surrounding neighborhood) more cohesive, and encourages public life to continue along its length.

The third step, build-out, refers to the building up of low buildings to an appropriate height throughout an area. It does not mean skyscrapers, unless all of the surrounding buildings are skyscrapers and there is sufficient demand for yet another skyscraper. In the American downtown we’re talking about here, it means determining a height that the  majority of buildings located downtown might reach without exceeding local demand. Ideally, this happens in stages. Three stories might be the max allowable height downtown, and should be maintained as a limit until most buildings have reached it and demand exceeds supply. The three story max can then become five stories until that height is also reached by most buildings and demand again exceeds supply.

Such incremental growth allows a downtown to grow organically and maintain an appropriate scale. Only after a place is completely built out at human scale (maximum five stories) should a widening of its boundaries be considered. Renovation. Infill. Build-out. Neighborhoods – from downtowns to single-family residential – are the vital organs of cities and towns. Vital organs that can be protected with a RIBcage.


Vibrant Cities are SMART

Sustainable. Metropolitan. Adaptable. Resourceful. Technological. Five lenses through which to evaluate the needs of a city, and five litmus tests with which to evaluate plans of action. SMART is a paradigm, not a prescription. Cities that aren’t SMART likely have difficult times ahead. Cities that are both SMART and just plain smart are positioning themselves for success in the coming years. For more on SMART visit the website (full disclosure: SMART is a concept I came up with and am developing, and its website is mine as well).

Locals are Experts (and so are you)

Jane Jacobs was right. No one knows a place better than the people who live there. They have insights and expertise that outsiders simply don’t. They are the experts when it comes to their neighborhood: what works, what doesn’t, what attempts at change have succeeded, which haven’t, why on both counts, what specific obstacles must be overcome, whose support is required to bring about change, etc. They are experts and must be treated accordingly. This does not mean, however, that locals have all the answers. If they did, they probably wouldn’t need you. Engage them with an open mind. Hear what they’re saying. Then work with them, notfor them. Placemaking of value happens when locals, with local expertise, collaborate with planners and others who bring professional expertise and a fresh viewpoint.

Says the Neighborhood to Mixed-Use: “You Complete Me.”

Houses do not a neighborhood make. A true neighborhood obviously includes houses, or more precisely places of residence, but there’s more to it than that. Neighborhoods are communities, and communities need places to for people to work, places for people to meet, places to purchase essential items such as food and medicine. A network of residential cul-de-sacs is not a neighborhood. Where’s the corner grocer? The neighborhood coffee shop? The local hardware and drug stores? These are the places that help transform a group of people who happen to live near one another into a community. Neighborhoods are only neighborhoods if they support and encourage community. They require small-scale retail and services, which in turn require neighborhood locations where they are not in competition with big boxes and chains.

Often this is achieved by creating neighborhood “Main Streets,” and sometimes it’s achieved by allowing businesses and residences to seamlessly intermingle. Whichever method is employed, appropriateness of scale is the key attribute. Neighborhood mixed-use should include the type and size shops and services that fit the neighborhood. A five story sporting goods store surrounded by single story homes isn’t a good fit. Neither is a single story nightclub in an area mostly populated by seniors in single story houses. Appropriateness is determined by both the existing built environment and residential demographics. No one, though, should have to leave their neighborhood to get a loaf of bread, a cup of coffee, a pack of screws, or their daily dose of human interaction.

Yes is More

I recently read an article about Danish architectural firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), who have been pushing a “Yes is More” concept of design. “Yes is More” plays on the now-cliched “less is more” design ethos, embracing challenges and redefining restrictions as opportunities. Language is so much more powerful than most people realize. “Yes is More” communicates potential, innovation, forward movement, inclusiveness. Obstacles become opportunities. “Yes is More” flatly denies impossibility.

Denying impossibility is the key to placemaking. The need for placemaking is often due to an accumulation of obstacles, both imposed and self-inflicted, that local residents have decided are insurmountable. Places grow stagnant because of neglect, because of fear, and because of the illusion of impossibility. Help convert obstacles to options and you deny impossibility. You enable placemaking to happen. Indeed, yes is more.

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This entry was posted in Josh Grigsby, Placemaking, Response Pieces. Bookmark the permalink.

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