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Places in the Making, a new report from MIT’s department of urban studies and planning (DUSP), argues that the process of making a place is as important as the place itself. With this new, fresh take on “placemaking,” MIT planning and urban design professor Susan Silberberg, who teamed up with a few of her graduate students, along with Aaron Naparstek, the founder of Streetsblog, has written highly readable, well-organized report worth exploring.

Placemaking first appeared in the 1960s as a “reaction to auto-centric planning and bad public spaces.” In their intro, they write: “Place-making as we now know it can trace its roots back to the seminal works of urban thinkers like Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch and William Whyte, who, beginning in the 1960s, espoused a new way to understand, design and program public spaces by putting people and communities ahead of efficiency and aesthetics. Their philosophies, considered groundbreaking at the time, were in a way re-assertions of the people-centered town-planning principles that were forgotten during the hundred-year period of rapid industrialization, suburbanization, and urban renewal. Placemaking may come naturally to human societies, but something was lost along the way; communities were rendered powerless in the shadows of experts to shape their physical surroundings.”

Since the 1960s, place-making, as a discipline, has really “grown up.” Today, placemaking is a powerful tool for “enhancing quality of life and supporting collaborations that connect people and support local action.” Placemaking now includes “broader concerns about healthy living, social justice, community capacity-building, economic revitalization, childhood development, and a host of other issues facing residents, workers, and visitors in towns and cities large and small. In its contemporary form, placemaking ranges from the grassroots, one-day tactical urbanism of Park(ing) Day to a developer’s deliberate and decades-long transformation of a Denver neighborhood around the organizing principle of art.”

Over the past fifty years, the focus and form of place-making projects may have varied, but successful local initiatives have shared an emphasis on the “making” part of place-making. Silberberg writes: “Placemaking puts power back in the hands of the people. The most successful placemaking initiatives transcend the ‘place’ to forefront the ‘making,’ and the benefits for community can be substantial and long-lasting.”

But the MIT researchers also argue that it’s time to re-evaluate what has worked well — and not so well — in this approach over the past 50 years, and further understand the crucial role of process innovation in the creation of unique, community-sustaining places.

Through a set of case studies, Silberberg and her co-authors then show how positive change comes out of community-led processes aimed at transforming a physical space. “The research shows that, at the most basic level, the act of advocating for change, questioning regulations, finding funding, and mobilizing others to contribute their voices engages communities – and in engaging, leaves these communities better for it.”

The report outlines some key findings:

  • Process is equal to the outcome.
  • Placemaking creates a virtuous cycle.
  • Public places are never “finished.”
  • Temporary initiatives and tactical methods can be remarkably effective.
  • Placemaking is open-source.
  • Public/Private partnerships elevate what’s possible.

The 13 case studies cover both well-known successes like Bryant Park in New York City, Eastern Market in Detroit, and Guerrero Park in San Francisco and cutting-edge models like pop-up Better Block project in Dallas and StreetsAlive in Fargo and Moorhead. (The Better Block project, created by SWA Group, a landscape architecture firm, and StreetSpace Collaborative, recently won an ASLA professional design award).

In the Better Block example, we learn that temporary projects can have a significant impact and help both the community and local officials envision a new future for a place. The case shows that “city officials can use temporary zoning and transportation ‘grace periods,’ allowing placemakers to break regulations to explore permanent regulatory changes.” These grace periods are actually crucial for urban innovation. The San Francisco government has also used pilots to great effect.

Indeed, the MIT researchers seem to conclude that the key to success in placemaking is taking the risk to innovate in the making process. They argue that “the most successful projects seem to be those that can combine tactics that historically would have been kept separate.”

Read the report.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Professional Design Awards. The Better Block Project. SWA Group and StreetSpace Collaborative / Image credit: Jason Roberts, David Thompson