Big idea: Many placemaking activations die after the initial experimentation phase. Here are five important steps to ensuring your project stays alive in the long run.
When it comes to effective placemaking, the number one step is to just do something. So many cities get excited about placemaking ideas, genuinely wanting to make their city a better place, only to quickly find themselves so bogged down with implementation details that they never launch. They end up spending time on endless ideation, research, and fine-tuning. The ideas sit on the shelf for months, if not years.
This is why we always encourage cities to just go for it. Starting with something – even if it’s made out of cardboard – is much better than having ten amazing ideas that never make it off the whiteboard. Putting something in the real world will put you in a position to gain feedback and insights that you will never discover if you fail to move out of the ideation phase.
After you run one (or several) experiments and collect data, you’ll be in a good position to formulate a more long-term project. This is how incrementalism works: you start small and then grow the project layer by layer. We know this can be overwhelming, so here are five steps to keep your project moving into the next level of incremental development.
Very often, cities opt for placemaking ideas featuring aesthetics that are pleasing to the eye, but that don’t connect to the local environment or community brand. Look for colors, symbols, and narratives that already ground your community with a sense of identity and build upon those.
The goal is to establish continuity – look for ways that you can build upon the aesthetics, stories, and symbols that already give your community meaning. One way to discover these grounding stories is to spend time studying the history of your city or of a particular neighborhood while also spending time talking to current residents and neighborhoods who are engaged in the community, and interested in making it better. Of course, everyone may have different ideas and you won’t be able to make everyone happy, but you should be able to get a sense of the foundational values that tie various preferences together and that can provide a sense of continuity.
For example, while working in Waco, Texas, we discovered that the city’s Downtown Improvement District already had an interesting logo but it was only really used online. Therefore we looked for ways to leverage their aesthetic and make it more visible throughout the city. We used the color scheme and patterns as guides for the paintwork we put on the ground in a pop-up plaza. This was our way of building upon continuing what was already there rather than bringing in something new.
Placemaking projects are like gardens – they need care in order to thrive and survive. Yet many placemaking projects die because there’s no management plan; no one knows who is responsible for it after activation. You can avoid this by first, making sure your idea resonates with the local community and with potential users. No matter how great your idea is. If it doesn’t add value to the people you’re trying to serve, it will not exist on their list of priorities as something worth taking care of.
Another way to inspire local stewardship is to bring people together to create and construct the project. Few things generate buy-in and connection more than shared work. Seek out partnerships with nonprofits, neighborhood groups, churches, and youth-oriented organizations and try to keep as much of the labor “in-house” as possible with residents of the city coming together to bring the idea to life. People are more likely to care for something and want to see it live on if they help build it.
As mentioned above, one of the easiest ways to ensure your project inspires long-term buy-in is to create a project that meets a practical need in a beautiful way. Your goal should be to create a project that fits within the rhythm and pattern of life already unfolding within the community. For example, you could focus your placemaking energies on parts of town that already attract lots of people such as transit stations, downtowns, markets, coffee shops, and even grocery store parking lots. Look for the “hot spots” around town that play an important role in the everyday life of residents and think of ways to make them more comfortable, practical, safer, and/or more beautiful.
Let’s say you notice office workers downtown already gathering near a central fountain to eat lunch, but there’s no shade or comfortable seating. Why not make that area more comfortable and pleasant? Or if you notice kids enjoy playing in a particular field that’s not an official park, talk to them about what would make that fieldwork better. If folks already walk their dogs around a certain route in the neighborhood but there are no doggie bag stations or areas for dogs to run, maybe a dog park would be the best use of your placemaking resources. Projects that meet a practical need are likely to generate delight and long-term stewardship.
There is no question that executing a long-term placemaking project will require buy-in from various stakeholders, among them city staff, elected officials, state DOTs, and neighborhood groups, just to name a few. Your project will have a much higher chance of success if you invest time in understanding the priorities and interests of various groups and taking time to show how your placemaking project fits within their overall goals. You will also increase your likelihood of successful buy-in if you have data showing measurable ROI.
Can you show how your placemaking project brings more positive activity to a certain part of town? Does it increase sales in a commercial corridor? Does it encourage positive social behavior at night, making a certain neighborhood feel safer? This kind of data is so powerful when meeting with stakeholders and helping them see how their investment will bring positive returns for them and for the community. Without data on the impact, your project may be viewed as simply a cute, nice-to-have project but not something that is important enough to invest in.
While the principles of placemaking are universal, they play out differently in every city because every city has a unique political, regulatory and cultural environment. Your project will have a greater chance of success if you spend time striving to understand this environment and preparing ahead of time for navigating the various processes and requirements to bring your project to life.
Anybody can take on a one-off placemaking project in their community and we encourage them to! You don’t need experts, consultants, or designers to make it happen. However, if you’re looking for your placemaking project to foster a culture of placemaking in your community or lead to longer-term, more permanent change it may make sense to partner with a firm like CivicBrand. We have that expertise in navigating complex permitting and city politics as well as understanding how projects can fit into overall initiatives outlined by strategic plans and comprehensive plans and of course the resources and track record to give city leaders confidence that it will be a success.
Remember, in embracing an incremental approach, you’ve already taken a huge step towards making your community better. The key is to keep moving, no matter how small of a step you take. The goal is not perfection, the goal is momentum. Just keep moving, even if your idea isn’t perfect. You can keep testing your ideas as you move through this list. The goal is to keep the wheel moving.