Friday, May 14, 2010

Placemaking for Greater Prosperity

The term placemaking came into vogue just a few decades ago, but the concept of designing spaces that attract people has been around for centuries.  Designing with placemaking in mind involves a paradigm shift in the way we typically view urban planning.  Instead of giving prominence to vehicles and buildings, a designer must focus on people and the way they experience spaces.  The goals of placemaking run in the vein of creating lively and inviting public spaces, spaces that can be and are used by residents of a neighborhood.  There are a few recurring themes seen in successfully “made”  places, such as easy access by various modes of transportation, a sense of safety and cleanliness, and the ability of said place to host a variety of experiences and activities.

Benefits to the neighborhood are clear; placemaking provides spaces for interactions between citizens, builds a sense of community, etc.  But how does designing with people in mind benefit the community at large?  And does placemaking have any correlation with economic prosperity?  Neighborhoods designed with placemaking in mind are typically walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.  Residents in these communities statistically have lower automobile costs, produce fewer carbon emissions and realize increased home values compared to communities that lack a sense of place.  Following hand in hand with lower private vehicle use is a lower demand on infrastructure.  Compact development pays.  An EPA study found that compact infrastructure could be 47% less expensive than conventional suburban development.

Residents living in neighborhoods designed with an orientation towards people versus cars, typically have higher levels of physical fitness.  Again this may seem like it's benefiting the individual, not the greater good, but keep in mind that in 2008 the medical cost to treat obesity in the US was $147 billion.  And let’s not overlook the reduction in carbon emissions mentioned above.  Environmental concerns aside, less pollution equates to cleaner air and lower incidences of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

It's also been shown that walkable neighborhoods have lower crime rates.  Jane Jacobs, a community activist and early proponent of placemaking strategies, argued that streets are safer when more people are on them.  Her ‘eyes on the street’ theory contended that well-used public places and buildings that provide inhabitants views to the streets create inherently safer neighborhoods.And she was right; neighborhood watch programs across the country now use the same techniques she advocated.

Placemaking aims to provide a common meeting space and bolster the sense of community in a place.  These shared public spaces can offer venues for markets and cultural festivals or provide a performance area for bands or theater groups.  Communities can begin to see direct economic benefits when the value of their space is recognized and realized.

It's difficult to quantify all the benefits of placemaking, but with movements like Placemaking Chicago and the New York City Plaza Program growing in prominence, these benefits are hard to deny.

[Photo of Lincoln Square Arch in Chicago courtesy of Placemaking Chicago]


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