Placemaking is the creation and improvement of public spaces that generate shared value for community members. To be successful, a space must be authentic to the community it serves, and thus developed based on its physical, cultural, and social identity. It’s important to note the disparities between access to spaces and their benefits that often exist in our communities to create spaces that are inclusive and welcoming.
The following resource provides guidance to support civic leaders in advancing equitable community planning by applying Fourth Economy’s Equitable Community Planning Toolkit. The toolkit is designed to help you and your community become stronger and more vibrant through equitable planning practices. It includes a step-by-step framework to approach systems change plus resources, activities, and tools to help communities advance their equitable planning processes.
A Framework for Equitable Community Planning
Identify and Engage Community Members
Identify, Evaluate, and Implement the Methods
Identify and Measure
What is placemaking?
Placemaking is the creation and improvement of public spaces that generate shared value for community members. To be successful, a space must be authentic to the community it serves, and thus developed based on its physical, cultural, and social identity. Placemaking, by definition, is action oriented and arguably less focused on a definite outcome or the completion of a community asset but rather the dynamic and ongoing use of that asset. The shared nature of a public asset builds invaluable social capital by catalyzing connections between people, in addition to connecting them to their community in a physical sense.
Why is placemaking needed?
In its 2020 report titled “Community Ties,” the Urban Institute analyzed what attaches people to the places where they live through a survey of over 11,000 Americans living in 26 metro areas and urbanized areas. The study found that “those with access to recreational areas and safe places to live, work and play also had more positive feelings about the community, compared with those who had access to jobs, affordable housing, schools or other desirable features.” Importantly, the research also considered people’s actions based on their level of attachment, and noted that “people with access to quality arts and cultural activities not only have stronger feelings but also invest more in their communities.”
While promising practices in placemaking – like the research above – often showcase urban centers, Brookings Institute has supported the need for placemaking in rural communities, noting that increasing social capital in rural communities correlates with higher levels of positive economic mobility.
Equitable placemaking generates broad benefits for communities:
Economic - Placemaking, for example, through arts and entertainment district, directly benefit economies through job creation, tax revenue, and GDP. Placemaking also has important downstream economic impacts. Communities with thriving places attract people, thus generating local spending and a talent pool that attracts industry. In its recent annual survey of corporate executives, for example, Area Development magazine found that Quality of Life ranked only behind Labor Costs as a top consideration when choosing a business location. The Quality of Life category moved from the eleventh to second place ranking, followed by Availability of Skilled Labor, Energy Availability, and Construction Costs.
Social - In addition to strengthening social capital and community sentiment which can enhance economic mobility and spur investment by community members, placemaking can help build (or rebuild) community trust. Increased interaction between community members inspires knowledge sharing and civic engagement that leads to innovation, problem solving, and overall prosperity.
Health - In 2016, University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute found that 40% of a person’s length and quality of life is related to social and economic factors, 30% to health-related behaviors shaped by socio-economic factors, and 10% to physical environment. While access to quality care and services is important, accounting for 10 to 20 percent of a person’s health according to this research, these statistics demonstrate the elevated role of place – with relation to social and physical environment factors in particular – as a determinant of health.
Sustainability - Placemaking has the power to improve a community’s sustainability and climate resiliency, through investments such as green infrastructure, energy-efficient lighting, and eco-friendly materials. When planned with intention, public space can mitigate problems caused by climate change and generate environmental benefits..
Why is equity critical to placemaking?
Authentic placemaking can only occur by considering the context of the community. It is a collective process of improving public spaces that cannot be achieved without deeply involving those who use or should be using the space – those who shape and understand the community’s identity best.
It’s important to note the disparities between access to spaces and their benefits that often exist in our communities. In its study titled Community Ties, the Urban Institute found that “quality of life matters more to low income people and people of color, but it is often harder to come by. These groups report lower access to key amenities, even though these amenities are more important to them than the average resident.”
For a community to maximize the benefits of placemaking, public spaces must be welcoming and inclusive to all. As such, the process of planning, making, and maintaining places must engage diverse representation throughout the community and work to realize a shared vision amongst community members. Placemaking without equitable planning practices is really just spacemaking.
Evaluating How Your Community Centers Equity in Its Placemaking Practices
Just as our country’s history of segregation and system racism have created ongoing inequities in housing (see our Housing Resource Page of our Equitable Community Planning Toolkit), so too has this history created inequitable access to amenities and public space, and thus the benefits that they provide. This history has resulted in disinvestment in spaces serving communities of color and low-income individuals, for example, the environmental injustice of creating sacrifice zones, a development practice that creates disproportionate harm for marginalized communities.
It is important to consider your community’s history of disinvestment and how it has and may continue to deploy equitable placemaking to right historical wrongs and create a more vibrant, prosperous community for all.
The following guiding questions will help you evaluate the extent to which your community centers equity in its placemaking practices. See the “Identify and Measure Outcomes” section for specific metrics that you can use to track your community’s progress in equitable placemaking.
Public Space Inventory: One space might not be able to appeal to everyone. What is your inventory of public spaces and what are their attributes? For example:
Where are they? Are they distributed equitably?
How do community members physically access the space? Can they be accessed by motor vehicle, non-motorized vehicle, walking, and public transit?
Participant Profile: Who is currently involved in planning, maintaining, and using your spaces and how does the demographic makeup compare to the demographics of your entire community and visitor population?
Inclusivity: What makes people feel welcome or unwelcome in a space and how do your community spaces address these factors? Are your spaces and programming designed for community members, particularly historically marginalized groups, including but not limited to women, LGBTQ communities, immigrants, people with disabilities, communities of color, low-income individuals, and families.
Authenticity: Are your spaces authentic? Do community members feel their experience, culture, and history are reflected in public spaces? Is the space and programming designed for community members, particularly historically marginalized groups, including but not limited to women, LGBTQ communities, immigrants, people with disabilities, communities of color, low-income individuals, and families.
You might gather this information through asset mapping that goes beyond physical spaces to include people, events, history, traditions, and public services.
Identify and Understand the Work
Diverse community engagement is critical to equitable planning. Including community members who represent a variety of backgrounds and lived experiences, particularly those who have been and continue to be historically marginalized, is essential to developing well-informed plans and achieving desirable outcomes.
Participant categories may include but are not limited to:
Owners of public space
Users of current place assets (residents, visitors, recreators)
Current residents living in areas adjacent to and nearby public spaces
Historians familiar with local development
Vendors using existing public spaces
Small businesses adjacent or nearby to public space
Those responsible for maintaining public space (public officials, municipal departments, non-profits, for example)
For further tips on engaging the community around public spaces see Fourth Economy’s webinar “Connecting Public Voices to Decision-making"
Identify and Engage Partners
Identify, Evaluate, and Implement the Methods
By definition, placemaking is human-centered. In keeping with this principle, we took a people-centric approach to collecting promising practices in equitable placemaking. This is an opportunity to learn about communities who are modeling equity in action, while also getting to know the Fourth Economy team!
Here are a few of our favorite examples of equitable placemaking:
Summit Lake Park | Akron, OH
The creation of Summit Lake Park in Akron was done as part of Reimagining the Civic Commons, a grant program that has evolved to become a new model for cities to design, manage and program their public spaces. Today, Summit Lake Park offers canoeing and kayaking, fishing, community gardens, cultural programming, a farmers’ market and a nature center. Spurred by the success of Akron Civic Commons and supported by $10 million in new investment, a trail is being built around the perimeter of the lake to reconnect the adjacent neighborhoods.
The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker | Newport, RI
The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project recently unveiled a proposed design for a “living memorial” in Liberty Square that the nonprofit organization. A goal of the memorial is to not only honor the life of enslaved Africans being transported to Newport, but also celebrate the triumphs and contributions of the Black community in the city. When designing memorials and public art projects to honor past injustices, it is equallty important to ensure they also celebrate the successes and unique contributions of the community they are meant to represent so as not to lock the narrative into one of perpetual oppression.
Livernois Streetscape Project | Detroit, MI
Livernois Street, between Clarita and Eight Mile, has been transformed into a walkable, attractive streetscape with vehicular traffic safety measures, wider sidewalks for café seating, protected bike lanes, and new landscaping and lighting. Major improvements were completed in 2020 and equitable placemaking efforts have continued since to ensure the corridor is a place where people feel safe and welcomed and businesses may thrive. This development has emphasized equity through initiatives such as a pilot mitigation program to support businesses impacted by construction, which included an interest-free loan fund and access to small-business technical assistance. Additionally, Neighborhood HomeBase, a storefront community gathering space, was established to connect them with neighborhood organizations, nonprofits and city government