What Is Placemaking?
Placemaking is the creation and improvement of public spaces that generate shared value for community members. The shared nature of a public asset builds invaluable social capital by catalyzing connections among people, in addition to connecting them to their community in a physical sense.
In its 2020 report Community Ties, the Urban Institute analyzed what attaches people to the places where they live through a survey of over eleven thousand Americans living in twenty-six 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, with the report noting that “people with access to quality arts and cultural activities not only have stronger feelings but also invest more in their communities.” Learn more in our companion pieces about the power of placemaking and the ROI of placemaking.
Image courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces.
Why Is Equitable Placemaking Needed?
To be successful, a space must be authentic in representing the community it serves, developed in relation to its physical, cultural, and social identity. As we seek to build places for the public to engage in civic life, it’s important to consider a number of key questions: Who is welcome here? Who is this space designed for? Who will feel safe here? How do we make these spaces inclusive for a diversity of needs?
Authentic placemaking can occur only when we consider 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.
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 among community members. Placemaking without equitable planning practices is really just spacemaking or “beautification.”
Evaluating How Your Community Centers Equity in Its Placemaking Practices
Just as our country’s history of segregation and systemic 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, how it may continue to perpetuate historical wrongs, and what is needed to create a more vibrant, prosperous community for all. You might gather this information through asset mapping that goes beyond physical spaces to include people, events, history, traditions, and public services.
Establishing a Baseline
Establishing a data-informed baseline not only informs the present needs of communities but serves as a method to measure the effectiveness of interventions. Metrics will vary by location, size, programming, and the environment the space is located in but may include the following:
current usage numbers
number of residents utilizing the space (those living within a walkshed of one mile)
number of visitors utilizing the space (those living more than one mile away)
use by time of day
public safety / crime statistics
Two tools that may be useful in identifying a range of environmental justice indicators by physical location include EJScreen, a tool created by the Environmental Protection Agency to track a range of environmental justice and public health indicators, and Tree Equity Score, a tool developed by American Forests that maps a number of factors, including tree cover, building density, and surface temperature, to assess community well-being.
Image courtesy of Connect the Dots, 2022.
Engaging Others in Equitable Placemaking
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 the following:
owners of public spaces
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 to or nearby public spaces
those responsible for maintaining public spaces (public officials, municipal departments, nonprofits)
Some of Our Favorite Examples of Equitable, Community-Led Placemaking
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:
Image courtesy of the Trust for Public Land.
Summit Lake Park | Akron, OH
Suggested by Justin Wheeler
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.
Image courtesy of newportmiddlepassage.org.
The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker | Newport, RI
Suggested by Rich Overmoyer
The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project recently unveiled a proposed design for a “living memorial” in Liberty Square that the nonprofit organization believes will not only honor the lives of enslaved Africans transported to Newport but also celebrate the triumphs and contributions of the Black community in the city.
Image courtesy of the City of Detroit.
Livernois Streetscape Project | Detroit, MI
Submitted by Sally J. Guzik
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.
Do you have a great example of equitable placemaking? Let us know, and we may feature it in an upcoming post!