The Bloomberg 2013-2014 Mayors Challenge: Take a Placemaking Approach

Earlier this fall, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the 2013-2014 Mayors Challenge: “a competition to inspire European cities to come up with bold ideas that solve major problems and improve city life – and that ultimately can be shared with other cities.” This is a great opportunity for a savvy city to win €5 million in flexible funding for a bold, innovative vision that can be scaled and implemented in other places across the globe.

In that context, I offer my own challenge to European cities: Who will be bold, savvy and smart enough to put forth a placemaking approach?  My MIT research team just released Places in the Making: How placemaking builds places and communities, which explores the ways placemaking goes beyond concerns about the physical characteristics of space to offer broader benefits to communities and cities.  The movement, while often topically focused on the local city park or the fun-in-the-moment downtown arts council festival, is about achieving broad results through great public places.

What kind of results?  All kinds.  In Detroit a new and dedicated management staff breathed life back into a 136 year old public market that today serves up to 40,000 visitors in a day and acts as a social mixing ground rarely seen in the City.  Placemaking is not always park or market scale, either.  In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a developer fully re-visioned a development plan at the old Domino Sugar Refinery to double the amount of public space, save the historic structures, add iconic architecture, connect waterfront access to the community, and attract retail and resident services.  That developer will surely see return on his investment in “place” as the site becomes a busy, popular destination.

And perhaps the most often cited examples, in Bryant Park and the Highline in New York, private park operators levied taxes on surrounding property owners to create delightful, world class public spaces that not only significantly increased property values for surrounding property owners but also substantially increased city tax revenue as well.

All of these impacts should be of keen interest to city officials.  Placemaking, which puts the needs and desires of a space’s users at the center of planning for a particular environment, offers a framework for civil deliberation, network building, and action that strengthens communities and builds social capital.  In short, the “making” process transcends physical space to empower communities and restore political voice at the local level. And by doing so, the communities – both the physical and the intangible – are better off because of it.

As illustrated by the case studies in Places in the Making, public officials are beginning to “get it.”  In Norfolk, Virginia, a weekend-long event called Build a Better Block helped interested residents physically demonstrate to city officials and skeptical residents what an arts district might contribute economically and socially.  The City wisely capitalized on these local placemaking efforts by using the outcomes to inform changes to zoning to enable innovation and change to occur in the neighborhoods.  Now, the neighborhood has three new stores open, a streetscape plan, and new traffic plans in the works. Most significantly, the act of deliberating and advocating for this district connected a group of residents and business owners to each other and to city government, creating connections and partnerships that will serve everyone well as plans move forward.

The MIT team’s research uncovered several new and important findings about placemaking.  We found that in every one of our cases, there was one strong force pushing the project along.  Whether a foundation leader, an artist who wanted gallery space, or the president of a food market – having one person to inspire those around them, cobble together resources, sell the idea, and speak about it to a variety of audiences was vital to success.  We found that project advocates unearthed previously untapped revenue sources for these public spaces. And we found that the smoothest processes and fastest timelines were achieved when local residents started the movement or were welcomed into development phases early on.  It’s true: involving the community will save time and money, and produce a better place.

After a century of “experts” telling communities and cities what is best for them, placemaking is restoring local governance around public places.  This local governance can be a mayor’s best friend. Placemaking can streamline government, make efficient use of everyone’s time and resources, and encourage engaged constituents.  A group that initiated a project, was significantly involved in the design, or was genuinely consulted early on for input will often come back and help push that plan through public review.  And once it’s built – you can count on those same individuals to be the ones who go to the new restaurants, or who come to the concert series and enthusiastically drag their family or ten of their friends.  Getting the community on your side is a major asset to achieving success in a project.  Often, people will go even further and find low cost ways to achieve their own results if they feel empowered and supported by their local governments.  What mayor wouldn’t want a network of neighborhoods and communities who “do something” rather than who want to “get something?”  By engaging local citizens and business people, the focus is on action and this is refreshingly relevant in today’s environment of reduced resources.

Years and years of top down regulations and planning standards have boxed in communities and made it very difficult to effect change within the legal bounds of zoning, street design standards, and public space regulations, to name just a few of the restrictions that can hamper revitalization efforts. Innovating is difficult within antiquated systems; cities are alive…they are constantly changing and growing.  Placemaking offers a reminder that lively, shared spaces are crucial to the health of any city.  The approach is about both physical grounding and a web of support to get the best kind of change… change welcomed and championed by local communities. What better way to answer a 21st century challenge than by proposing an approach that dismantles the worst of 20th century practices?  Placemaking offers mayors the opportunity to nurture an expanded civic force of “doers”…all working to make the city the best it can be for all.

Mayors, take the challenge.


Bryant Park Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Disbrow