Monday, October 28, 2013

MIT report on placemaking

Several MIT professors just released a wonderful new report entitled Places in the Making:  How placemaking builds places and communities.  The report has many wonderful examples of placemaking and a detailed analysis of the steps taken to make “place” work.

My one qualm with the otherwise very useful report—and I admit to my bias—is that there is little discussion of the legal structures necessary to create place and how the regulatory environment can affect the kinds of community engagement that occur in neighborhoods of our largest cities.  Readers of this blog know that several of us here have written about the importance of legal structures in placemaking, which may prove a useful legal supplement to the MIT report.  Two recent articles include Ken Stahl’s Neighborhood Empowerment and the Future of the City in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review  and my article, Legal Neighborhoods, in the Harvard Environmental Law Review, both of which speak to the importance of law in creating community.

Here is an excerpt from the report’s conclusion, which I thought was a nice discussion of the importance of community engagement:

It should be obvious by now that effective engagement of community tops the list of crucial characteristics of successful placemaking, but since it’s surprisingly rare to see it done well, it bears some discussion. The projects that are most successful at engaging their communities are the ones that treat this engagement as an ongoing process, rather than a single required step of input or feedback. Further, effective engagement is sensitive to each community’s individual social context. In Corona Plaza, the community design forums held in traditional town-hall settings failed to attract the community of new immigrants from Mexico and Ecuador, so plaza officials elected to bring the designs to the plaza itself, during a cultural festival. Children are frequent users of public places but are usually overlooked in the planning process. Mike Lanza, the founder of Playborhood, simply provides fun toys, installations and spaces for kids to play in his Menlo Park, CA front yard and provides opportunities for them to paint pavement, scrawl on playhouse walls and personalize this space—appropriate levels of engagement for young children in a private yard. Other communities are difficult to identify or may not fit traditional notions of that term: business people mostly hidden from view who leave the area at 5pm, suburban families who drive to cities to use an urban green space, tourists in a downtown park. Temporary, tactical, and event-based placemaking can help identify communities that might otherwise go unnoticed, by allowing them to self-identify. These initiatives engage community by giving them something tangible to react to, which makes the placemaker’s job of outreach and inclusion easier. The act of creating, rather than reacting or opposing, brings a self-selected group to the table—a group ready to deliberate and create positive change. As Team Better Block has found during the weekend events it facilitates, “trouble makers and naysayers will quickly drop out when physical work is involved.” The best forms of community engagement, and in fact the best forms of placemaking, are those that recognize and exploit the virtuous cycle of mutual stewardship between community and place. This is the conceptual glue that supports success at the project level and propels the placemaking field forward. In most successful cases, the “completion” of the project is far from the end of the placemaking effort. Success at identifying these ongoing “making ” activities and engagement in the civic processes that support them, creates the mutual relationship between community and place that lifts these placemaking projects above a simple sum of the parts.

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