Downtown Promotion Reporter, Vol. 29, No. 1, January 2004

To enhance your success in creating a vibrant, economically healthy downtown this year, make downtown stakeholders an integral part of your promotion and event planning process, suggests Kathleen Madden, vice president of Project for Public Spaces (PPS).

PPS, based in New York City, has pioneered a radically different approach to revitalizing downtowns, called “placemaking.” In contrast to the traditional design or planning process, PPS’s mission is to create a successful, well-used place. And the users of a place should decide the type of activities they want; not the professionals.

“The role of the professionals is as a resource for the communities. They should work to implement the community’s vision,” she says.

“Tapping into the ideas and talents of the community is crucial in deciding what will be done to improve an existing place, or in developing a vision for a new place.”

“When ideas come from the ground up, not from the top down, the events, programs, recreation, and play areas in a public space are truly connected to the communities that use them. In addition, partnerships among local organizations, merchants associations, and government agencies act as new sources of ideas for activities and help a public space become a true ‘community place,’” she says.

“The ‘community’ is anyone who has an interest or stake in a particular place. It is made up of the people who live near a particular place — whether they use it or not — own businesses or work in the area, or attend institutions such as schools and churches there. It also includes elected officials who represent the area nad groups that organize activities, such as a bocce club or a merchants’ association,” Madden explains.

Hold a downtown evaluation workshop

PPS’s most effective toll to involve communities is what it calls a “public space evaluation workshop.” With the Project’s assistance, communities invite downtown merchants, residents, government representatives, and other stakeholders to a half-day workshop during which participants discuss the types of activities and improvements they woudl like to see for their downtown.

During the workshop, a “place game” is held in which three to five participants are sent out to rate the public space for activities, access, comfort, and sociability. Each small group should be diverse, Madden says, because people from different walks of life — like a merchant, resident, government official, and property owner — can inspire each other. After about an hour, game players return to the workshop to talk about their ideas and vision of the space.

Sometimes the leasy likely participants are the ones who come up with the best ideas. For example, during a workshop held in Philadelphia, a man who often loitered around downtwon came up with a great idea. He returned from a group visit downtown and suggested the city copy Paris and erect a giant ferris wheel that could be seen from far away to beckon people downtown. “The man couldn’t pronounce the word ‘Paris,’ but he had a brilliant idea,” Madden says. “The idea of the workshops is to empower all kinds of people to come forth with ideas.”

Create a plan

After holding the workshop, the next step is to translate the results of the workshop into a conceptual plan that reflects the community’s ideas, Madden says. Then refine and discuss this plan with the community, and develop an implementation strategy.

Tips for merchants

“Small-scale, inexpensive improvements can be more effective at drawing people into spaces than major, big-buck projects. Inexpensive amenities such as vending carts, outdoor cafes tables and chairs, umbrellas, flowers, benches, or movable seating are relatively inexpensive. Such items are not generally costly when compared with the overall budget for a public space, but are often eliminated as frils, and as a results\, another potential place bites the dust,” she says.

Management is more important than money

“Developing the ability to effectively manage a space is more critical to success than a large financial investment. For example, the ability to put out items such as movable furniture at a moment’s notice, to host a range of events, or to notice in the use of the space and act on them are all ways in which a continuous management presence makes a place successful,” Madden explains.

“When a community’s vision is driving a project, money follows. Projects perceived by the public as being too expensive often do not become a reality. Why? These types of projects have not evolved from a community’s vision.

“The most successful public space projects tend to use an incremental appraoch in which the place grows little by little; accordingly, people become more and more invested as it grows,” Madden says.

“Once a community backs a project with its voices and its hearts, money usually follows.”

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