How placemaking can lift medium-sized cities from the doldrums

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In Town Square, PPS Senior Fellow Jay Walljasper explores great places throughout our communities.  He analyzes current issues affecting Placemaking, highlights what works best on the ground level, and reports from unexpectedly interesting spots around the world.

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Medium-sized cities seem are more apt to suffer from “placelessness”—the debilitating condition that saps a community of civic and economic vitality due to a lack of distinctive local character and lively public spaces.  These are the towns—generally between 50,000 and 500,000 people—most in need of Placemaking.

Placemaking is a wide series of improvements that restore a community by bringing life back to downtowns, parks, waterfronts, local businesses, public markets, civic institutions, campuses, schoolyards, and the streets themselves—any spot where people can gather as friends, neighbors and citizens.  This is how cities gain strength to accomplish social, cultural and economic goals.  As PPS president Fred Kent notes, “When you start by thinking about place, everything turns out differently.”

Today many mid-sized communities—from Norfolk to Long Beach, Green Bay to Birmingham— are too easily dismissed as “nowhere,” cities where “there’s no there there”.

Small towns are often spared the ravages of placenesses because developers or government agencies with fancy plans for malls, downtown makeovers, freeways or other ill-advised ventures think these communities are too small to mess with.  Their size also means they don’t have sufficient resources to inflict huge damage on themselves, such as bulldozing the heart of downtown to build a parking ramp, high-rise hotel, convention center, corporate headquarters, or stadium.

Big cities, meanwhile, have enough of a sense of place to withstand the numerous assaults that have been launched over the past 60 years.  New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco are vital cities today not because they magically avoided wrongheaded development projects. Indeed, plenty of architectural atrocities were carried out there  (think of Boston City Hall Plaza, ranked one of the worst places in the entire galaxy by an April Fools edition of the PPS newsletter), but enough great urban infrastructure still remained to keep these cities interesting and vibrant.

But woe is the mid-sized cities that believed they could join the big leagues by ramming a six-lane expressway along the waterfront, flattening older neighborhoods at the first sign of decay, or lavishly accommodating every motorist who wanted a parking spot free and easy.

The most tragic example I know of a mid-sized city undermined by a misguided vision of progress is Mankato, Minnesota—a college town 70 miles southwest of Minneapolis on the Minnesota River.  I’ve heard it was once a charming, lively place.  Even Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel-prize winning writer who dissected the shortcomings of Midwestern towns in his classic Main Street, offered a warm description of Mankato in the novel:  “…Mankato, which is not a prairie town, but in its garden-sheltered streets and aisles of elms is white and green New England reborn.”

But the heart of Mankato today looks as though it’s on life support rather than reborn.  The scenic Minnesota River now flows through a massive concrete ditch thanks to a 1960s-era flood control plan that seemed to follow the infamous Vietnam War strategy of “destroying the village in order to save it”.  The university decamped from its handsome historic buildings downtown for a soulless suburban campus on top of a hill.

And, in the cruelest blow of all, a massive roof was place on top of 19th Century downtown storefronts in imitation of a suburban shopping mall.  The scheme was a disaster.  The only life in downtown Mankato today is on the fringes of Front Street, the main drag, which were probably considered too shabby to be displayed under glass in the shiny new mall.  These fringes now host restaurants, coffeshops, funky shops and people on the street, while the mall is almost empty except for folks paying a rare visit to government offices and social service agencies now housed there.

But hope is not lost. One of my favorite examples of a vital mid-sized city—which surprises everyone who’s never been there—is Fargo, North Dakota.  It sports an attractive downtown graced by interesting shops, restaurants and civic institutions, which stay lively day and night by students who stroll over from the campus of North Dakota State University.

Indeed, many cities celebrated for being interesting, prosperous, livable and fun are medium-sized: Charleston and Savannah; Madison and Providence; Portland, Maine, and Victoria, British Columbia.  Cities of any size that buck development-as-usual by embracing their distinct local qualities and creating great public places will find themselves moving ahead in the 21st Century.

via People Get Ready

Madison's State Street, via People Get Ready

PPS’s Great Cities Initiative is a good starting place for any medium-sized city that wants to explore Placemaking as way to improve its prospects and quality of life.