Bellingham, Washington (2006)

Client: City of Bellingham, WA

In 2006, the Mayor of Bellingham, WA, attended PPS’ “How to Turn a Place Around” training course. Mark Asmundson, a.k.a. “Mayor Mark”, a charismatic and effective leader, found the training so innovative and inspiring that he brought PPS to Bellingham to train his city’s leaders in the concept of Placemaking.

Participants evaluating a space in Maritime Heritage Park as part of the Placemaking training.

Bellingham is a charming city of 75,000 that is situated on Bellingham Bay between Seattle and Vancouver. Downtown Bellingham has undergone a major transformation over the past decade, from a largely vacant area to one with dozens of locally-owned stores, thriving community facilities, brand new residential and mixed-use development, and improved transportation choices. Mayor Mark, however, had even higher aspirations for downtown. He envisioned it as a strong network of well-connected Places that enhance the quality of life and economic development in the region. He was also committed to an open planning process of public-private partnerships and broad community participation. Placemaking, he thought, should be the cornerstone of this new era of planning in downtown Bellingham.

Mayor Mike asked PPS to lead a detailed, two-day training program to introduce key public employees and community leaders to the concept and practice of Placemaking. Around 75 people participated in the training, including City staff, City and County Council members, Western Washington University staff, neighborhood association representatives and other citizens. Another 100 interested parties attended an evening public lecture and discussion led by PPS.

The two-day training included PowerPoint presentations on how to create great parks, downtowns, streets and waterfronts; a Place Game site evaluation exercise, and many small group discussions on the future of downtown Bellingham. PPS took the vision articulated during these discussions and developed a series of recommendations, including: creating a great public plaza; making the new library one of downtown’s great destinations; prioritizing pedestrian activity over vehicular movement and storage; and redeveloping the waterfront into a lively, mixed-use neighborhood. The recommendations also emphasize beginning by implementing short-term experiments to test new ideas, and developing a seasonal programming strategy to keep downtown busy and active year-round.

Bellingham’s leaders are now well poised to plan for the city’s next major Placemaking opportunity: the redevelopment of a 170-acre former industrial site along the waterfront. As Mayor Mark said in a recent newspaper interview: “Citizens and communities will choose how to reshape the space they already have into great places. The community is the expert – not an architect or consultant.”

Project Update

Bellingham community members gather to enjoy the programs at the Bay Street Co-Motion festival.

Less than a year later, Bellingham’s downtown arts district has already removed high-volume street parking and has created newly widened sidewalks for a safer, more pleasant pedestrian experience. Restaurants and retailers have been encouraged to spill onto the sidewalks, and the addition of benches and plantings makes the streetscape attractive and functional.

Public plazas are being created at the Art & Children’s Museum, the library, and key intersections in the downtown district, linking cultural institutions to the cityscape and promoting multi-use community gathering places. “Bay Street Co-Motion,” a street festival held in July 2007, featured live music and a film screening. It was the first of what Bellingham hopes will be many community-oriented events in the revitalized arts district.

Revitalization in and around Maritime Heritage Park, including cleanups, landscaping, and increased attention to local activities and parking, have already made the park a safer, more effective community destination. Planning around Bellingham’s historic “Old Town” continue, with the hope that renovation and revitalization will make it the true destination that its arts district is rapidly becoming.