Excerpted from How To Turn A Place Around, a common-sense guide to creating successful places published by Project for Public Spaces.

What follows are the key steps that we think are useful in getting more people involved in a place, and then determining the types of improvements that need to be made there. Several of the steps can be undertaken as part of a community-based visioning process, during which community members identify issues, contribute ideas, help collect data, and collaborate on solutions. Because every situation is different, the steps are not always exactly the same. However, the general flow of the process involves: consulting with the community at the outset; making observations and collecting data at the place in order to discover and substantiate its critical issues; presenting those issues to the community for additional input; and finally, implementing the community’s vision. Also included is a short list, “Tips for Conducting Community Meetings.”

1. Meet with community representatives from both public and private sectors to identify the range of issues that various groups face regarding a particular place. If the area of concern is a downtown street, for instance, the issues will likely include: pedestrian/vehicle conflicts, speed or volume of traffic, lack of appropriate parking, lack of pedestrian access, poorly functioning public transit facilities and transit-related amenities such as seating, shelters, etc.

In a park, the issues would likely include: inconveniently located amenities such as benches, picnic areas, and waste receptacles; poor maintenance; lack of management presence; increasing park use by providing additional events and attractions.

2. Formulate hypotheses about issues that merit further data collection and develop a workplan. By drawing on the questions outlined in the previous section, you can form initial hypotheses about a place. For example: nobody goes there anymore; there’s not enough parking; there’s nothing going on there; it has become a hangout for undesirables. Then decisions must be made regarding the best ways to collect the necessary data to support those hypotheses. The methods are many and varied, ranging from a simple “place performance evaluation” (a one-half to one-day workshop developed by PPS) to more detailed analyses of the use of a place and peoples’ perceptions about it. By carefully reading the techniques described in the following section, “Observa-tion Techniques, Surveys and Interviews” you can develop a plan for what kind of evaluation you want to undertake.

3. Collect on-site data. The goal of data collection is to understand more fully how a place functions over time. Methods for collecting data about a place include interviews and surveys, as well as observation techniques conducted at sample times of day and week, such as behavior mapping, counts, parking analysis, and tracking. Where appropriate, time-lapse photography can be used to understand general patterns of use such as parking turnover and pedestrian crossing patterns. Often we have enlisted the help of community volunteers to help collect data. For example, in Belmont Shores, California, business people and residents recorded parking turnover and also set up tables along the street to distribute surveys to shoppers, while in Red Hook, Brooklyn, residents distributed surveys to their neighbors. Several large businesses in Detroit (including a computer software company) distributed surveys and collected ideas from employees, and the mayor’s office presented the results on a web site. In Austin, Texas, residents made the place performance evaluation a central part of a one-day workshop they organized.

4. Analyze data, review community input, and identify potential ideas for implementation. The steps below will help you to use the data that you collect to formulate an action plan. Because there are many different solutions to the same problem, this task is significantly easier if you have spent time in the place yourself, doing at least some of the observations and interviews. Basic tips for analyzing data include:

  • Consolidate data and create summaries of all results. Some of the results can be graphed; others can be written summaries of notes.
  • Compare data to the hypotheses you made at the outset and form new hypotheses.
  • Outline all major findings. These should be grouped into logical categories related to the issues concerning a place: access and circulation, maintenance, programs and events, security, etc.
  • Relate each finding to a recommendation that will help solve the issue. It’s helpful to think of your findings as problems and your recommendations as solutions.

5. Conduct a public forum for community representatives and interested members of the larger community. Review the data that has been collected, further define issues, and encourage input about improvements and ideas for improvements. Brainstorm ideas further in small focus groups, which can then become committees that address specific issues. We have found that using slides to illustrate the issues in a place, along with examples of how other cities are handling similar issues, helps to stimulate new thinking, encourage ongoing participation, and – because it has been done elsewhere – build confidence in the community’s ideas.

6. Translate data into a conceptual plan. Once the findings and recommendations have been organized, reviewed, and added to by the community, it’s fairly easy to develop a conceptual plan. The plan can include written materials as well as graphic representations of ideas. It may or may not be possible to determine how much the recommendations will cost at this point, which skills might be needed, and which types of partners should be involved.

For example, a straightforward problem such as a poorly maintained plaza can often be dealt with by simply increasing the number of times the waste receptacles are emptied, or the way the space is managed. Generally, however, problems with a place are more difficult, such as finding ways to discourage certain types of uses in a place, while simultaneously encouraging more positive uses. Dealing with these issues is a more complex undertaking, one that requires familiarity with specific issues in the place, as well as a broader understanding of the relationship between the use, physical elements, and management of public places.

7. Refine and discuss recommendations, and develop an implementation plan. Ideally this should be done with community representatives. The plan should include an estimated budget; responsibilities for partners, local community organizations, and the private sector; and a schedule. Because communities are generally very action-oriented, a variety of short-term demonstration projects will likely result, incorporating changes in both the physical place and its management.

Even though government agencies tend to move more slowly, it is important that they respect the benefits of short-term wins, which build momentum for a project and keep the community involved. The good news is that many of the solutions will be comparatively low in cost and can be quickly implemented – if the public sector can develop the necessary flexibility.

Tips for Conducting Community Meetings

  1. Acknowledge the timing and seriousness of the issue. For example, controversial projects that are perceived as a threat to the quality of life in a neighborhood will draw good attendance at a community meeting. In situations where a place-oriented approach is being used, it may be necessary to initiate the process on a very small scale – in people’s living rooms, for instance, or at a downtown business.
  2. Choose a meeting place that is convenient for the community. This helps to ensure a good turnout. For example, a meeting about a proposal to build a community center in a park should be held in the park if possible, or in a building directly adjacent to it. If the meeting is in city hall, or an official place set apart from community, it probably will not be nearly as well attended.
  3. Choose a convenient time. If the meeting mainly concerns residents of an area, evening is best, whereas a time right after work is better for meetings about a downtown plaza or park in which businesses are involved.
  4. Provide food and beverages. Food and drink is a sure attraction, especially if the meeting is held during a mealtime. It also helps create a comfortable atmosphere and can get strangers talking to one another.