‘Placemaking’ is both an overarching idea and a hands-on tool for improving a neighborhood, city or region. It has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century.

What if we built our communities around places?

Placemaking is a quiet movement that reimagines public spaces as the heart of every community, in every city. It’s a transformative approach that inspires people to create and improve their public places. Placemaking strengthens the connection between people and the places they share.

Placemaking is how we collectively shape our public realm to maximize shared value. Rooted in community-based participation, Placemaking involves the planning, design, management and programming of public spaces. More than just creating better urban design of public spaces, Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of activities and connections (cultural, economic, social, ecological) that define a place and support its ongoing evolution. Placemaking is how people are more collectively and intentionally shaping our world, and our future on this planet.

With the increasing awareness that our human environment is shaping us, Placemaking is how we shape humanity’s future. While environmentalism has challenged human impact on our planet, it is not the planet that is threatened but humanity’s ability to live viably here. Placemaking is building both the settlement patterns, and the communal capacity, for people to thrive with each other and our natural world.

It takes a place to create a community, and a community to create a place

An effective Placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being. When we asked visitors to pps.org what Placemaking means to them, responses suggested that this process is essential–even sacred–to people who truly care about the places in their lives.

True Placemaking begins at the smallest scale.

The PPS Placemaking process, evolved out of our work with William “Holly” Whyte in the 1970s, and still involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations. This information is then used to create a common vision for that place. The vision can evolve quickly into an implementation strategy, beginning with small-scale, do-able improvements that can immediately bring benefits to public spaces and the people who use them.

For us, Placemaking is both a process and a philosophy. It takes root when a community expresses needs and desires about places in their lives, even if there is not yet a clearly defined plan of action. The yearning to unite people around a larger vision for a particular place is often present long before the word “Placemaking” is ever mentioned. Once the term is introduced, however, it enables people to realize just how inspiring their collective vision can be, and allows them to look with fresh eyes at the potential of parks, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, neighborhoods, streets, markets, campuses and public buildings. It sparks an exciting re-examination of everyday settings and experiences in our lives.

When you focus on place, you do everything differently

Unfortunately the way our communities are built today has become so institutionalized that community stakeholders seldom have a chance to voice ideas and aspirations about the places they inhabit. Placemaking breaks through this by showing planners, designers, and engineers how to move beyond their habit of looking at communities through the narrow lens of single-minded goals or rigid professional disciplines. The first step is listening to best experts in the field—the people who live, work and play in a place.

Experience has shown us that when developers and planners welcome as much grassroots involvement as possible, they spare themselves a lot of headaches. Common problems like traffic-dominated streets, little-used parks, and isolated, underperforming development projects can be avoided by embracing the Placemaking perspective that views a place in its entirety, rather than zeroing in on isolated fragments of the whole.

Since 1975, PPS has acted as an advocate and resource center for Placemaking, continually making the case that a collaborative community process that pays attention to issues on the small scale is the best approach in creating and revitalizing public spaces. Indeed, cities fail and succeed as the place scale, but it is still this scale that goes ignored.

Cities ultimately fail or succeed at the “place” scale

Key Principles of Placemaking

A Placemaking approach provides communities with the springboard they need to revitalize their communities. To start, we draw upon the 11 Principles of Placemaking, which have grown out of our experiences working with communities in 43 countries and 50 U.S. and 3000 communties. These are guidelines that help communities integrate diverse opinions into a vision, then translate that vision into a plan and program of uses, and finally see that the plan is properly implemented.

Community input is essential to the Placemaking process, but so is an understanding of a particular place and of the ways that great places foster successful social networks and initiatives. Using the 11 Principles and other tools we’ve developed for improving places (such as the Power of 10 and the Place Diagram, below) we’ve helped citizens bring immense changes to their communities–sometimes more than stakeholders ever dreamed possible.

a great place

The Place Diagram is one of the tools PPS has developed to help communities evaluate places. The inner ring represents key attributes, the middle ring intangible qualities, and the outer ring measurable data.

Improving public spaces and the lives of people who use them means finding the patience to take small steps, to truly listen to people, and to see what works best, eventually turning a group vision into the reality of a great public place.

Placemaking is not a new idea

The concepts behind Placemaking got traction in the 1960s, when visionaries like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte (who was Jacobs’ Fortune Magazine editor that got her to write Death and Life of Great American Cities) offered groundbreaking ideas about designing cities that catered to people, not just to cars and shopping centers. Their work focused on the importance of lively neighborhoods and inviting public spaces. Jane Jacobs advocated citizen ownership of streets through the now-famous idea of “eyes on the street.” Holly Whyte emphasized essential elements for creating social life in public spaces.

Applying the wisdom of Jacobs, Whyte, and others, PPS gradually developed a comprehensive Placemaking approach for helping communities make better public spaces beginning in 1975. The term can be heard in many settings–not only by citizens committed to grassroots community improvement but by planners and developers who use it as a fashionable “brand” that implies authenticity and quality even when their projects don’t always live up to that promise. But using “Placemaking” to label a process that really isn’t rooted in public participation or result in lively, genuine communities dilutes the potential value.

PPS first started consistent use of the term in the mid-nineties and first published a book with a definition of the term in 1997.

It takes a broader set of skills than any one discipline can offer to create a place

Placemaking is at the heart of PPS’s work and mission, but we do not trademark it as our property. It belongs to anyone who is sincere about creating great places by drawing on the collective wisdom, energy and action of those who live, work and play there. We do feel, however, it is our responsibility to continue to protect and perpetuate the community-driven, bottom-up approach that Placemaking describes. Placemaking requires and supports great leadership and action on all levels, often allowing leaders to not have the answers but allow an even bolder process to unfold.

We believe that the public’s attraction to the essential qualities of Placemaking will ensure that the term does not lose its original meaning or promise. Making a place is not the same as constructing a building, designing a plaza, or developing a commercial zone. When people enjoy a place for its special social and physical attributes, and when they are allowed to influence decision-making about that space, then you see genuine Placemaking in action.

Placemaking grows into an international movement

As more communities engage in Placemaking and more professionals call their work “Placemaking,” it is now essential to preserve the integrity of Placemaking. A great public space cannot be measured simply by physical attributes; it must serve people as a vital place where function is put ahead of form. PPS encourages everyone–citizens and professionals alike–to focus on places and the people who use them.

Placemaking strikes a balance between the built, the social, the ecological and even the spiritual qualities of a place. Fortunately, we can all be inspired by the examples of many great Placemakers who have worked to promote this vision through the years. Through the development of a Placemaking Leadership Council PPS is working to support a broad network to support the further evolution of Placemaking and build its potential impact as a movement. Through bringing together our partnerships with UN Habitat and the Ax:son Johnson create the Future Of Places conference series to support the prominence and impact of Placemaking internationally, with a focus on developing cities.

Placemaking belongs to everyone: its message and mission is bigger than any one person or organization. PPS remains dedicated to supporting the Placemaking movement as a “backbone organization”, growing the network and offering our resources and experiences to all the other Placemakers out there.

What Placemaking Is–and what it isn’t

Placemaking IS:

  • Community-driven
  • Visionary
  • Function before form
  • Adaptable
  • Inclusive
  • Focused on creating destinations
  • Flexible
  • Culturally aware
  • Ever changing
  • Trans-disciplinary
  • Context-led
  • Transformative
  • Inspiring
  • Collaborative
  • Sociable

Placemaking ISN’T:

  • Imposed from above
  • Reactive
  • Design-driven
  • A blanket solution
  • Exclusionary
  • Monolithic development
  • Overly accommodating of the car
  • One-size-fits-all
  • Static
  • Discipline-driven
  • Privatized
  • One-dimensional
  • Dependent on regulatory controls
  • A cost/benefit analysis
  • Project-focused
  • A quick fix

PPS Placemaking Resources mentioned in this article:

11 Principles of Placemaking

The Power of Ten

Placemaker Profiles

“What is Placemaking?” – Top Survey Responses

Toward Place Governance: What If We Reinvented Civic Infrastructure Around Placemaking?

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