By Philip Myrick & Elena Madison
Communities and regions abound with local wonders that too often are hidden away or taken for granted. While cities lavish money on big-ticket projects like sports arenas, concert halls, and shopping complexes, true gems like historic buildings, scenic landscapes or neighborhoods that actually define communities receive little investment or protection.
Instead of being prized and supported, these places are often strip-mined for a quick economic return with no regard for what happens to the environment or community as a whole. Citizens who oppose misguided development, such as strip malls ripping up historic neighborhoods or beloved countrysides, are criticized as anti-growth. But what these groups are really trying to do is protect the value of their region’s unique and irreplaceable resources, which sets these areas apart as places where people love to live. In truth, citizens protecting their community are pursuing their own economic development strategy—one that is far more likely to make a city or town competitive in the New Economy of the 21st Century.
These community efforts are central to the vision of Placemaking, and make up an important part of Project for Public Spaces’ work around the world.
From Vojvodina With Love
In Serbia, with the generous support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, PPS has been working on a project to help sustain the agricultural heritage of the Vojvodina region by creating a greenway to link historic farms and other points of interest with the regional capital, Novi Sad. In a Placemaking workshop unlike any other we have experienced, farmers and villagers turned out in large numbers to help determine the greenway’s route. With evident pride and a sense of surprise that anyone would want to know what places were most important to them, these rural people identified the most historic farms and structures, scenic meadows and forests, a local beekeeper, and even the area’s oldest mulberry tree.
They implicitly understood which places best identified the region. Based on this list of amenities, PPS and our partners The Green Network of Vojvodina and The Czech Environmental Partnership planned a bicycling route connecting these special spots that will encourage new visitors to appreciate the region’s beauty and heritage, and set the stage for agro-tourism that can sustain the local economy.
Almost Heaven, West Virginia
Closer to home, the West Virginia University Extension Service’s Center for Community, Economic & Workforce Development recently hosted a “Power of Ten” Summit, based on our simple but important idea that the more things there are to do in a place, the more beloved and central that place will become in your neighborhood. The summit, held in the town of Fayetteville (pop. 2,700) and keynoted by PPS Vice-President Phil Myrick, brought together teams from eight communities across the state of West Virginia to learn about Placemaking and build a strategy for revitalizing their downtowns by improving their quality of place.
Each team followed the Power of Ten principles by mapping their most important assets – those places that have the most to offer in terms of key categories PPS has developed: Uses & Activities; Comfort & Image; Access & Linkages; and Sociability. (For more on these categories, click here). Once they identified these assets, they began to brainstorm how to take each one and leverage it up several notches to have a more positive impact on the community. In addition, they also identified places in their downtowns, such as streets and parks, that have the potential to become valuable assets but were lacking in one or more of the key categories. At the closing of the summit, participants created a mock action plan and explored strategies that would help them in making things happen when they returned home.
The extension service works in small towns and cities across the state, helping residents realize that their community’s unique identity and sense of place is worth preserving and developing. According to Senior Program Administrator Alison Hanham, “Unlike the homogenous, placeless, retail sprawl created by malls and big-box retail areas, a distinctive downtown has the opportunity to become a place where people can connect with their heritage and find a sense of community. A vibrant downtown increases economic health and quality of life of communities. It adds jobs, fosters new small businesses, cuts down on sprawl, protects property values, and provides variety and options for goods and services.”