COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

The Placemaking Process

Dec 21, 2017
Aug 1, 2018

Placemaking is both a philosophy and a practical process for transforming public spaces. It is centered on observing, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work, and play in a particular space in order to understand their needs and aspirations for that space and for their community as a whole.  

The placemaking process can be used either in retrofitting an existing space or planning a new space. Because every situation is different, the steps are not always exactly the same, nor do they always happen in the same order. But Project for Public Spaces uses a five-step process to get more people involved in observing, planning, and shaping a place. 

First, it is important to meet with the community and identify stakeholders. Then, it is crucial to spend time on site, evaluating the space, as well as its assets or challenges. This will inform the creation of a vision for the place. Next, implementation begins with short-term experiments, and continues with ongoing evaluation of what has been done, leading to long-term improvements for the space. Even after this point, the success of a space depends on continued management, observation and analysis.

1. Define Place & Identify Stakeholders

Selecting the right site and stakeholders is a crucial first step to turning a place around. The placemaking process starts with a meeting to engage community representatives from public, private, and civic sectors in order to identify the main issues that different groups face, and to identify a particular place or places to focus their placemaking efforts. This collaboration, which often involves an asset mapping exercise based on The Power of 10+, will lead to hypotheses about issues that merit further data collection, as well as a work plan. 

A rule of thumb: When selecting stakeholders should have some direct connection, as well as an interest in, the space. They may include residents, businesses adjacent to the space, and cultural, religious, or educational organizations. Government officials are facilitators and partners in implementing the community’s vision. The end result is that people around the space—those with a vested interest in its success—not only have an active voice in the process, but they also become strong partners throughout the project.

‍This group in Ramla, Israel is identifying the best and worst destinations in their downtown.

Key questions to consider in stakeholder outreach include: 

  1. Who is interested in having things change?
  2. Are they willing to participate in some way using their talents or funds?
  3. Are there any existing funds that could be used to make improvements or program the space?
  4. Are there existing organizations that could provide long-term management for the space?

2. Evaluate Space & Identify Issues

In this step, participants take stock of how a space is used, and how it can be improved. A Placemaking Workshop is one of the most effective tools to make use of stakeholders’ knowledge, intuition, common sense, and input. The heart of this workshop is the Place Performance Evaluation Game, a simple assessment tool that PPS developed to be used by anyone, from children to highly trained professionals. And it’s fun: Participants get to know each other better, while gaining insight into how a space functions. The goal of the Placemaking Workshop is to better understand the space and its challenges.

An observer conducts a Place Performance Evaluation Game at Astor Place in New York City.

To kick off a Placemaking Workshop, it is usually most effective for a local group to coordinate the logistics. This ensures community participation in greater numbers than if the event were organized by government agencies or outside consultants alone. Nonetheless, including local officials in the workshop is also vital.

A successful workshops usually lasts between two and three hours, and it begins with a review of the goals for the project. Then, participants are split into groups and take a trip to the space where they play the Place Game and further familiarize themselves with the site. Finally, each group reports back to the rest of the stakeholders, leading to a discussion of a preliminary vision for the space and a brainstorming session about potential partners. 

Focus groups to tackle specific topics in depth may also emerge during this process, while alternative feedback opportunities, like pop-up engagement or creative online engagement, should also be provided for those who may not be able to attend in person.

3. Place Vision

In this step, key stakeholders develop a Place Vision, based on insights from the Placemaking Workshop. This document includes several parts: 

  • A mission or statement of goals. Shared goals of stakeholders are a foundation for a Place Vision.
  • A definition of how a space will be used, and by whom. The nature of the space guides the goals of those involved.
  • A description of the intended character of the space.A clear idea of what the space will be keeps the vision focused.
  • A concept plan for how the space could be designed.Once an initial concept plan has been created, assess the feasibility of the plan and identify any barriers to implementation.
  • Successful examples of similar spaces or parts of spaces. 
  • An action plan for short-term and long-term improvements.
This Place Vision for the Perth Cultural Centre creatively synthesized the results of a placemaking workshop.

Just as important as the Place Vision document is the subsequent plan for management. A management organization is necessary to keep a space active and well-maintained. While it isn’t so much a matter of “if” as “when” such an organization is formed, not having one to start with is no reason to delay action on a space.

4. Short-Term Experiments

The most important step in the placemaking process is implementation—putting the vision into action. Good public spaces don’t happen overnight, and people do not need to have all the answers at the outset to start improving. The key is to help the space grow incrementally by implementing and evaluating “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” (LQC) projects. 

There are a thousand and one ways to do Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper! Learn more through our comprehensive guide and worldwide database of projects.

LQC projects consist of short-term improvements and programs that require a short timeline and a small budget, and can be easily undone. However, they are not an end in themselves. LQC projects are an opportunity to test ideas that will help implement the community’s Place Vision for their public space. 

LQC projects can take many forms, requiring varying degrees of time, money, and effort, such as:

5. Ongoing Reevaluation & Long-Term Improvements

It is easy to forget that a public space project will never be finished! While Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper experiments can jump-start the placemaking process, they never truly finish the job on their own

Creating great places is an ever-evolving process: It is important to check in on earlier projects by performing an evaluation of the space at different times of the day and year. The best parks have maintenance and programming staff members complete evaluations on a regular basis, as part of their long-term plan—some as often as once a day. Beyond looking for things that are “broken,” it focuses on how parts of the space are used over time. 

‍This Bryant Park employee walks the grounds twice each day and uses two clickers to manually count the number of men, women, and children.

With this information, managers can continue to re-invent the space and pursue more long-term improvements, such as removing physical barriers, adding a ground-floor use to the blank wall of a building, or constructing additional structures for programming or storage. When needed, additional experts, consultants, and partners can help address specific remaining challenges.

Keeping stakeholders involved can also make or break the long-term life of a project. Ensuring that the vision for the space always mirrors the goals of the community is arguably the most crucial part of the process. Adapting the management plan in accordance with changing circumstances also ensures that the space is well-loved and well-used over time.

This article is an excerpt from How to Turn a Place Around, Revised 2nd Edition, Project for Public Space's definitive guide to placemaking. The book includes checklists of what to do during each stage of the process, the relevant tools and techniques to make it happen, and much more.

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