Learn about PPS's Three-pronged Approach to Drive Change

5 Steps to Making Places

Jan 11, 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. 

PPS uses 5 steps 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 on with ongoing evaluation of what has been done. In the end, this leads to long-term improvements for the space. Even after this point, the success of a space depends on continued observation and analysis.

Meet with the Community & Identify Stakeholders

Selecting the right stakeholders is also crucial to turning a place around. It starts with a meeting to engage community representatives from both public and private sectors to identify the range of issues that various groups face, regarding a particular place. This conversation will lead to hypotheses about issues that merit further data collection, as well as a workplan. A rule of thumb: Stakeholders should have some direct connection, as well as a vested interest in the space. This will usually include: residents; businesses adjacent to the space; and cultural, religious, or educational organizations. Another rule is that the role of government officials should be to support and implement the stakeholders’ vision. The end result is that people around the space who have a vested interest in its success not only have an active voice in the process, but also become strong and sustained partners on the project.

Then, it is important to answer a few questions, including: 1) Are locals 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 organizations that could provide long-term management services for the space?

The Place Game is used to evaluate Union Station in Denver.

Evaluate Space & Identify Issues

In this step, the focus remains on the space, with participants taking stock of how a space is used, and how it can be improved. 

The Placemaking Workshop is one of the most effective tools for using stakeholders’ knowledge, intuition, common sense, and input. The heart of this workshop is the Place Game, which PPS developed to use in evaluating a space and which can be used by anyone, ranging from children to highly trained professionals. It is fun to do: Participants get to know each other better, while gaining insight into how a space functions. The goal of the Placemaking Workshop is to get an understanding of the challenges faced by a space.

To kick off the Placemaking Workshop, it is usually most effective for a local group — a nonprofit or neighborhood association — to coordinate the logistics. Such an organizing strategy ensures community participation in greater numbers than if the event were organized by local government. Nonetheless, including local officials in the workshop is vital to the project’s success. 

Successful workshops begin with a review of the goals, followed by a trip to the space, during which the stakeholders split into groups to play the Place Game and further familiarize themselves with the site. Then, 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 for potential partners. Topical focus groups may also emerge during this process. A typical workshop usually lasts between four and six hours. Other feedback opportunities should also be provided for those who may not be able to attend in person.

This Place Vision was the result of the Placemaking Workshop for the Perth Cultural Centre in Australia.

Place Vision & Management Strategy

In this step, you’ll formulate a Place Vision, based on the issues and insights that came out of the Placemaking Workshop. Much different from an architect’s design for a site, it is a vision for the future use of the space. This document includes several parts: 

  • State your goals
  • Refine or modify the goals, based on the results of the Place Game
  • Clearly define how the space could be used and how adjacent stakeholders would be involved
  • Describe the "character" of the space (i.e. a space that is busy at all times of the day and week versus a space that is calm and restful)
  • Identify potential anchors of activity in the space (i.e. café, garden, or game area)
  • Develop a conceptual plan for the layout of activities

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 of “when” such a managing organization is formed, not having one to start with is no reason to delay action on a space.

‍More than 100 artist-designed benches were located throughout the central core of Zurich. Note the beach ball and suitcase that are a part of the bench.

Short-Term Experiments

The most important step in the Placemaking Process is implementation — putting the vision into action. Also referred to as “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper,” or LQC, there are short-term changes that can be implemented very quickly and that do not cost a lot of money.  These ideas will often come as a result of the Placemaking Workshop. The duration of these projects can vary, from a few days in the case of a street festival, to months in the case of transforming an alley into a square.

LQC can take many forms, requiring varying degrees of time, money, and effort. This range of investments can be used as an iterative means to build lasting change. 

Amenities: Moveable seating, landscaping and horticultural displays,  games like ping pong or bocce, seasonal swimming pools, temporary restrooms, innovative signage, dog parks that integrate into the other activities of the space, interactive fountains, and outposts for civic and cultural institutions like library or museum kiosks 

Programming:  Continuous seasonal markets of all types, outdoor film series, sports tournaments, concert series featuring local talent, food festivals, yoga classes, bicycle repair clinics, and ice sculpture competitions

Light Development: Cafés and stage sets built with shipping containers, sheds for retail or food vendors, beer gardens, temporary sports equipment lending kiosks, ice skating rinks, and shade structures of various sizes

Bryant Park in New York City

Ongoing Reevaluation & Long-Term Improvements

It is easy to forget that a public space project will never be finished.! Whereas “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” experiments can jump-start the placemaking process, they never truly finish the job on their own. Creating great places is an ongoing process: It is important to check in on early projects, with an ongoing evaluation of the space giving insight into how it is being used at different times of the day and year.  The best parks have 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. With this information, spaces can continue to re-invent themselves. But at the same time, more long-term decisions can be made about the space and its management. 

Keeping stakeholders involved can make or break 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 and needs also ensures that the space is well-loved and well-used over time. When needed, additional experts and consultants can be helpful in addressing specific, remaining challenges, but most important is the input of maintenance and programming staff. But, bringing in new partners and experimenting with new “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” projects can bring in the needed creativity and local know-how to tackle obstacles before outside expertise becomes necessary.

Related Articles & Resources
Learn about PPS's Three-pronged Approach to Drive Change