Placemaking is central to many of the powerful trends shaping the world today. The stumbling global economy, a vulnerable energy supply, and loss of confidence in far-flung markets are balanced by an upsurge of interest in things local: producing local food; promoting local businesses; preserving local character; protecting local open space and public places; finding meaningful ways to belong to a local community. For an in-depth examination of these trends, see "Think Global, Buy Local".
New economic theories point out that our city and regional economies may no longer function as they once did, but have been turned upside-down. This research suggests that human and creative capital applied our communities are now the catalysts of economic growth rather than mere results of that growth.
According to Soji Adelaja, Director of the Land Policy Institute (LPI) at Michigan State University, keeping and attracting people is the most important strategy in this new economic landscape. Services, which are inherently local and include everything from doctors’ visits to construction projects, now account for a larger share of the economy than goods. A Land Policy Institute study shows that half of total economic losses stemming from drops in population are caused by a loss of service jobs and income. That means when people move they take a piece of the economy with them.1
This represents a vast change that cities, towns and regions need to recognize. In the past, a vital local economy was based on attracting large companies by offering inexpensive locations and a cheap labor force. The qualities of a particular place mattered little, and people migrated to where the jobs were. Moreover, much of that economic growth was based on cheap oil, which encouraged people’s work, homes and shopping destinations to be spread far apart. That’s all changed, and now communities with lively destinations that are easily reached by walking and transit gain distinct advantages (for more on transit, see "A Smart Investment in Our Future".
We are seeing the emergence of Quality of Life as a key economic driver - factors ranging from good health care facilities to cultural institutions, vibrant public spaces to nature recreation opportunities – all crucial in attracting a skilled labor force and desirable employers. Our article, "Placemaking Pays Off," focuses on two recent success stories in Detroit and Houston that detail how this can work.
In a sense, Adelaja and other researchers, from German sociologist Gerhard Schulze’s (The Experience Society) to University of Toronto business professor Richard Florida ( The Creative Class), follow a long tradition, which included Jane Jacobs, in defending vibrant city and town centers as the single most efficient conveyor of ideas and innovation.2
As Richard Florida states in his new book, Who’s Your City?, “Despite all the hype over globalization and the ‘flat world,’ place is actually more important to the global economy than ever before.”3 It has been widely assumed that the internet and globalization have leveled everything into a flat condition where location no longer matters. Florida counters that the world is actually “spikey”, with the highest spikes being creative cities that attract a larger and larger share of economic advantages. The valleys, meanwhile, are regions that have languished for years and cannot nurture or attract the innovative businesses and workers to improve their situation. In fact, according to Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School, “the more things are mobile, the more decisive location becomes.”
How to Succeed in Today's Business Climate
Adelaja notes that regions that will prosper are those with strategies that make the most of their assets. His definition of Placemaking is “the use of strategic assets, talent attractors and sustainable growth levers to create attractive and sustainable high energy, high amenity, high impact, high income communities that can succeed in the New Economy.”5
Cities and regions that thrive in the 21st Century will be differentiated by their lively neighborhoods and business districts, cultural and recreational attractions, great sense of place, protected natural areas, and deep pride in local character, products and foods. They will achieve this through and open collaborative process with their citizens.
In a down economy, it is tempting to cut back on these planning ideas, thinking that they are frivolous. But disregarding these principles in the name of saving money can create a downward spiral that causes a local economy to lose its competitive edge.
In recent years, during which PPS’ work has been put in the context of experts on the New Economy, many people have forgotten that the best Placemaking occurs on a rootsy and incremental basis, with the hard work of local people and the pooling of resources. PPS seeks to create a climate where community-initiated plans are fundamental to the agencies responsible for implementing millions of dollars of improvements every year, and where a positive working relationship is developed between these agencies and the people they serve. Therefore, our goal is to empower citizens, elected officials, communities and professionals to use Placemaking in their planning, design, and operation of public streets and transit facilities.
Whatever economic restructuring may be in our near future, it is likely to only strengthen people’s interest in valuing the local assets and places that are precious to them. We may soon look back on the land-gobbling development craze of the last two decades as an embarrassing excess. And in this new reality, we could do well by revisiting some old principles:
When resources are tight, we must be clear about our priorities. That means drawing upon the wisdom of the community as a whole to set those goals, making the most of your best assets and developing partnerships to get things done. This is how you can ensure that your community will thrive even in these uncertain times.
1. Soji Adelaja, Ph.D., Regional Placemaking for Prosperity in the New Economy.
3. Florida, Richard. Who's Your City? New York: Basic Books, 2008. Page 12.
4. Michael Porter, quoted in Business Week, "Q&A with Michael Porter." August 21, 2006.