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Making Departments Talk: A Shared Language of Place in Durham

Katherine Peinhardt
Apr 27, 2018
Apr 27, 2018

Durham, North Carolina is no stranger to placemaking. Great public spaces are at the center of the City’s groundbreaking cross-departmental strategic plan, including goals to “strengthen the foundation, enhance the value, and improve the quality and sustainability of neighborhoods”. With this nuanced understanding of placemaking in mind, members of local government in Durham have focused on place as a centerpoint for equity, environmental quality, and economic opportunity for all residents. But in the process of becoming a leader in city-wide placemaking initiatives, Durham faced the all-too-common challenge of communicating across departments within a system that is designed for working in siloes. Durham’s ongoing journey toward place governance demonstrates the power of collaboration.

When the strategic plan was written, city officials tasked different municipal departments with the management of different priorities, assigning the monitoring of progress on placemaking projects to the Department of Parks and Recreation. In tracking the myriad placemaking projects taken on by different departments, it was clear to Parks and Recreation staff that each was operating with a different idea of what placemaking meant for Durham. Seeing an opportunity for improved collaboration, Jason Jones of the Department of Parks and Recreation reached out to PPS for support. Jason hoped to bring all departments to the table, and to create a platform for placemaking across the City.

During the fall of 2017, PPS facilitated a placemaking workshop with the City of Durham. To prepare for the workshop, Durham’s municipal staff took part in some “silo-busting” homework of their own. Members of City government were assigned a cross-departmental Power of 10+ team exercise, mapping assets like Eno Park and Brightleaf Square, and discussing opportunities for new placemaking projects around the city. Taking the time to look at Durham’s public spaces in multi-disciplinary teams started the conversation around fulfilling Durham’s strategy through the lens of place.

PPS staff Laura Torchio and Elka Gotfryd facilitated a 2-day workshop focused on creating a common language around placemaking. The two convened what would soon become an unprecedented training in city-wide collaboration, bringing staff from every department together to re-think an approach to Durham’s public spaces. PPS kicked off the workshop with a classic improv comedy exercise, replacing the all-too-common phrase “yes, but…” with “yes, and.” It was a seemingly simple exercise, but nonetheless one that helped move people away from a mindset of limitations, and towards shared solutions.

As it turns out, a platform for communication was just what Durham needed. Throughout the course of the training, various departments became a network, built around a shared desire to improve the health and sustainability of the City. This discussion gave way to new language around placemaking, re-framing it as a tool for the systemic health of Durham and the social capacities of its residents — the first step of bringing regenerative capacity into Durham’s strategy. Laura and Elka guided the conversation toward place governance, and how the City’s civic infrastructure could enable the ideas of regeneration and equity included in the strategy. To that end, participants took ownership over the process, with one participant posing an important question: “What if each department focused on the public space, and created our goals around the place?”  The movement toward a coordinated effort around placemaking was well under way.

Besides marking a new era for placemaking in Durham, the training also initiated PPS’ collaboration with its newest senior fellow Dr. Sally Goerner. Dr. Goerner, sitting in on the training, noted that like most cities, Durham was “well-siloed,” but that their focus on placemaking was the best way to integrate all the moving parts of city government: “Placemaking is one part of a much broader movement to systemic thinking and integration, where we’re getting whole systems working together, rather than focusing on the little parts — housing, infrastructure, transportation.” In other words, the initial communication challenges that accompanied the implementation of a city-wide strategy aren't unique to Durham. Nonetheless, Durham has pulled ahead of the pack, showing great leadership in integrated place governance.

Participants in the ground-breaking workshop in Durham created a new language of place across departments.

Based on the outcomes of the training, local government officials are in the process of redeveloping Goal 3 of the City Strategic Plan, sharpening its focus on, in the words of Jason Jones, “cohesive, diverse, and engaged communities where people have access to resources and a high quality of life… Instead of the city investing in bricks and mortar, it’s investing in processes that make us more socially cohesive.” Participants proposed ideas that would change how local government approached public spaces in Durham, from a broader, city-wide asset-mapping exercise to the creation of more participatory budgeting processes. Local government officials are working to incorporate more placemaking language into its strategic plan, as well as new objectives focused on community capacity, engagement, and long-term affordability. Two pilot projects are under consideration for putting these values into action: one will revitalize some of the City’s bus stops, particularly in low-income areas, to become social gathering places; another aims to activate under-utilized green space in front of Durham’s historic Golden Belt factory, installing public art where burlap sacks for tobacco were once produced.

There is great power in an idea, well communicated. And sometimes for an idea as big as placemaking to be communicated, a bit of silo-busting is in order. With any existing divides between departments out of the way, regenerative ideas for placemaking spread fast in Durham. All it took was starting the conversation.

Katherine Peinhardt
Katherine Peinhardt
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