This article is an update to our previous profile of Southeast Michigan Placemaking Pilot Initiative grantees.
The placemaking movement is spreading in Detroit — building on projects like Campus Martius and Eastern Market and now reaching into new neighborhoods across the metropolitan area. Through the Southeast Michigan Placemaking Pilot Initiative grant supported by the William Davidson Foundation, community organizations in metropolitan Detroit have kicked off placemaking projects to drive forward their institutional values and goals. Aimed at empowering “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” public space activations, the Southeast Michigan Placemaking Pilot Initiative grant provides funding to four grantees, paired with technical assistance from Project for Public Spaces. This year’s grantees represented a wide range of mission-driven organizations: University of Michigan Hillel, Pewabic Pottery, the Motown Museum, and Repair the World.
PPS recently re-convened with grantees to share success stories and discuss challenges and opportunities in using placemaking to support their respective missions. Each grantee was able to share best practices around transforming their spaces, showing how community members took part in co-creating exciting new places to gather.
The work of these organizations shows that, with the right partnership, every organization can cultivate great places. By partnering with PPS, the grantees turned their small, shared spaces into valuable community destinations. United in their desire to bring their courtyards and backyards to life, the placemaking process led grantees to incorporate the value of cultivating a sense of place, and of being a hub for locals and visitors into their missions.
In the words of Director of Advancement Stacy Carroll, University of Michigan Hillel’s mission is to “cultivate community, engage Jewish students with Hillel and each other, and enhance campus culture.” In that spirit, University of Michigan Hillel has long provided a space for students and locals to hang out, enjoy Shabbat dinner, or study. Looking to extend activities beyond their walls and into their front and backyards, Hillel partnered with PPS to gather student feedback and envision a new and improved outdoor space.
With the help of Executive Director Tilly Shames and Director of Operations Diane Redman, University of Michigan Hillel implemented the vision of the students, installing new amphitheater-style seating, charging stations, lighting, tables and modular seating, hammocks, and outdoor heaters. By leveraging a separate grant for security, Hillel also added new fencing and stamped concrete to their outdoor spaces. Together, these quick improvements started to fulfill the new uses that students wanted for the space: holiday attractions, events centered on food, outdoor games, and study space. Now, according to Carroll, students “are using it exactly the way that we wanted them to,” taking part in special events like outdoor Shabbat dinners and kiddush, while consistently using the outdoor areas of Hillel on an everyday basis.
From the start, staff and volunteers at Repair the World knew that their under-used backyard area was a huge placemaking opportunity. The gazebo in the backyard was once used for weddings, quinceañeras, and dance recitals — a sign that the space could once again be an asset to its community. A new vision for the space could strengthen and drive the mission of Repair the World, which is to “make meaningful service a defining element of American Jewish life,” while addressing the lack of accessible collaborative workspaces in the surrounding Mexicantown neighborhood.
Repair the World staff, including Executive Director Sarah Allyn and Workshop Coordinator Leila Ballard, hoped to use the backyard as a way to reach more people with their volunteer work, especially around food and education justice, and forge a stronger relationship with the community. After hosting multiple community outreach events, and sending staff members to meetings hosted by other neighborhood organizations, Repair the World gathered that the backyard could become “a safe, inclusive, and welcoming space for neighbors and members of the community to gather, work, play, and relax.”
A clean-up of the perimeter of the space, which staff members named Plaza Aztlán, paired with new seating and programming, has already begun to transform it into a multi-use destination. Early events like holiday parties and theater performances have activated the space in recent months, providing moments to experiment with programming in the space. As a result, neighbors have begun to see it as an exciting new space open for their use, with people eating lunch, working, and hosting events like children’s birthday parties in the gazebo area.
Already a National Historic Landmark with more than 50,000 annual visitors, Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery nonetheless saw an opportunity to re-think their campus courtyard as a community-driven space. Steve McBride, Executive Director at Pewabic Pottery, noted that Pewabic Pottery’s “goal is to be a destination… [because] there’s really no gathering space on the East side.” Taking a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approach with the help of Project for Public Spaces, staff constructed a pergola, brought out sculptures and art, used repurposed materials to decorate their courtyard, and added hand-crafted Pewabic tiles to a new fountain for the space—exciting new features that have turned the area into a “kid magnet.”
As a result of the placemaking process, McBride mentioned that Pewabic Pottery has “reset our entire organization’s perspective around what we want to achieve. Placemaking is now at the center...” Going beyond a space only used for kilns, the courtyard now provides a much-needed community space on the East Jefferson Corridor. Looking to the future, Pewabic Pottery is re-thinking the design of its entire campus, with the new and improved courtyard at the heart of it all.
Detroit’s Motown Museum, also called Hitsville U.S.A., is already a historic destination. The museum attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year, but a grassy lot in the center of the museum site laid dormant most of the time — a missed opportunity for visitors to relax and enjoy the music to which the museum is dedicated. So when Motown Museum staff, like Chief Operating Officer Sara Azu and Director of Development and Community Activation Paul Barker started the placemaking process, they “envisioned being able to engage the visitors and the community and be an extension of the museum.”
After meeting with nearby business owners, local musicians, and neighbors, Motown Museum staff envisioned the space as a reflection of the community’s love for music. Since re-thinking the area, new seating has been installed and frequent programming like guitar lessons and dances bring the indoor museum experience outside. And that rich new programming has paved the way for the types of impromptu and informal interactions that characterize truly great places: Azu noted that “I can’t begin to tell you how often people come with drums or a speaker.” These types of jam sessions bring the museum experience to life, a testament to the value of creating places for gathering and celebration.
Placemaking isn’t only for downtown areas: With the right partners, sustained placemaking activities can transform any neighborhood. The work of these metropolitan Detroit organizations show how placemaking can help mission-driven organizations to reach more people every day.