COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Partners in Place: Common Ground from Allies in the Placemaking Leadership Council

Annah MacKenzie
Nov 17, 2014
Dec 14, 2017
PLC tour 2

During the opening plenary of the 2nd annual meeting of the Placemaking Leadership Council (PLC) in Pittsburgh, Salin Geevarghese of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) delivered an impassioned plea: “We need places and spaces that restore human connection when there are so many factors going against these connections,” he explained. “We need a movement—one that is rooted in change not just for places, but for people as well.”

Placemaking is at its heart collective and community-centered—it offers a wealth of resources and avenues for ordinary citizens to become active agents in the shaping of their built environments. This grassroots movement is a powerful, powerful thing, particularly in a time when economic elites and organized interest groups seem to be the only folks with any real impact on U.S. government policy. One thing is certain, though, after the Pittsburgh meeting: The call for Placemaking—for healthy, safe, vibrant Places for everyone—is growing louder and louder, and it is reverberating in communities worldwide.

Since its April 2013 inaugural meeting in Detroit, Michigan, the PLC maintains its commitment to bringing together community advocates, national and international organizations, scholars, city leaders, artists, and thought leaders in order to address these issues and build a common agenda for Placemaking. With a membership base that now exceeds 700 people (and counting!), the rapid growth of the PLC mirrors trends that are happening within the Placemaking field more broadly. This year, PLC members from across the globe convened in Pittsburgh for two days to determine the best approaches for building a broad coalition around this new international social cause. Throughout the meeting, it became more and more clear to us that Placemaking is indeed a movement, and we are all at the frontlines.

In the second of two plenary sessions at the 2014 Pittsburgh meeting, panelist Tyler Norris of Kaiser Permanente pointed out the importance of becoming multilingual as Placemakers. “Whatever your North Star is,” he said, “whatever your mission, we have one common strategy—Placemaking.” Indeed, the constellation of issues united under the banner of Placemaking is vast, and the 2014 meeting was organized around nine of these core agendas:

Even though—or because—members of the PLC represent vastly different organizations and interests, Placemaking is the common strategy that is fueling even the most unlikely of collaborations and public/private partnerships. These partnerships were the focus of the second of two plenary sessions in Pittsburgh, entitled Why Placemaking Matters: Making the Case & Building a Base. Here, representatives from four vastly different organizations shared with us their pioneering programs, why Placemaking is inherent in their mission, and how they are advancing this agenda on local, regional, and national scales.


What do Southwest Airlines, the National Association of Realtors, and Kaiser Permanente have in common? What unites AARP and Main Street? Placemaking, of course. Indeed, with Placemaking at their center and despite their vastly different “North Stars,” each of these organizations has partnered with PPS to launch groundbreaking initiatives that link issues of health, housing, preservation, economic development, community building, downtown revitalization, transportation, and sustainability. Below is a highlight reel of each of these projects/partnerships:

Southwest Airlines

In April 2014, Southwest Airlines launched their first official Placemaking program, Heart of the Community. Through a multi-year partnership with PPS, this corporate grant program encourages local volunteerism and empowers communities across the country to reimagine, revitalize, and redesign their public spaces. Southwest provides grants through numerous corporate philanthropy programs—they work with the American Red Cross, for example, and support a variety of environmental and disaster relief programs—but they wanted to do something different. After speaking with employees at all different levels and in each of their national locations about social issues that they would like to see addressed, Southwest found that responses consistently revolved around a single idea: people wanted to make their own communities better places to live.

After an initial meeting with PPS, Southwest set up an informational webinar for its employees about Placemaking, which generated tremendous interest. Recognizing the vital role that public spaces play in our communities, many of Southwest’s employees immediately pledged to volunteer in their own cities on various Placemaking initiatives. That interest is echoed throughout their 90 plus passenger cities. The 2015 call for applications generated nearly 40 responses by multi-sector partners with ideas for revitalizing and reimagining the most important public spaces in their cities. Heart of the Community represents a pivotal moment in the Placemaking movement, and the program allows Southwest Airlines to work on very local scales while still advancing a national cause.


Another initiative that centralizes the importance of Placemaking is AARP’s Livable Communities program, which began in 2005 and focuses on improving the quality of life for older adults by promoting the development of safe, accessible, and vibrant communities for everyone. In order to stay healthy—physically, socially, and emotionally—people need an environment that supports mobility and promotes active living. A breadth of research shows direct correlations between our ability to age well and our connection to the community. Nonetheless, we often design our communities in ways that create barriers to maintaining this connectivity, particularly for older adults. Transportation planning has not been integrated into land use planning, for example, so we have housing that is disconnected from services or community life, streets and sidewalks that are unsafe for walking, and roads that have been built for cars not people. AARP works for policy change in housing, transportation, and land use, and it has championed “Complete Streets” at all levels of government. These are issues that affect not just the aging population, but also the entire community. Livable Communities brings all of these challenges together in a comprehensive framework and requires stakeholders that wouldn’t otherwise interact to come together to think of common solutions. It also integrates key issues that are essential to Placemaking. Indeed, “the age-friendly city” is a locus where built environment issues (housing, transportation, outdoor spaces and buildings) and social environment issues (community support and health services, communication and information, employment, and social inclusion) intersect.

National Association of Realtors

Placemaking matters to the National Association of Realtors (NAR) in some very practical ways, since vibrant communities and great places to live in inevitably leads to good business for realtors. Holly Moskerintz outlined this formula succinctly: Vibrant communities create desirable neighborhoods, desirable neighborhoods help grow real estate markets, and Placemaking helps to create these desirable neighborhoods. NAR introduced their first Placemaking Initiative in 2012 with a pilot project in Michigan, where they worked with the Michigan Association of Realtors to implement “Lighter Quicker Cheaper” strategies in a Lansing neighborhood. After the success of this project, NAR rolled out a nation-wide community outreach program, which provides technical and financial assistance to help state and local realtor associations initiate Placemaking activities in their communities in areas such as affordable housing, walkability, green building, and sustainable transportation. Along with funding Placemaking projects through micro-grants and “Smart Growth” grants, NAR has formed valuable partnerships (with PPS, Team Better Block, and Main Street, for example) and has published a range of resources, including an extensive Placemaking Guide as well as a blog and a series of webinars and presentations. The National Association of Realtors has learned that Placemaking can be undertaken by anyone in a community, but what is often needed is someone to take the lead or initiative. Who better to do this than Realtors, who are already deeply engaged in their communities, and who are likely to know where to focus efforts to improve a place most effectively.

Kaiser Permanente

As an integrated health delivery system, Kaiser Permanente (KP) has a great stake in maintaining the health of their members and in the health of the communities they serve. The bottom line as a nonprofit organization is that they do better when people are healthier. “From a healthcare perspective,” as Total Health Partnerships Vice President Tyler Norris observed, “there is nothing more important than Placemaking.” Placemaking is about a sense of belonging, and KP's research suggests there is no greater predictor of a person’s health status than having a sense of belonging. To create this, we need places that are inclusionary, welcoming, and joyful. When we have access to safe places in which to be physically active, and when we have access to healthy, fresh, local food in our communities, we are actually addressing two of the three most important things we can do for our overall health—“Eat healthier, move more, find joy.” Since the burden for treating preventable chronic disease is plaguing the physical and fiscal health of the nation, KP recognizes the need and value of investing in the thing that creates good health to begin with—place. In every visit that one of the 9.5 million members made to one of KP’s clinicians, patients are asked how many days a week they get moderate to vigorous physical exercise. “If our doctors are telling people they need to walk, run, dance, or bike but they’re not creating environments that make it safe and possible to do so,” Norris explained, “then we’re creating a demand for which there is not an adequate supply.” The health sector must lead in Placemaking, which is why Kaiser Permanente engages numerous national partnerships to help connect patients with safe, convenient, affordable community resources that support walking and physical activity.

National Main Street Center

The mission of National Main Street Center is to create better, stronger, and more vibrant places in America’s downtowns and commercial districts. In the 35 years since its establishment, the organization has provided over 2000 communities with an organizing framework that enables them to become active agents in the revitalization of their downtowns. Using the “Main Street Four Point Approach,” their Placemaking formula has four core components: (1) Organization, which ensures that there is always one person “on the ground”—a Main Street manager who is responsible for recruiting volunteers, creating partnerships, and connecting with local government; (2) Economic Restructuring, which is the heart of the program. Main Street serves some of the most distressed areas in the country, with 61 percent of the communities qualifying for the low/moderate income census tract, so bringing people and jobs back to these areas is paramount; (3) Design, which is a key part of this restructuring process, focusing on building restoration and the creation of better streetscapes and transportation structures; and (4) Promotion, which considers ways to draw people downtown. In concluding the panel discussion, Patrice Frey, National Main Street Center’s President and CEO, posed a challenge to the group: “Placemaking—for the sake of creating better environments for people—is an incredibly powerful thing,” she acknowledged, “but we need to make more explicit links between Placemaking and better economic outcomes.” This will make it easier to show policymakers why this work is worthy of their support and investment.


Partners in Place

While steering AARP’s Livable Communities program at the state level, Senior Advisor Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur has recognized that no single issue is going to “capture the day,” as she explained during her panel presentation. It may not be aging that gets Placemaking on the agenda, she admitted, it might instead be health, travel, or economic development. But, as Placemakers with a common goal, we need to be “nimble enough to jump when the opportunity presents itself (…) we need to move forward together to make the changes that make truly great places for people to live.” Here at PPS, we could not agree more, and balancing our individual commitments with this collective “nimbleness” is the very heart of the PLC.

PPS honors each of these partnerships, and we continue to be inspired by these forward-thinking individuals and organizations that are centralizing Placemaking and recognizing its potential for transforming…well, everything. As this panel so strongly affirmed, and as Kaiser Permanente’s Tyler Norris reiterated near the discussion’s close: “The [Placemaking] movement already exists. It’s happening. It’s everywhere. We’re all in this already and the real question is how do we shine a light on it, celebrate it, hold up the stories.” We were thrilled to celebrate and share so many of these stories at this year’s meeting of the PLC in Pittsburgh. It is heartening to know that despite the many institutional challenges that continue to stand in the way of so many determined Placemaking efforts, and even in the face of “all the factors that are working against [restoring] human connections,” to echo Salin Geevargheese’s opening comments, change is happening, and we are all a part of it.

Annah MacKenzie
Annah MacKenzie
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space