The Power of Placemaking through Corporate Social Responsibility

Nov 16, 2020
Nov 16, 2020

This year has revealed public space for what it is: a fundamental and under-appreciated piece of infrastructure in our communities. For many, our parks, plazas, public markets, streets, and waterfronts have become important places to find mental refuge, safe social interactions, a lifeline for our businesses, or food and other necessities.

Yet even now, public spaces continue to suffer from an inequitable distribution of funding and support that leaves entire communities behind. As our own research has demonstrated, access to public spaces—and meaningful participation in their creation, transformation, and stewardship—can have a positive impact on people’s mental, physical, and social well-being. But too many people today have never had this opportunity.

Project for Public Spaces is shifting our organizational focus to develop corporate social responsibility partnerships that offer more communities the chance to create, transform, and sustain their public spaces.

As a national nonprofit with a long history of placemaking, we are uniquely positioned to meet the needs of this current moment. Today, we are excited to announce that Project for Public Spaces is shifting our organizational focus to develop corporate social responsibility partnerships that offer more communities the chance to create, transform, and sustain their public spaces.

While this focus is new, our approach to partnerships is time tested, bringing together a combination of grants, technical assistance, capacity building, and leadership development to fuel lasting local change.

Outside the Box was a partnership with Redbox and OCLC that brought free new programming and amenities to 27 community libraries in two years.

Why Public Spaces Need Corporate Partners

Many public spaces face a gap between what municipalities can do to design, build, operate, and maintain them, and what the community can do themselves to steward and improve these spaces. Parks and recreation departments, for example, are chronically underfunded, representing less than 2% of municipal budgets on average, and rely on private philanthropy not only for extra fundraising capacity, but for additional expertise, flexibility, and the ability to go beyond the scope of their traditional responsibilities. While Departments of Transportation, which are responsible for the largest portion of our public spaces, are better funded, they do not always see placemaking as a core part of their mission.

Meanwhile, place management organizations, like conservancies, friends groups, community land trusts, business improvement districts, and Main Street programs, do so much to maintain and program our public spaces, but often face similar constraints on funding and capacity when it comes to undertaking larger placemaking projects.

This gap is exacerbated by the ongoing history of racist policies in American cities, which in Black and brown neighborhoods has led to fewer and smaller public parks, lower investment and lower use levels in existing parks, and fewer and less well funded place management organizations. This inequity and its consequences for our long-term health have contributed to the increased mortality rate in the Black and Latinx communities in particular, and the gap in funding and capacity will likely only grow worse as government budgets shrink and revenue declines for place management organizations.

Through the Southwest Airlines Heart of the Community grants program, Project for Public Spaces worked with local partners from Burnside Park in Providence, Rhode Island, and 18 other cities, to create a community-driven placemaking vision and implement lighter, quicker, cheaper improvements that set them on the path to realize that vision.

This situation is particularly troubling because this middle ground of funding and capacity is where much of the magic happens in public space. We must increase investment in building new public spaces and maintaining existing ones, but we must also dedicate resources to stewardship—to improving our public spaces between ribbon cutting and the next major renovation.

Effective placemaking is more like raising a child than designing a product. It requires ongoing love, attention, learning, and many little investments to succeed. The gradual work of ongoing public participation, observation, and tinkering is what allows a public space to meet the needs of the people it serves and become a beloved community destination. Yet these activities are exactly what go unfunded and unsupported in most of our public spaces. Corporate partners have a unique opportunity to bridge this gap by supporting public spaces and the people who care for them at this pivotal, in-between moment in their life cycle.

Effective placemaking is more like raising a child than designing a product. It requires ongoing love, attention, learning, and many little investments to succeed.

In this moment of crisis, it is even more urgent to address the need of communities to live more of their lives safely in outdoor public spaces. As foundation leaders Dana Bourland, Sam Gill, Judilee Reed, and Chantel Rush wrote in a recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Public spaces should be at the top of philanthropy investment lists. Intentionally welcoming, spacious, and well-appointed parks, well-maintained hiking and walking trails, robustly programmed libraries and community centers, and even wider sidewalks may be among the most important investments we can make to recover.” We couldn’t agree more.

The Southeast Michigan Placemaking Pilot Initiative, our partnership with the William Davidson Foundation, offered grants to assist local organizations, like the Motown Museum pictured above, in engaging nearby residents in activating their public spaces while working towards their broader institutional goals. 

Building on our History of Corporate Partnerships 

Over the past decade, Project for Public Spaces has collaborated with several corporate social responsibility and foundation partners to fill this gap in placemaking funding and capacity. These partnerships have been some of our most impactful work, not only when it comes to transforming public spaces, but also building the capacity of the people and organizations responsible for caring for these spaces for the long haul.

What connects the partners we have worked with over the years is their patience and courage to commit to a community-driven approach to transforming public spaces. Many corporate social responsibility programs rely on a highly quantitative approach to measure their impact, in trees planted or textbooks donated, for example. But when it comes to public spaces, the best way to achieve impact can and should vary widely from place to place. While measurement is important, funders and technical partners like us have had to learn and accept that the outcome of a project may be unexpected—and still wonderful. This local eccentricity is what makes a public space more than just so many acres of grass with a collection of standard amenities on top. It's what makes a public space a place.

A worker at Republic Square in Austin, Texas, restores the park’s 500-year-old oaks as part of the Clarity Parks Project™, a partnership between Project for Public Spaces and the makers of Claritin®. This project and two others in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, have continued moving forward despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Thankfully, Project for Public Spaces has over 45 years of experience working with the complexities and uncertainties of public space. While our design, planning, and programming expertise are important, so is our experience dealing with jurisdictions, permitting, liability, and politics in over 3,500 communities. Most importantly, we are as committed as our partners to the belief that the community is the expert when it comes to public space, so any discomfort we have during the placemaking process is worth it.

We deeply respect the work of like-minded nonprofits that work at a systemic level to ensure access to parks and other public spaces for more people and places, and we see their work as complementary to our on-the-ground approach. As we have seen through our past projects like Bryant Park, Discovery Green, or Campus Martius, a single placemaking intervention can cause a ripple effect across an entire city and beyond. The people who participate in a placemaking process come away with a different way of looking at public spaces and a greater ability to make change in other places around their community. Project for Public Spaces has a unique capacity to facilitate this kind of local change at a national scale. 

We see our conferences as another opportunity for placemaking. Above, a local dance troupe performs at the closing party of the 3rd International Placemaking Week conference at Cooper’s Alley in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Our Continued Commitment to Events and Education

While our focus may be shifting, Project for Public Spaces will continue to offer our popular training courses and events, including our upcoming Walk/Bike/Places conference next summer in Indianapolis, Indiana. That’s because we believe that it’s just as important to support the essential people responsible for planning, designing, programming, and stewarding our public spaces, as it is to support public spaces themselves. We have seen how these events bring people together to build their skills, to grow professional networks, and to find a sense of belonging or have their assumptions challenged. 

With continued funding from corporate partners, our conferences and training courses also enrich the experience grantees by offering professional development, peer learning, and opportunities to share their stories that help expand the impact of the initial grant. This leadership development and capacity building has proven to be one of the most powerful long-term outcomes of our past placemaking partnerships. 

Through the Southwest Airlines Heart of the Community grants program, Project for Public Spaces helped local partners transform Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza from an empty concrete space into a hub for community events. These improvements inspired additional public investments in the plaza, like a playground, splash pad, permanent shade structures, and a large screen and stage.

A New Brand for a New Direction

In case you haven’t noticed, Project for Public Spaces has a new brand that reflects our evolving direction as an organization. We have been lucky over the past two years to work with Big Duck and Bruce Mau Design to reimagine our messaging and visual identity from top to bottom.

Project for Public Spaces logo

Perhaps most importantly, our new brand aims to put people first. For us, placemaking has never been about the stuff—new seating or umbrellas or murals. It’s about the relationships, stories, and experiences that people build up as they use and co-create a public space.

That’s why at the heart of our new brand is a fill-in-the-blank motif. In our experience, the most well-used and well-loved public spaces act as an open platform—a fill-in-the-blank—for the communities they serve. A great public space is like a thoughtful question that invites countless answers. When we work with a community, our job is to find the right question and to collaboratively bring their answers to life.

A great public space is like a thoughtful question that invites countless answers. When we work with a community, our job is to find the right question and to collaboratively bring their answers to life.

By focusing on the proven strategies of corporate partnerships, events, and education, Project for Public Spaces seeks to ensure that everyone—especially those who have been historically marginalized—have access to community-powered public spaces. 

We are actively seeking new partners to fulfill this vision, so if your company or foundation is looking for a new way to show their commitment to the well-being of the communities they care about, please contact us to learn more.

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