COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

What Makes a Great Public Destination? Is It Possible to Build One Where You Live?

Nov 10, 2012
Jan 3, 2018
How do you create a magnetic public destination like Luxembourg Gardens? Read on! / Photo: PPS

In a recent blog post, entrepreneur-turned-VC Mark Suster wrote about the necessary ingredients for a city trying o develop a successful start-up community. His advice seemed applicable to any community that's trying to create a strong local sense of place, so we've retrofitted his recommendations to speak broadly to people who are working to transform their public spaces into magnetic destinations that are reflective of the diverse communities that surround them.


[✓] A Strong Pool of Zealous Nuts - If you're reading this, chances are you're either a zealous nut, or you have the potential to be one. You're passionate about place, about your neighborhood, your streets, your favorite park. Zealous nuts are the local leaders who have a vision of how great their community can be, and who want to get all of their neighbors involved in making it happen. They also have the tenacity and patience to stick with that vision, even when fighting an uphill battle. They understand that half of the fun of Placemaking is getting to know their neighbors through discussion, debate, and collaboration. As we've seen time and again, great Placemaking projects can almost always be traced back to one or two driven, dedicated people who are "nuts" about their community.

[✓] Place Capital - Great places generate more value for the communities in which they are located than they actually cost to create. These places draw people into the daily life of their communities, encouraging local investment--both financial (through shopping at local stores and markets) and social. Individual actions toward the improvement of and participation in public spaces are like little investments in Place Capital. If people have opportunities to take part in shaping their public spaces, they will feel more connected to their community, and will be more likely to go the extra mile to keep those spaces attractive and welcoming. This has a magnetic effect, creating a distinctive local character and turning a location into a destination.

[✓] Killer Events - Suster's explanation of the importance of events is spot-on for much more than just the tech community: events bring people together, and get them talking. This builds social capital, and does so in a way that is specifically connected to place. Great events often celebrate unique aspects of a local community, and throw them into high relief--the example of SXSW in Austin is perfect, as it highlights the creative and tech-focused community of people that already exists in Austin, and does so out in the streets. The informal and entertaining vibe puts people at ease, and strengthens the local sense of identity as people mix and mingle.

Austin's Sixth Street bustles during the SXSW festival / Photo: John Rogers via Flickr

[✓] Access to Great Advocates - Chatter about Placemaking is on the rise, but not everyone who uses the term is talking about really engaging local communities to facilitate the creation of places that truly reflect the people that they serve. To create a great public destination, it's helpful for a community to have access to advocacy organizations that really "get it," and are proactive in working with locals to help them articulate their needs and claim their place. Look at the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago, or (thinking regionally) the Michigan Municipal League. These groups are on a mission to make sure that Placemaking stays an inclusive process, rather than becoming an empty buzzword that is attached to projects that reflect top-down planning and design visions rather than local culture.

[✓] Motivated Champions - 90% of the success of a public space is in its management. For public spaces and districts with access to a large pool of resources, the involvement of a dedicated community development org or business improvement district can be extremely helpful in making sure that the buzz around a space stays strong. New York has dozens of BIDs that manage major squares and shopping districts. As downtowns around the country have surged in recent decades, groups like the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and Downtown Houston have helped to guide growth, manage important hubs of public life, and spread the word about what's going on in the heart of town.

Neighbors work together to brighten their Portland neighborhood through City Repair's Intersection Repair project / Photo: City Repair via Flickr

But your champions don't necessarily need a lot of money if they've got a lot of heart. Many spaces are managed by volunteer organizations made up of community members who help to keep a space clean, and "program" it with a steady mix of informal activity. Often times, smaller groups can build capacity over time and scale up; Portland's well-regarded City Repair started out as a group of concerned neighbors who just wanted a safer street corner, and today they've revolutionized community planning across their city!

[✓] Local Press / Websites / Organizational Tools - Great public spaces are stages for public life. In addition to major events like parades, festivals, and other public gatherings, they're perfect places for local media organizations to tap into public opinion on the key issues of the day. Public space managers, whether professional or volunteer, should work hard to build a strong relationship with local media outlets that cover what's going on in the city or region. People attract people, so the more often folks see and hear reminders of how vibrant and exciting a given place is, the more likely they are to travel out of their way to check out the action. In the long term, building strong media partnerships also creates an active local culture that gets more people off the couch.

[✓] Alumni Outreach - Here's an intriguing item on Suster's list that isn't necessarily obvious when you think generally about creating public destinations. If you live in a neighborhood with some history and are trying to turn a place around, it might be helpful to do a bit of research to learn whether there are some famous past residents who might have fond memories of that space when they were growing up in the neighborhood. Great places inspire the kind of visceral memories that spur people to action. Find out who your neighborhood's "alumni" are, and you might find some powerful allies in your effort to restore a down-at-heel site to its former glory.

[✓] Wins - "At the end of the day," writes Suster, "no amount of 'planning' can build a community that is seen as a success – it can just be a contributor." This is the idea at the heart of the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approach to public space management. You can plan and plan, but doing is absolutely essential. If you don't have the funds for a new playground, get local organizations to donate odds and ends and have kids from the neighborhood build their own temporary adventure playground. If there's a blank wall that you're not quite ready to cover with a permanent mural, host a chalk party to get up some temporary, community-sourced public art. Small wins today build momentum that can be critical to achieving bigger wins tomorrow.

[✓] Recycled Place Capital / Repeat Placemakers - When people participate in a Placemaking process and see firsthand how powerful an effect it has, both on their public spaces and on their own lives, they often get hooked! This has a spillover effect, meaning that one great public destination can wind up influencing an entire city, or even a whole region. The Power of Ten concept posits that you need at least ten things to do in a public space for it to be a lively, multi-use destination. To have a great neighborhood you, need at least ten of these public destinations. For a great city, you need at least ten great neighborhoods.

Making a great place requires lots of participation from lots of people. That creates lots of new Placemakers, and inspires a whole new group of zealous nuts. Placemaking can change the way that people think about their role within their community, and inspire them to be more intentional about investing in Place Capital not just in their own back yard, but all over town.

Photos like Jackson Square in New Orleans set the bar high / Photo: PPS

[✓] Flagship Public Spaces - Barcelona has Parc Guell, Vancouver has Granville Island, and New Orleans has Jackson Square. These iconic spaces set the bar high, and give neighborhoods in their respective cities something to shoot for. If your city has a flagship space (or, if you're very lucky, a few of them), tap into the public enthusiasm for the sense of place that exists around that location, and remind people that any site can become a beloved destination if it is responsive to the community in which it is located.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space