Placemaking for Sustaining Communities

Placemaking for Sustaining Communities


Customarily when we think about cities we imagine concrete structures and pavement, hard spaces, crowds and congestion. But when we experience a city, something else happens — a city becomes imbued not only with its physical characteristics, but with humanity. This especially happens when we experience a city that is made up of “places.” We all know when we’ve arrived at a distinctive “place” — it feels somewhat unfamiliar, yet comfortable and safe. There are places to sit, buildings to admire and green space to watch people walking by, people that don’t all look alike but are varied in age, gender, appearance and ethnicity.

When we immerse ourselves in a place we realize that a city is a living entity — one with a past, an emotional history, filled with positive memories and also with baggage. Urban activist Jane Jacobs called this the living city. And just like us, a place is constantly evolving, building on itself and reaching toward its dreams and aspirations.

Intentionality Behind Placemaking

But the best places don’t simply happen. They also need guidance to help in their transformation and evolution. This is the foundational premise of placemaking, that those who occupy cities – by living, working or using these spaces – are both the consumers and the creators of place… the integral agents of placemaking. We have the choice of active place stewardship toward self-realization or of passively watching a place’s demise. According to the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking is “a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value.”

Applied theories developed by William H. Whyte and Jane Jacobs in the 1960’s ground the placemaking movement. At the time, cities were undergoing transformational change with the dominance of the personal vehicle, large infrastructure projects like freeways, massive redevelopment and shopping centers. These radical changes awoke a sense of awareness of place, emphasizing the intimate connection between place and people and how spaces could be activated and collaboratively created by their communities.

The discipline of “placemaking” is inherently proactive. It takes a bottom up, participatory approach to creating place by being respectful of the unique qualities of place (both good and bad), cognizant of local heritage and history, local community and existing built form to draw inspiration. Traditional “destination branding,” also referred to as “place marketing” or “placebranding,” however, takes a reactive approach. It attempts to appeal to consumers by identifying and replicating trends as mechanisms for selling place. In order for a place to be successful, however, both placemaking principles and responsible placebranding practices need to function in harmony with each other.

Ultimately, they are two sides of the same coin. Placemaking functions in the domain of creating a place that is authentic but also aspirational. Placebranding crafts a narrative around image and representation of place. If we use ourselves as a parallel, placemaking represents our true selves – the good, the bad and the intangible – while our social persona, on social media or otherwise, represents placebranding which can be either an aspirational yet true depiction of ourselves or a manufactured illusion.

The Branding of Place

In recent years, destination branding and city marketing efforts have become instrumental in attracting local investment to cities. Within the US, travel and tourism generated nearly $3 trillion US dollars to GDP in 2019. It’s no surprise that many cities want their piece of the tourism pie. Creating desirable places has material implications for local economies: people want to visit a place, quality of life increases, investment becomes more attractive, companies are incentivized to relocate, talent starts arriving, and so forth.

According to the World Tourism Organization, place branding refers to “how a place (city, region or country) self-presents on the national or international stage in different areas such as business, diplomacy, culture or tourism. This underpins its efforts to attract investors, businesses, tourists and students, as well as to enhance its reputation as a good place to live, to trust in international relations and to do business and trade with.”

Although the foundational premises of branding focus on identifying the most competitively appealing assets from the perspective of consumers, or in this case, occupiers of space, we instead see the rise of monotonous cities that are becoming less and less distinct. In New York Magazine’s article titled The Unbearable Sameness of Cities, Oriana Schwindt describes how cities competing on the global stage are becoming more and more alike precisely because they try to replicate other successful cities. Schwindt explains how everything from coffee shops, bars, restaurants and new housing developments across multiple cities look and feel the same. Invariably all cities seem to have “the Asian-fusion restaurant that is either owned by one of the Vietnamese families who came to America after the Vietnam War, and therefore reasonably authentic, or promises sushi made by someone who just really loves Japanese culture, man. The American bistro or brasserie whose innards can invariably be described as “steampunk by way of West Elm.” The brunch place that plies you with the same mimosas and pickle-tinged Bloody Marys, with the same menu of dressed-up, oversauced leftovers of every brunch place. Eggs-whatever. Bourbon bacon. Avocado everywhere. Truffle fries? De rigeur.”

The publication titled Differences Between Place Branding and Destination Branding for Local Brand Strategy Development, also describes this copycat behavior and the resulting monotony across cities. For example, two cities in Missouri, Siketon and Webb City, as well as Davison, Michigan have all branded themselves as the “City of Flags.” American and European cities are also guilty of climbing aboard the bandwagon where many endeavor to introduce a simulacrum of the Silicon Valley “brand” as tech-forward, innovative destinations, as well as in other places in the US, e.g. Silicon Beach, Silicon Alley, etc. Cities spanning across The Netherlands, Scotland and Germany have undergone city branding efforts using terms such as Silicon Glen, Dommel Valley and Language Valley. The result is an aggregation of places that are actually devoid of place. But are cities just responding to the demand placed on them by potential residents and prominent businesses? Are cities just trying to represent themselves in a way that we are demanding for a fear of losing out? In recent years, the pressure to attract both “desirable” residents and prominent business has become increasingly more competitive, with cities becoming more willing to “sell their soul” in exchange for global visibility and fiscal investment.

Challenges of Placemaking and Placebranding

The RFP bidding process cities underwent to “win” Amazon HQ2 a couple years ago stands as a soul-crushing example of the willingness to sacrifice place in pursuit of landing a jackpot of new jobs. No fewer than 238 locations across North America courted Amazon, including some grand gestures ranging from Tucson’s 21 foot cactus gift for Jeff Beszos to Fresno’s extravagant offer to divert all taxes paid by Amazon employees into a fund controlled by a panel of city reps and the company to spend on projects of their choice. These proposed arrangements set new precedents in corporate and city relationship norms. These dynamics bring new questions into the spotlight — who are the new “players” involved in “city-making,” for whom are we creating cities (residents and shareholders, among others) and how much control is each player-resident granted?

Although placemaking originated through grassroots participation in the active creation of place, current placemaking carries its own complexities and challenges. The built form and physical space have direct impacts on livability and social and economic indicators. A recent article, Pittsburgh: A ‘Most Livable’ City, but Not for Black Women, points out that although some cities might outwardly appear as though they are thriving, a more granular look paints another reality. For white men and women, Pittsburgh scores well in standards of livability, but for black men and especially black women and girls, stark hard statistics reveal a Pittsburgh that is shockingly unequal in terms of health, income, employment and education. This is not a trend that is unique to Pittsburgh. Although homelessness is in decline across the United States, it is “soaring in its most prosperous cities.” (The Economist, 2019) In the increasingly affluent city of Los Angeles, homelessness continues to skyrocket to 59,000 people, a staggering 12 per cent increase from the year prior.

This is where we see the disciplines of placebranding and placemaking collide. The outward image departs from the experienced reality of place (or only reveals a place accessible to the privileged few). Those not “desirable” to represent remain invisible in our city narratives. Issues of inequality and gender discrimination have given way to an evolution of placemaking that draws attention to those who don’t normally have a voice in the making of place. Transformative Placemaking is one discipline that is taking a role in shifting the attention and developing frameworks to create connected, vibrant and inclusive communities.

So what actually creates a place that offers greatness to all? According to Project for Public Spaces, a great place is comprised of four key components:

  1. They are accessible and well connected to other important places in the area.
  2. They are comfortable and project a good image.
  3. They attract people to participate in activities there.
  4. They are sociable environments in which people want to gather and visit again and again.

We can expand this definition by taking lessons from Transformative Placemaking. This approach considers the principles of placemaking but intentionally extends it beyond “high-amenity, highly resourced areas [into those] that have long been overlooked and undervalued by both the private and public sector.” Transformative Placemaking isn’t limited to the geographic scale of the block or a specific public space, rather it looks at subareas of cities that have challenges benefitting from adjacent areas that are rich in resources. Only after investigating, acknowledging and addressing connectivity and place-based challenges can they be ameliorated in a strategically holistic way.

Preservation of Community

Placemaking creates a space through those who live, work and use it as both the consumers and creators of place. Placebranding forms the external presentation of that space. Placekeeping then preserves that place and continues to build a culture of community . The concept of placekeeping is slightly more philosophical, in the sense that it plays off of the meta-identity of a space that has previously undertaken placemaking. Once a city has created an identity over the course of the process of placemaking, it has created something that must be protected, cherished and nurtured. This protection becomes encoded and enshrined in the continuous development of a culture around a place.

Placekeeping is not a passive experience, but rather the active development of a culture that leads to a collective sense of community. Placekeeping is similar to waves washing over a beach, bringing continuous refreshment, bits of sand and shell and other flotsam and jetsam that continuously shape the texture of the beach while maintaining its overall structure. Placekeeping is the gradual accretion of experience, norms, history and tradition that builds up in a space that has been placemade.

Once the space has been subjected to placemaking, the community must define and implement the parameters of placekeeping. For example, what tolerance does the community collectively have for divergence from the original place-made concept? How radically can/should a place shift depending on changes such as economy, demographic, physical changes like construction, etc.?

Ecosystem of Place Creation

Understanding placemaking, placebranding and placekeeping requires thinking of cities as complex, dynamic, ever-evolving ecosystems that can be both created and consumed simultaneously. At BrandCulture, we realize that although we would like to represent places in their best light, we also have a responsibility to capture their realities and acknowledge these “broken” parts also make them real and unique, providing a point of departure for improvement.

At BrandCulture, we believe branding should begin from the inside out. We don’t limit branding to communications and visual design. Similarly to the approach we take with organizations, we believe strong brands are built around a Singular Idea that galvanizes employees around a broader Shared Purpose, that gives them a reason to come to work, as well as consumers a reason to buy. Strong places must also be centered around a focused identity that is core to its unique and credible characteristics. Great brands and great places make tough choices. A large part of determining a strong, distinctive Shared Purpose is determining what it is not. Neither brands nor places can be everything to everyone.

Through the years we have seen the discipline of branding evolve from brand as image, to brand as experience and now through to brand as culture. When we apply the premise of culture to placemaking we gain a multi-dimensional framework to think through all the facets that create “identity.” Our Culture Framework facilitates this discussion and acts as both an analytical and creative tool that accounts for the various facets that are intrinsically tied to creating strong cultures – leadership, symbolism, environment, structure & process, recognition and also communications.

For leadership, cities need direction not only from traditional leaders like city officials but also leadership from the community to take an active role in co-creating the vision for place. To keep places activated and alive they need both a bottom-up and top-down approach that recognizes placemaking as an iterative process that is in constant flux and evolution and needs economic and emotional investment to flourish.

Symbolism is the result of the history and heritage of a location, the intangible assets that are associated with a place, as well as the memories that those who inhabit the space hold with them. Symbolism is a powerful aspect when it comes to cities, although it is the most ethereal of the facets that we consider. One example is the importance of private historical architectural structures that are maintained through decades or even centuries, and then given over to public use and study. A symbol could also be a totem as grandiose as a large bronze statue in a public square, or a memento as quiet as a name engraved on a park bench.

Environment includes everything that is the built form and therefore is the physical environment of space – the streets, sidewalks, buildings, infrastructure and public spaces. Concepts like biophilia — the innate urge that humans possess to seek connection with nature – enter here. Places like Serenbe, a planned community outside Atlanta built around the principles of biophilia lead this different approach to placemaking, implanting a close relationship with nature in every design precept. Environment also includes celebration of place, such as festivals, markets, mobility options, even public seating which have a significant impact on how one experiences a place.

Structure & process include how a place is programmed. Structure and processes in a community reference the dynamics of governance, the interrelationship and efficacy between various governing groups, etc. All cities have a complex patchwork of these placemaking relationships, with intersecting bodies such as the city government, state government, chamber of commerce, convention bureau, economic development corporation, historic sites, etc. all negotiating for influence. Structure and process also includes broader technology and systems improvement initiatives like Smart Cities.

Rewards and recognition allotted to places are an important facet. An annual chamber of commerce awards ceremony, or simply the act of electing a mayor signify the belief that an individual has made – or embodies the hope that he or she will make – a difference in the place. Other community rewards are titles such as “Best City For ___,” reflecting broader recognition for the excellence of a place in a tourism, commercial or professional capacity.
Communications must encompass all the previous facets to depict both the current reality and the aspirational vision of place – this includes representing all those who inhabit place, with a role in its creation. Communications must always be two-way, not one-way, and frequent as well as aspirational. Through communication, the essence of place branding and identity truly comes alive in helping to engage constituents and give voice to the ideas.

By integrating these 6 facets into the making and branding of place takes a holistic approach that can capture place in its essential yet dynamic form. And in developing them, everybody matters. As Jane Jacobs put it, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”


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