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Opinion: In placemaking, put design work before marketing

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Aligned with broader trends in reenvisioning cities and their social spaces, the Springfield community is leaning into the idea of placemaking to boost its civic and economic prospects. There are various uses for the term and various types of placemaking efforts, but as we’ve come to think about it locally, we could define it as using planning and design principles to create quality places where people want to live, work and play.

In practical terms, placemaking is not so easy to explain. It’s a broad term that describes a process which by definition will look and feel different in every community. Its purpose also will look a little different depending on one’s role or point of view.

To city officials, it might be about expanding the tax base with new growth. To business and economic stakeholders, it might be about talent attraction and retention. To planners, it could represent the way the pieces fit together on a map. To designers or academics, it can represent loftier aspirational goals.

As a result, the concept can get a bit diluted when it’s put into practice. At worst, it becomes more of an exercise in “placemarketing” rather than placemaking. We lose the very idea of the place if we reduce it to a marketing exercise with an eye toward financial benefit.

That’s why it’s vital for any placemaking effort to include the voices of a very important group: the residents and patrons of the community. From the standpoint of the resident, placemaking is about cultivating a sense of belonging – it’s about a feeling. How can we cultivate emotions and feelings so we can bolster our sense of place and belonging?

There are some helpful concepts to do this, and they don’t always have to do with traditional design.

The first is diversity and inclusion. Diversity should be at the center of this conversation because not everyone has the same way of gaining those feelings and a sense of belonging. We are all different, and we have different desires and needs. How can we make places that are memorable for everyone and have real meaning and connection to their lives? That’s a big challenge.

For example, if we’re painting a mural, the content of that mural becomes important. Who are we representing in the mural? Who might we be excluding?

Age is an important variable in diversity when it comes to placemaking, too. Oftentimes placemaking efforts tend to center on the downtown spaces or venues that typically cater to young adults. But children, families and retirees all want to belong, too.

This illustrates the importance of another key concept: careful listening. This may come as a dilemma for designers. Sometimes, deeper and lengthier periods of understanding about the place and its existing assets need to take place without any immediate act of design. We need to slow down this initial stage of the process, stretch the learning and listening phase, and then engage the design phase to express what has been learned.

No community has unlimited resources, and therefore design decisions must not take place in a vacuum. There is tremendous benefit in beginning with existing assets in the community, and taking advantage by harnessing current capacities and potentials of places. Striving to become catalytic, each step should be considered in terms of how it might spur other changes that community members have said they want to see or strengthen existing aspects they value.

Only after we’ve gone through these steps can we consider the aesthetics of physical design. Done well, the design of our built environment can be used to represent our spaces and places justly, rightfully and inclusively.

The idea of a perfect place for everyone is dreamy and ambitious, but why shouldn’t we aspire to the ideal of place everyone feels good in or wants to go to? That’s powerful and inspiring.

The storytelling will take care of itself from that point. Marketing is best when it has an authentic story to tell. If we get the placemaking right, then the good feelings and great stories will naturally lead to catalytic change that boost everyone’s prospects.

Sara Khorshidifard is an assistant professor of architecture at Drury University and director of Center for Community Studies. She can be reached at skhorshidifard@drury.edu.

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