Getting ready (Steps 1-3)

Step 1: Assess public space challenges

Assessing the 10 most important places in your neighborhood

A strong placemaking process begins with an informal assessment of the public space or spaces within and around the selected project site. Start by convening a group of interested leaders and stakeholders in the broader neighborhood (or city) and, using a map of the area, list what the group thinks are the 10 or so most important places in the area. These spaces can be places you think are already successful or ones that need improvement. This initial group of participants may help you form a working group along the way (see Step 6).

You can list these spaces and/or locate them on a map. You also should list why you think these places are successful or not. Maps, plans, and photo or video documentation is extremely valuable for gaining insight into a space. Where possible, walking to and around one or more of the places helps identify certain basic needs such as seating, shade, underutilized corners, or create a safe place to cross the street.

This informal assessment will not only help you view these spaces with fresh eyes, but help you to begin to determine the challenges and issues that need to be resolved. From this list you can decide which spaces you want to undertake improving first.

Step 2: Select a site

Once you start to narrow down your site options, it is a good idea to check with your local department of planning and development to learn what is possible to do on the sites. A space may have restrictions on it that could influence your plans.

After determining the availability of a site, go to the space! While there, begin to think about the elements that contribute to the success of a place. What ingredients make an otherwise ordinary plaza, street, or square into a people magnet? When they enjoy a place, people often describe it as safe, fun, charming, or welcoming. All of these seemingly intangible descriptions represent certain basic criteria for success: a place must be accessible; have people who are engaged in activities; be comfortable and have a good image; and be a place where people choose to meet up with each other or show to visitors. Great places may not have all four of those qualities, but usually they have at least two.

When you arrive at your site, take some time to look around. Try to see your space through a new set of eyes, examining its characteristics. If you are doing this with a partner or a small group, choose one person to record everyone's comments. How do this space's characteristics compare to those described above?

Step 3: Identify key stakeholders

This step in the placemaking process is closely related to the way a project was selected in the first place. Placemaking projects are often initiated by self-selected groups of people who live, work and play in the selected site. Start by seeking to expand the initial group by identifying and contacting other key stakeholders.

Strong local partners are essential to providing background information, explaining the dynamics of the community, and identifying additional participants.

Friends and neighbors

The easiest way to begin the process is by engaging those around you. Ask your next-door neighbor what kinds of improvements he or she would like to see in the neighborhood, and invite neighbors—those you know well and others who are merely acquaintances—to local meetings. Encourage them to invite their friends and neighbors. There is strength in numbers!

Nearby stores and businesses

Local entrepreneurs can and should be pulled into the placemaking process early on. Businesses flourish when people enjoy spending time in and around them. Stores and professional offices may be enlisted to assist by participating in creative evaluation sessions, as well as providing simple tools needed to enhance the social experience in the area (providing public benches, for example).

Long-time residents

In a region where neighborhoods have changed radically over the last few generations, it will be beneficial to speak to those who have lived there the longest. Actively ask questions about the history and changes they've witnessed, and assets that have been lost over time. Elderly and disabled residents will be more enthusiastic about participating when they're included in the process from the "get-go."

Non-government organizations (NGOs)

Local and national NGOs focusing on economic development, youth and elderly outreach and activities, environmental protection, architecture, arts and culture, and economic development can make wonderful partners in the placemaking process. Nonprofits also can provide in-kind support such as meeting spaces, training facilities and additional resources during implementation.

Local community groups

Local community groups or leaders can help reach out to neighborhood councils or other community groups such as retirees' clubs, parents' associations, block clubs, or individuals with disabilities and other groups that may not be known to local NGOs. In multi-ethnic communities, it’s a good idea to involve religious and cultural organizations that represent different ethnic groups.

Local government officials and professionals

You may find you need the assistance of local government officials, the chamber of commerce, or private sector representatives in order to meet your placemaking goals. These groups may be most effectively approached after the core community collective has evaluated its spaces and agrees on the desires and potential resources needed for improvement.

Local government officials often facilitate the best placemaking opportunities. From streetscape improvements to transit station rehabs, city offices oversee many potential placemaking projects and welcome your support. When the project isn't paired with a planned capital improvement, your city officials can serve as a key contact for identifying other potential partners and leveraging additional resources. In most instances, local government officials have proven to be great supporters and constructive participants in the placemaking process.

Department of planning and development neighborhood representatives are good sources of information about the current status and history of a site. They often are the best sources for existing plans, and future development plans and other relevant materials, and can provide base maps, proposals for existing conditions, and designs developed by different architects and planners. Sometimes they can even provide access to sites that are closed to the public, such as vacant lots.

Individual experts

Professional experts such as architects, urban planners, historians, and artists are critical in assisting with the planning and implementation process and preferably should be involved from the very beginning. They can help with design, technical expertise and drawings, and ensure the historic and local specifics of a place are respected and preserved. Architecture, planning, landscaping, or transportation engineering students also could be included to assist communities with creating idea sketches and technical drawings.

Typical Challenges

  • What complaints or shortcomings do residents, the city, or local stores and building managers have regarding your neighborhood public spaces?
  • Are there empty or underused areas?
  • Do you have concerns about nearby development—a road, transit facility, or building—and are you trying to become an active and integral partner in planning for that development?
  • Is a revitalization or planning effort underway in which you wish, or are being encouraged to participate? How can you shape these efforts to provide maximum benefit to you and your community?