Monday, February 13, 2012

Everybody loves placemaking

A few weeks ago I referenced one of my favorite blogs, the Economics of Place.  Under the blog's header is this quote: "Place shapes us. Place defines us. Place is what forms our identities, our attitudes, and our relationships." I could not agree more. 

In the most recent blog, Helen Davis Johnson, co-founder of CreateHere answers some questions on placemaking. I think runners in particular have a unique interest in place. Both running and place are part of what shapes me and defines me.

Q1. What is the greatest promise of placemaking for American cities?

I believe that everyone is a fan of place whether they know it or not. Who doesn't want to live in a vibrant, safe neighborhood where they spend time with their neighbors, walk to the local coffee shop and have breakfast on Saturday morning at a local restaurant. Whether someone is cognizant of it or not, placemaking is indeed something people want.  Raising awareness of place and making people realize this is something they already get; something they already want, is huge.

When I think about all of the places my husband and I have traveled, while places like Boston, Denver and Chicago stand out, placemaking is happening everywhere. One of my favorite downtowns I've ever seen is in Rapid City, South Dakota. Random? Yes. Vibrant? Also yes.

A summer evening in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota
The running community has a unique interest in place. When you're running, you want a safe, accessible route. You want a place where you can grab a cup off coffee after a run. You want a place that attracts other runners. It's all about walkability, one of the key aspects of placemaking.

I was in Washington, D.C. a few years ago, and I ran a 12-mile route as part of my marathon training. I ran through the streets of Arlington on wide, walkable sidewalks past mixed-use developments. I veered onto the Mount Vernon trail, an 18 mile trail along the Potomac River. There were runners, walkers and bikers everywhere. I didn't even once fear for my safety. I ran around the monuments and stopped to take a picture of some World War II veterans at the World War II memorial. It remains one of my favorite runs I've ever done, and it was all about the place. And while not every city will have the same scenery as D.C., each place has its own cool attributes to celebrate. 

A dream running route - around the monuments

Q2. Is placemaking a tool for large and small cities alike, or does the practice lend itself to communities of all sizes?

In placemaking, size doesn't matter. I went to college in Morgantown, West Virginia, a small city of less than 30,000 people (although West Virginia University's student population causes that to nearly double). Morgantown is consistently considered one of the top small cities in America. Its walkable, vibrant downtown is a model for other cities not only in West Virginia, but nationwide.

High Street in Downtown Morgantown
Morgantown is a great example that your city doesn't need to have hundreds of thousands of people to create place. Places are created in cities of all sizes and even in smaller scales in neighborhoods within those cities. Place isn't driven by size but by believing in and leveraging what you've got to create the kind of place where people want to be.  

Q3. Is there one place that you hold up as a standard for effective placemaking? Perhaps something you have witnessed or worked on? Could be a region, city, neighborhood, block, etc. 

If my co-workers read this they may groan because I'm often talking about my experience when I worked for the Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia before moving to Michigan six years ago.  Norfolk is what I would consider a poster child for placemaking. This is a city that had a vacant downtown in the mid- to late-nineties, and because of the vision of city leaders, it is now hard to find a vacant storefront. 

Granby Street in Norfolk's downtown

The MacArthur Center mall anchors downtown, and the Granby Street corridor downtown is flanked by local stores, restaurants, and bars. Arts and culture abound with the Chrysler Museum of Art and the Virginia Opera right downtown. Norfolk has leveraged its naval history (it's home to the world's largest navy base) by anchoring the USS Wisconsin downtown in recently renovated Town Point Park.

Norfolk's Chrysler Museum of Art

The coup de grace is the completion of The Tide, a light rail system through downtown Norfolk that was completed earlier this year. When I worked for the Mayor, light rail was one of his top priorities. I left there in early 2006, and it was a dream that was starting to catch on. It took years of pushing, millions of dollars and a patient city leadership and constituency that understands the importance of public transit. Now it's operating, and I could not be more proud that I worked for a city that really GETS it.

It's no coincidence that my favorite places to visit are also my favorite places to run. I strongly believe that placemaking and running are intertwined. I look for races in cities where I know after I run I'll have lots of places to walk around, local spots to have lunch, and lots of things to see.  There is a pattern in the towns I've chosen to run - they all know a thing or two about placemaking.  While there are lots of assets that make up a great place, those are the same assets make great places to run.     

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