Placemaking: Developing a Unique Identity

Last week in PAF 523 with Richard Bowers, I got the pleasure to tour the Herberger Theater Center.  Richard is the President of this non-profit theater that houses different theater companies.  One of the main purposes of the class was to discuss how public places play a key in enhancing tourism as well as creating a unique identity for an area.  Mr. Bower’s said that traditionally, and still today, there exists an artificial boundary between theater and society.  Theater is viewed for middle to high income residents; not a dimension you want present in trying to create a vibrant and inclusive community. Mr. Bower’s stressed the artificiality of this barrier, and over the past several years the Herberger has gone under several renovations to make the building more welcoming and attracting to the community and tourists.  As an example, using Italian Piazza’s as influence, the theaters patio extends very close to sidewalk, almost eliminating any barrier between the building and the sidewalk.  Secondly, there is an outside bar that anyone can use, not only people who have a ticket.  Third, the building used to be mainly windows with only three doors.  Now, most of the building is all glass doors serving as windows.  This creates more of a welcoming feel as well as a curiosity booster.  Another main point he made, and which really stuck with me, is that you do not have to accept the landscape of buildings as they are built.  Specifically, he was referring to a large wall that faces Third Street, in-between the Sheraton and the Phoenix Convention center.  Right now, approximately 17 million footsteps annually from the Sheraton to the Convention Center pass a large white wall that is the side of the Herberger.   His vision for this wall is to encourage murals and graffiti (not tagging) on the wall so the tourists and any other people walking by the building experience a giant wall filled with art, rather than a bare, uninspiring wall.

This is called placemaking, and it is part of urban design that contributes to feeling a connection or sense of place with an area.  It is a deliberate attempt for an emotional connection to be forged with an area.  One of the key points about placemaking relates to functional fixedness (i.e. the candle problem) we watched Daniel Pink describe; you do not need to accept something only for what it was traditionally used for.  I found this interesting because the innovation here does not rely on changes internal to the organization, but actively encourages community participation to enhance the design of a community building.  One of Richard’s ideas is to have a new theme each month.   For example, February would have a black history theme.  At the end of the month, the mural would be painted white again, and a new mural and graffiti would emerge. This would also continue to break down the artificial social barrier of theater with the community, as well as enhance the experience of tourists.

In addition to enhancing a feeling of inclusiveness, public art (placemaking) has other value as well. For instance, the City of Blacksburg, Virginia was going through a tagging epidemic a few years ago.  Without much of a budget for prevention, volunteers and business joined together to re-paint the tagging.  The problem was that this just gave the taggers a fresh new wall.  So the City partnered with a local art group, and came to understand that taggers are less likely to vandalize the work of muralists. With this knowledge, the City, the art group, and property owners were able to get artists to paint on the most commonly tagged walls, and the theory held.  The result has been removal of over 200 pieces of tagging and non-sense graffiti with the incorporation of 12 large pieces of graffiti and 5 life size murals into Blacksburg’s downtown.  Not only has the tagging been removed, but the sense of place undoubtedly has grown as this area now has a distinct identity.

As well as a community development strategy, placemaking is an economic development strategy, in that one of the purposes is to create appealing places for people to live, work, and recreate.  Placemaking is not limited to murals and public art, but encompasses an array of architectural, design, and urban development initiatives.  A specific example of how placemaking is used for economic development is in Michigan, where governments and nonprofits have collaborated to invest in different cities within the state, leveraging each community’s unique aspects (Detroit’s riverfront for example, and placed-based education in Flint to meet a local community need).   The main point I wanted to make with this blog is that as public managers, we will have many situations of the candle-problem, and this is one of the tools that is available for community and economic development.  We do not need to accept spaces as they come; we can encourage the community to become involved with creating engaging spaces, strengthening both the participation of the community, and the attraction people have to a place.







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2 comments on “Placemaking: Developing a Unique Identity
  1. nataliacuneo says:

    Thinking about innovation from a placemaking perspective is definitely something to look into. The fact that most people want to live in places with nice and friendly urban designs is a great source of ideas. The two cases you mentioned are really interesting. Here in Phoenix I think a similar example would be the Blight Busters program implemented by the City of Phoenix which recruits residents in order to promote how to have beautiful neighborhoods and train other Phoenix residents on how to keep Phoenix free of graffiti and blight.

  2. jmcvay3 says:

    As a city planner, I am faced with the question of place-making on a nearly daily basis. We are already seeing the importance of place-making in migration patterns. Cities that have embraced place (Portland, Austin, DC, Denver, to name a few) are experiencing a great deal of in-migration from those cities that haven’t embraced place. People are moving to these cities without jobs because they want to be there. And because of this, companies will begin to follow. We are long removed from the days in Phoenix where sunshine and affordability will be enough to be successful. We have to make this a place people want to be even if they didn’t have a job. Cities will have to realize that people are going to determine the winners and losers and that their economies are going to reflect those choices.

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