Placemaking: Provenance and Prospects

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 24, No 2 (Summer 2013)

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, FAICP

Every decade or two, the professions of architecture and city planning are captivated by a movement with a particularly catchy name. Currently, the popular term is placemaking — a fairly loose term that is running neck and neck with “sustainability.” Within the design professions, this movement — really more a philosophy — suggests that people’s lives can be made better by intentionally designing interior and exterior spaces to embrace a wide range of users, provide for safety, and create artful expressions that endure over time.

Many wonderful places in communities have evolved over many years, sometimes hundreds of years, to become richly layered and adaptive to lots of different uses. Classic examples come immediately to mind such as Place des Vosges in Paris, Covent Garden in London, Greenwich Village in New York, or the old quarter in Kyoto. The current notion is that attributes associated with these slowly evolving places can be captured and replicated in newly designed places. The idea is to learn from what has made successful, lively places and apply those lessons to new or reinvigorated locations.

The purpose of this article is not to debate this premise but to explain that this struggle for authenticity and idealism in the design professions has been around for quite some time. It is not new, but merely has been repackaged into language that can attract attention from clients, funders, decision makers, and the general public. There is nothing wrong with the term, per se; indeed, it can be useful to distinguish deliberate actions from random ones. But it does represent a long history of addressing similar issues.

Unfortunately, though we may wish it otherwise, terminology like placemaking comes and goes with fashion and failed efforts. Eventually, some other term takes its place in the consciousness of designers and academics. Accordingly, it is useful to know that while the precise term can change over time, the basic premise is sound. In fact, we have come to understand how we can apply science and observation to what had previously been more of an intuitive process.

The Roots of Placemaking: The 1800s

Between the late 1700s and the early 1900s, many countries experienced sweeping revolutions that eliminated a privileged class from having primary access to places of beauty and respite. It is worth noting that some of the delightful gardens and parks we now enjoy elsewhere in the world once were the exclusive preserves of monarchs or nobility and that ordinary people were barred from experiencing them. Revolutionary change replaced that long-standing social construct with the idea that there is a collective, shared public realm that all people should be able to enjoy, regardless of wealth, education, or power. Ironically, it is often the case that places that are now highly revered as parts of this public realm were originally conceived and executed through the most extreme despotic or autocratic means. In the United States, the Boston Commons and later Central Park had a stunning effect in that they were places not just for wealthy property owners but for the general public — places where people could enjoy themselves without fear of being labeled as malingerers. However, it is not mere coincidence that the idea of Central Park gained traction during an era of massive immigration from Europe. The city swelled in size and people were packed into tenements and flophouses, with only the streets and saloons as relief from the crowding.

Reform movements decried the conditions of the working classes and called for better housing, sanitation, child labor restrictions — some of which were not addressed by laws or pubic investment for decades. But Central Park was seen as one way of providing “lungs” for the increasingly dense city. To have set aside such a large part of a major city purely for public open space rather than for real estate was a remarkable story in itself. Its designer, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, saw himself as a social reformer.

These efforts at the national level were echoed at the local level, as cities and towns realized that they needed to provide for greenbelts, parks, and public spaces for their citizenry. Olmsted was commissioned to design parks and parkways for cities in many states east of the Mississippi River. These were formative years of community building as American cities were maturing and organizing themselves to respond to rapid immigration, industrialization, and urbanization. Parks and public spaces were viewed — like schools — as agents of democratization and public health and even as necessary to reduce crime and overcrowding.

Recognized as one of the most significant turning points in American city planning, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago ushered in a multi-decade era of grand public works — parks, city halls, civic centers, and boulevards — in cities all over the country. The fair, featuring the White City, inspired the City Beautiful movement, which placed values of orderly and distinctive buildings, grand public spaces, and aesthetic principles of symmetry, formality, and axial organization alongside those of sanitation and transportation. The grounds were planned through a collaboration of Olmsted in his waning years and nationally prominent architect Daniel Burnham.

The Olmsted brothers carried their father’s ardent and activist role into the early decades of the twentieth century by designing small versions of Central Park in scores of communities from coast to coast. Many cities continue to refer to their “Olmsted Plans” even today, leaving a lasting legacy in shaping the American townscape. By the time the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, the notion of public spaces was firmly set in the minds and actions of civic leaders in cities and towns of all sizes. Main streets often were marked by verdant town squares and monumental public structures.

Influenced by these early efforts at making better communities, the professions of architecture and landscape architecture combined forces with a growing cadre of public health professionals to create the City Planning movement. They lobbied for legislation outlawing tenements and providing for public sanitation and safe working conditions. Eventually they pressed for zoning that separated noxious industries from places where people lived. Court decisions upholding such laws led to the widespread passage of state enabling acts and model zoning laws, and the notion of neighborhoods built around streetcar stops and schools took hold. Many of the urban neighborhoods and small town city centers that we revere today were built in that era. And these are often the same ones now identified for revitalization after having fallen into disrepair and disinvestment in the second half of the twentieth century.

Often today we find ourselves rediscovering the delights of what was planned a hundred years ago. Fortunately, most of these places have great “bones” and were built with durable, long-lasting methods and materials. In recent years, the American Planning Association has conferred the title of Great Neighborhoods or Great Streets on places that were developed during the three decades between 1890 and 1920. So many great places were built, including parks, squares, greens, main streets, city halls, and places of worship, that they have all become aspects of attracting people back into the inner parts of cities and towns. What we now view as placemaking has deep roots in efforts stretching back more than a century. In fact, we have had to rediscover many of the principles that were in widespread use back then but were all but abandoned in the post–World War II era.

Manifestos and Movements: 1900–1930

The first two decades of the twentieth century brought a new populist thread to American society. After abuses of the railroads and industrial scandals, some people found encouragement in the Russian Revolution as a means, albeit radical, to redistribute wealth and promote a more egalitarian economy. Experimental communities were formed to try out a more collective, self-sufficient, and shared social structure. Apart from the short-lived Progressive Party, which Theodore Roosevelt formed in 1912 after a split in the Republican Party, other political movements did not gain widespread support. Roosevelt continued the effort to create national parks by establishing the National Parks Service. In 1906, he also persuaded Congress to pass the Antiquities Act, which preserved national monuments and laid the foundation for the preservation movement sixty years later. Respecting and retaining heritage and cultural resources have become very important components of making good places. This includes the recognition that places are not just instant creations but evolve over time.

This era of profound social experimentation and sweeping societal changes gave rise to an international effort by the design community to rethink the precepts of previous generations of designers who had relied upon classical rules of thumb, proportions, materials, and details. Until the 1920s, when art nouveau and art deco began to take hold, architecture had been governed by centuries-old principles based on Greek and Roman traditions. Despite changes in building technology, structures were wrapped to resemble older forms of architecture. Symmetry, formality, and other features of classical style ruled everything from buildings to bridges, parks to public squares. Even the City Beautiful movement espoused classical forms. Only a few architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan pursued their own unique directions.

In the late 1920s, the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) was established to advance the expression of contemporary building technology through architecture and city planning. No longer were buildings and spaces made of masonry and stone; new materials such as concrete, steel, and plate glass offered different expressions. This group was so convinced of its superior methods that it naively believed people could be made better by wiping out the old and replacing it with clean, modern, spartan structures and spaces. It was all about machine-like efficiency. One influential book compared cities with machines — their movement, economy, efficiency, and order.

Despite CIAM’s now easy-to-dismiss naïveté (and the fact that the organization only lasted thirty years), its influence was widespread and enduring. The desire for clean austerity was translated by the real estate development sector into repetitive boxes that stamped a relentless uniformity across the landscape. In this view, the unique qualities of a place are eradicated. And that trend was precisely what began to sweep across North America after it emerged from the Great Depression and World War II.

At the same time, the city planning and public works professions were advancing their own precepts — the former with zoning regulations, the latter with manuals prescribing every detail of streets, roads, and utilities. The Depression and World War II delayed the implementation of many of these principles, but in the fifties they took firm hold. One of the few silver linings of the Depression is that these standards were not immediately carried out, but were interrupted by other voices and events that gave us a better understanding of what distinct places meant.

Once they were set in motion, however, the combination of CIAM precepts, zoning laws that called for separation of uses, and street standards calling for wide roadways and narrow sidewalks virtually stifled any ability to create unique and intimate spaces in communities for decades. Buildings were set back from streets as a result of the CIAM notion of “towers in a park.” Zoning required discrete districts of singular uses — industrial, commercial, residential, institutional. Streets were widened and became separators rather than conduits of various modes of travel. Communities and neighborhoods were almost intentionally made not to work as true “places” but merely as agglomerations of containers and corridors. Finally, standards promulgated by several professional organizations all but ensured desolate urban landscapes by prescribing parking requirements that resulted in at least 30 percent of the land (not counting streets) being paved.

Dealing with the Depression: The 1930s

President Franklin Roosevelt’s sweeping New Deal initiative to put millions of unemployed people back to work during the Great Depression created a remarkable new attitude toward the value of public places. Under the Works Progress Administration, hundreds of schools city halls, civic auditoriums, plazas, and parks were built in cities both large and small. These were essentially handcrafted buildings that were intentionally labor intensive and involved the incorporation of artfully executed details and finishes. So well constructed were these places that many exist today and are designated as historic landmarks. In some cases, public agencies have taken great pains to preserve or restore paintings, murals, reliefs, inlays, and other works completed by artists. The extraordinary efforts of those citizens have become embodied in our national mythology. When Americans refer to special places within their communities, it is often the work accomplished during this period that is highlighted.

While it has been argued that it was America’s entry into World War II, rather than federally funded public works projects, that ended the Depression, the legacy left by the WPA is tangible and highly valued. It continues to serve as a demonstration of what deliberate and thoughtful investments by the public sector can achieve. Indeed, among the important lessons for placemaking are that great places have the handprints of many people, they are “owned” in common and accessible to all, and they tend to be places where public improvements have played a key role.

The WPA also advanced the idea that public works should be built to last. Private investment can wax and wane, but wise public investment lasts for generations. Unfortunately, the war effort blunted what could have been a long-standing tradition. Instead, the postwar years gave way to attitudes toward public buildings and public spaces that were dismissive, austere, and shortsighted. Only recently have we rediscovered the important role of parks, civic buildings, and public spaces in creating places that people value and enjoy.

Reconstruction and Renewal: 1945–1970s

Many European and Japanese cities that had been ravaged during World War II benefited from a massive infusion of money, including plans for economic recovery with programs like the Marshall Plan. Whole sections of cities were transformed. Rotterdam, heavily bombed as a port city, was almost completely re-created into a modern metropolis. Berlin, Brussels, Dresden, and others became locations where “modern” principles of city planning could be applied over large geographic areas.

The pattern of building residential towers within parklike settings with gridded streets was repeated in dozens of cities. Areas that were deeply rooted in history and local culture were obliterated and replaced by repetitive blocks and buildings. The resulting urban landscape was perhaps more orderly and efficient, but many cities quickly began to resemble one another with the same forms. Despite what were surely well-intended attempts to create communities, most of these places were soulless enclaves to which people felt little attachment.

Policy makers in the United States observed these sweeping recovery actions abroad and created a domestic program that essentially destroyed neighborhoods not by bombs but by bulldozers. The Federal Housing Act of 1949 led to the creation of scores of “urban renewal” agencies whose mission was to take down block after block of older development, building in its place shiny new structures. Although delayed in application, the spatial planning principles advocated by CIAM decades earlier were now coming to fruition.

The unfortunate aspect of this planning and redevelopment was that it was almost completely uninformed by an understanding of psychology and sociology. Moreover, no voice was given to local residents who had lived in the places for decades. Millions of people — mainly lower-income ethnic and racial groups — were displaced with no recourse or appeal. Entire complex social institutions and family relationships built up over time were disrupted. In 1962, Herbert Gans wrote The Urban Villagers, a book that chronicled the profound sense of loss and disorientation among people who were displaced by urban renewal programs in Boston. Published around the same time, Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities dealt with a similar phenomenon in New York. It shook up public policy makers and planners and continues to have an influence even today.

As urban renewal was occurring, two other federally sponsored programs resulted in patterns of development that had little to do with creating healthy or livable places but merely with building buildings and roads. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 created the system of coast-to-coast freeways. Patterned after the autobahns that President Eisenhower had seen in Germany as a general, the original intent of the interstate system was to enable the military to move personnel and materials quickly as well as to rapidly evacuate cities in the event of an attack. The actual effect was quite different.

The freeway system was a massive federal subsidy of the development of hundreds of new suburban communities. This was not about creating communities but about creating marketable real estate. Rarely were any principles of building good places applied; rather it was about surveying plats and parceling property for commercial or residential development. Furthermore, as suburban cities formed legally, they often adopted model zoning codes that were written decades earlier, and the new pattern was single-use neighborhoods with wide arterial roadways separating them.

The suburbs expanded and filled out rapidly. We are still living with this long-standing result, and one of the current supreme challenges in making good places is how to carefully retrofit suburbs to add in ingredients such as transit, public spaces, and a mixture of uses such that a total dependency on automobiles can be reduced.

By the mid- to late 1960s, enough damage had been done to cities that backlash was sparked. This came from two sectors. First, residents of cities began to insist upon having a voice in decision making about land use, public investments, and the relentless expansion of freeways. People figured out how to organize, protest, and file suits. Although these forms of opposition often took years, eventually things changed. Highway construction was stopped. Wholesale destruction of neighborhoods ceased. Community participation was mandated by federal legislation. And hundreds of community organizations were created to advocate for the interests of residents and local merchants.

This was also an era in which notions about city building started to embrace subjects other than engineering and design. Environmental psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, and urban economics were included. And with the initiation of the annual Earth Day in 1970 and the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act that same year, the first inklings of environmental considerations were incorporated into planning and community development. Books by Robert Sommer regarding “personal space,” Oscar Newman regarding “defensible space,” William H. Whyte regarding “public space,” and Christopher Alexander regarding patterns of good community building created fertile grounds for rethinking how we view the notion of “place” in our culture.

Another key force in creating places was the historic preservation movement. Perhaps the defining turning point politically was the destruction in 1964 of the grand and gracious Pennsylvania Station in New York City. This served as an impetus for groups at the national and local level to organize and be effective advocates. The full strength of this grassroots movement was not evident until the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission denied Penn Central Railroad, the owner of Grand Central Station, the right to alter the station. In 1978, the US Supreme Court affirmed this decision, paving the way for hundreds of cities and towns to designate landmark buildings, bridges, and districts.

Yet another trend during this period was the notion that cities could obtain public amenities — mainly in the form of public open space — through incentives given to the private sector. New York City adopted this approach in the early sixties, and dozens of cities followed suit. Since then, there have been thousands of “Privately Owned Public Open Spaces.” Some of these POPOSes have resulted in superb places for people to gather, linger, and spend time. Many others have been marginal. It is not without irony that New York City’s “Occupy Wall Street” in 2012 occurred on a POPOS, which allowed protesters public access much to the chagrin of nearby corporations. But aside from the issue of public access, one of the key lessons from this long-term endeavor is that successful places derive from maintenance and active programming as much as from physical design.

Finally, by the late 1970s, the degree of disinvestment in cities — with respect to infrastructure, civic buildings, and public services — was becoming evident. Cities were being viewed as increasingly dangerous and even, in some quarters, unnecessary. Some writers were suggesting that cities were obsolete and should be left to die. Fortunately, this kind of anti-urban attitude was resisted and shown to be shortsighted. Within a few years, urban redevelopment agencies were reorganizing themselves around the ideas of protecting urban neighborhoods and districts and attracting new investment.

By the end of the 1970s the entire approach to creating places was being fundamentally reinvented.

Rethinking Places: The 1980s to the Present

Over the past thirty years placemaking in the United States has been influenced by four movements or trends. Each has morphed into the other, retaining some of the previous thinking but moving forward.


In the early 1980s, modern architecture had seemed to run its course with austere buildings and barren public spaces. People were getting weary of repetition and design solutions that were transferred from one place to another with no sense of culture, climate, or context. Many designers turned back to older models that people felt more comfortable with. Known as postmodern architecture, this was often an uncomfortable mashup of contemporary building technology with a romanticized version of the late nineteenth century.

The problem with neotraditionalism was that twentieth-century building technology did not adapt well to forms that were prevalent a hundred years earlier. The results often looked cartoonish and superficial. But one benefit of this is a regaining of principles that were successfully used in cities over many decades. These are time-tested, classic ways of building good places, and the principles can certainly be expressed in contemporary ways as easily as they can through traditional forms.

New Urbanism

New Urbanism took many of these principles and expanded them into a way of looking at a spectrum of conditions from pastoral to highly urban. This group continues to offer rules of thumb intended to ensure better places to live organized around the public realm. Various books, including Peter Katz’s The New Urbanism (1993) and The Next American Metropolis (1997), by Peter Calthorpe, have propelled this movement into a major force in North American planning circles. While its merits are vigorously debated in professional and academic venues, the advocates of this movement are passionate and persuasive.

An outgrowth of this movement involves creating “codes” that can embody the principles and have them work in a wide range of places. It is an effort to find a “DNA” of good places — neighborhoods, streets, and civic structures — and display it in sets of diagrams and illustrations. So-called Smart Codes and Form-Based Codes have permeated professional city planning functions and have found receptive audiences with decision makers seeking a better result than conventional development regulations that have created sprawling, suburban patterns with little sense of place.

These codes were intended to replace previous versions of land use regulations that emphasized separating uses and buildings; the new codes embraced the idea of mixing uses, concentrating them, and placing them into structures that would be adaptable over time to different uses.

Transit-Oriented Development

Over the past twenty years, many metropolitan areas across the US have been seeing expansions of rail transit. This includes light rail, commuter rail, and now even the return of streetcars, albeit in very contemporary forms. Any form of rail transit differs greatly from rubber-tired transit in that the routes are fixed and service predictable over time. This can attract certain forms of development — mainly denser housing along with some retail. Rather than let development occur randomly, cities have been planning what are called “station areas” — usually land within a quarter to a half mile of the station, that is, within walking distance. Plans called for not only dense housing but also commercial uses on the street level. They also call for community services, public open space, and day care.

Many transit-oriented developments (TODs) that have been built across the country display a village-like quality, with various land uses concentrated around a public green or square. One of the challenges is how to have these developments attract a range of incomes and family types so that the area is diverse. Another issue is how to make public greens and squares fit well into an existing context of established neighborhoods, some of which might be significantly less dense. Many successful TODs attempt to build upon a sense of place that already is prevalent or introduce this attribute into an otherwise unfocused neighborhood. Of course older cities, including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, have seen these forms of development for decades.

The element of transit brings with it substantial public investment to encourage private development. Private development often must follow adopted standards and guidelines for public spaces and pedestrian connections. Much professional design activity regarding placemaking in recent years has focused on these aspects of urban life.

Rediscovering City Life

Published in 1988, William H. Whyte’s book City: Rediscovering the Center was remarkably prescient in that over the years since then, there has been a marked renaissance in urban neighborhoods in cities across the country — both large and small. In many cities, downtown cores, neighborhoods just beyond the downtown, and other inner-city districts have seen an influx of new housing, local shops, cafés, and restaurants. Streets and sidewalks have been made more appealing. New libraries, museums, and community centers have been built. Parks, plazas, and squares have also been provided as part of other projects or as freestanding investments. In some instances, older elementary schools have been put to new use.

There has arisen a whole new appreciation of older neighborhoods. New populations have reinvigorated many places with new demands for goods and services, recreation and arts, and many different types of places such as coffeehouses and cafés that are separate from work or living. At the close of the 1980s, Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” in his seminal book, The Great Good Place. Ten years later, Roberta Graetz’s Cities Back from the Edge offered similar observations.

Implications of Change for Placemaking

Unfortunately, much of what has occurred under the rubric of placemaking often reflects prevalent notions about places and their users, particularly those within the past fifty years. Looking forward, it is already evident from recent census information and shifts in buying choices and behavioral patterns that the next twenty years will involve a much different set of drivers. These certainly have implications for placemaking throughout the US, if not elsewhere in the world.

Changing Demographics

Two demographic groups now make up more than 55 percent of the population in the United States and are almost equal in absolute numbers. One group is composed of the “baby boomers” — people in their early fifties to midsixties. The other is made up of people between their early twenties and midthirties, sometimes called Millennials or Generation Y. Many people in the former group are looking to downsize and settle into environments where they can walk or take transit to what they need in daily life, particularly since they likely will live well past the point when they will no longer be able to drive. The latter is already choosing to live in denser, inner-city neighborhoods and downtowns, as their values are not centered on lawns, big houses, and the automobile culture that has held sway for decades. Both of these groups are looking for different choices in the marketplace and in the public realm.

Interestingly, the effects of changing demographics are not confined to large urban centers; smaller towns and inner-ring suburbs are seeing a resurgence of interest in older neighborhoods, transforming industrial areas, and areas of cities that have been skipped over during the migration to suburbia and exurbia in the past. Moreover, these people have money to spend on housing, culture, and food and are seeking authentic, homegrown places rather than places filled with national chains, strip centers, and shopping malls. Both groups are looking for places that are lively both day and night, with many different opportunities for socializing. The concept of “home” now embraces the realm outside the dwelling and includes cafés, museums, libraries, and parks. And the fact that in the last decade, people in their twenties are delaying both marriage and childbearing by at least five years has resulted in a fundamental shift in settlement patterns and investment decisions. This socioeconomic change is rippling through the country and affecting public policy, retail business models, corporate locational decisions, and lending practices.

An Urban Future

Data from the US Census over the past two decades clearly indicate that the vast majority of the population has migrated to urban areas. This pattern does not, of course, affect just large cities but cities and towns of all sizes. Regardless, people are looking for similar things in these locations. The slow food movement has given rise to a demand for restaurants that emphasize fresh, locally grown food. The active living movement has fostered communities where exercise is a part of daily life. Concerns for climate change have made many people conscious of the direct impacts of using carbon-based fuels in private vehicles. The sustainable environment movement has recognized that urban densities come with greater energy efficiency and reduced consumption of farmland and forestland for development. The living simpler movement has resulted in people once again considering smaller places to live. Finally, an increased emphasis on bicycling has led to significant investments in bike routes and trails that crisscross many urban areas.

These forces have been converging to create a demand for main streets, urban neighborhoods, mixed use, and walkable communities. Many people are literally voting with their feet (and their mortgages), choosing to live in denser areas. Cities are no longer viewed as depressing, dysfunctional, or dangerous but rather as rich mixing boxes of culture, cultures, and community.

Complete Streets

The United States has spent decades and many billions of dollars building streets that almost exclusively serve the movement and storage of the automobile. This is beginning to change with the introduction and funding of programs called “complete streets.” This concept sees public streets as achieving a multitude of purposes. While the car continues to be accommodated (in contrast to the previous idea of exclusive pedestrian malls), other uses and users are also given access. Complete streets typically include bike lanes, sometimes in protected “bicycle tracks.” They include wider sidewalks to encourage walking, as well as planting street trees to clean the air. They often include transit, whether lanes for buses or tracks for rail. And they often incorporate what is called “low-impact development” principles that, for example, capture and naturally filter storm water runoff.

Streets are seen as opportunities for placemaking, with distinctive lighting, artwork, interpretive and wayfinding signs, outdoor dining, and seating. One of the subsets of this attitude is the annual Park(ing) Day, on which on-street parking stalls are converted to micro parks. So successful has this been that some cities are now allowing permanent conversions of selected stalls for restaurant seating and green spaces. Many of these are unique, place-specific installations that reflect local culture and community creativity.

Connected Communities

While this direction also involves streets, it’s a more complex notion that embraces economic and social connections, as well as physical ones. Associated with this idea are protected greenbelts, natural preserves in urban areas, waterfronts that are public accessible, recreational trails, and transit that can allow people to experience different communities and different cultures. Communities might be individual and even idiosyncratic, but there are clear means for moving across and between them, so that people have many different choices and are exposed to many different forms of living.

This idea eschews the notions of gated communities, exclusive subdivisions, and single-purpose neighborhoods in favor of places that are open, fluid, flexible, and filled with lots of different ages, incomes, household types, and ethnicities. They may form a region or subregion that shares some larger public places such as regional parks, recreational corridors, and watersheds. This direction also embraces the idea of collective responsibilities for protection of natural areas, water and air quality, food security, transportation, and education, so that there are no pockets of people who are deprived of decent choices.

Public Spaces

Throughout the US, public spaces have made a huge comeback. For a hundred years, we had a great tradition of building fine public spaces in the form of parks, commons, town squares, village greens, parkways, and civic centers. Many of these today, although built many decades ago, are treasured and protected. But for five decades, we experienced a poverty of such spaces, with the consequence that many people dismissed them as being unimportant in contemporary life. After all, the mythic “American Ideal” is one of everyone owning private space.

In fact, this is not a deeply rooted tradition but rather one that surfaced in the years following World War II. Now scores of cities and towns are rediscovering the role of public places in defining and allowing community life to flourish. Such places are opening up opportunities for local visual and performing artists to flourish. They are accommodating farmers’ markets and food carts or trucks. They are being filled with events, celebrations, gatherings, and seasonal celebrations. We have simply relearned to appreciate one of our deepest traditions, that of providing public places to foster community. As people from other countries and cultures in-migrate and participate in public life, these places are taking on an even greater importance.

Finally, It’s Not All about Design

Obviously public places have dimensions and attributes that are physical. Many places in the past were designed and built without a sense of how they would function over time. Sadly, some fell into disuse, misuses, and ill repair. We have come to realize that successful places are as much about programming and maintenance as they are about distinctive design. This requires the public sector to make long-term commitments to not just ribbon-cutting new construction, but to ongoing operations. This also requires partnering with the private sector — particularly nonprofits — that can be stewards of the spaces. Placemaking is not merely about building wonderful settings but keeping them intact and ever changing over time.

These are but some of the prospects for new placemaking initiatives over the next several decades. As demographic and economic changes ripple through our culture, we will likely see others that will effect and influence the direction of making great places.


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