Not every city can afford to build a 30,000 square foot recreation center or multi-million dollar aquatic complex, but big ticket items aren’t the only way to make positive neighborhood impacts. The goal, for any community, is to sustain a high quality of life by creating spaces of cultural, recreational, and economic significance – an effort urban planning and design professionals have recently termed “placemaking.” This community and engagement driven approach incorporates the 3-step placemaking planning process to follow and can help make such City efforts successful.

Step 1: Engage with the Community

Community social networks, volunteer organizations, school systems, recreation associations, neighborhood groups, and the local chamber of commerce are but a few of the many influential groups that interact with one another and hold immense insight into community needs. By identifying and reaching out to these groups, a city can eliminate the illusive “non-specific” planning approach that can result in recommendations that don’t fit. This allows the city to focus on community specific placemaking efforts through direct engagement with groups vital to steering a united direction. A critical component to placemaking, this strategy can help a city identify comprehensive community goals and vision, while also promoting a stronger sense of connectivity between differing groups.

Generally, such public engagement feedback sessions are supported by both the city and/or professional partners during development of a Comprehensive Plan or Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), but can be done at any point based upon community needs and local resources. Cities that have proactively created such plans likely already have placemaking opportunities identified and can jump ahead in the 3-step process. For the purpose of this article, the 3-step planning process doesn’t dive into plan compilation or associated insight.

Step 2: Identify Community Assets and Placemaking Opportunities

The next critical step in any placemaking effort is to evaluate each unique sector within the community using both group feedback and direct city knowledge. What makes the city unique? Is it the river that runs through town, downtown shopping district, or a historic landmark? Understanding what brings residents together and attracts visitors can help cities capitalize on the characteristics that set them apart from other communities in the area.

Typically, these community assets are categorized into two major groups: natural resources and built environments. Natural resources include opportunities such as canoeing and kayaking, fishing, open space and tree cover, hiking, and physical landmarks. Conversely, built environment assets focus on spaces ranging from historic architecture and park shelters to local businesses and restaurants. Nevertheless, the goal is not to choose one over the other, but to utilize urban design strategies that connect these built and natural environments.

Community amenity centers and urban plazas are two great examples of where these environments overlap in urban design. Here, recreation centers can also serve as a hub for park and trail connections, while urban plazas marry architectural elements and artistic structures with their surrounding natural landscapes. Both offer opportunities to connect new development efforts to amenities already fueling the city – efforts that do not require massive budgets and look beyond the traditional brick and mortar solutions.

Step 3: Implementing Placemaking Strategies

After cities have engaged with their constituents, identified placemaking opportunities, and successfully generated project momentum from the community, the next step is to structure a project team, funding, and phasing strategy to help build upon their clear vision for the space.

In addition to translating city visions into designs, professional consultant firms experienced in placemaking projects offer value beyond the plans and construction documents they develop. These teams can also serve as a project partner to help outline goals and project management schedules. Depending on each community’s specific needs, these schedules can range from immediate improvements to prioritized phasing opportunities for the next 5-10 years.

One of the greatest advantages of working with professional urban design and planning partners is that they can also assist with identifying creative avenues to finance these short and long-term placemaking efforts. The funding required to make such improvements or enhancements possible can come from a variety of sources, such as state sponsored programs, federal grants, and even local fundraising events, campaigns, or festivals. Having experts on your team familiar with navigating these opportunities can help ensure successful – and fulfilling – efforts to translate project momentum into positive change for the community.

“It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of my job”, Landscape Architect Aaron Thacker noted when asked about his experiences working alongside local Iowa communities to implement placemaking strategies in their own neighborhoods. “When I’m able to help cities improve the quality of life in their community by introducing or enhancing amenities – those are designs that truly connect people and place in a positive way.”

Putting it all Together – Iowa Success in Action

Parley Finch Plaza

Constructed during the City’s sesquicentennial year, the 2013 Parley Finch Plaza in Humboldt, Iowa is the result of a creative placemaking approach to an otherwise challenging building demolition area at the core of the City’s central business district.

Surrounded on both sides by brick-faced buildings with old-town character, the empty lot was left out of place in this highly visible downtown area. In lieu of constructing a new building, City and respective partners recognized the need for additional gathering space and connectivity to downtown businesses surrounding the project site. Following the 3-step planning process, the City was able to create a custom solution while also identifying economic growth opportunities directly with the community. Travis Goedken, Humboldt City Administrator, noted the important role community engagement played in not only establishing a goal for the space, but also in building support for the project.

“People are passionate about their neighborhoods and want to play a part in their future,” said Travis. “That’s why communicating effectively with city residents early in planning processes can make the difference between starting a project with community resistance, or support.”

Highlighting the City’s creative, cost-effective use of existing resources, a familiar statue was moved from its former, underutilized location at a nearby City park to the new plaza where it now serves as a centerpiece to the vibrant community space that has been a huge success story for the community.

“The project was received so well that the City Council has elected to use Parley Finch Plaza as the focus for Humboldt’s next downtown project – a project that goes to show that the success of how small investments can help build momentum for future community improvements,” claimed Goedken.

When it comes to creating an enhanced community connection and sense of place, the noted placemaking development strategies can help cultivate a city’s identity without compromising community specific assets and goals or mandatory city improvement/infrastructure needs. By focusing on maximum engagement and a shared vision for implementing financial resources, communities can successfully implement a 3-step placemaking strategy for long-term city success.

Check out this article in the May issue of Iowa League of Cities CityScape magazine.

Join the conversation #ISGCivicandCulture #Placemaking #Planning #PublicSpaces

Aaron Thacker

Meet Aaron Thacker PLA, ASLA

Aaron appreciates playing a role in the creation of spaces where people live and work. He takes pride in building client relationships and coordinating the implementation of his designs, providing...

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