New MIT Research on Placemaking Reveals the Power of Community Engagement in Design of Public Spaces
The MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning released today new research that explores the evolution of the urban planning and design of public places toward a process called “placemaking.” Placemaking is an innovative approach to transforming communities by creating and revitalizing open, public spaces around the needs and desires of the community.
The research reveals that placemaking is relevant and powerful in enhancing quality of life and supporting collaborations that connect people and support local action. The widening emphasis of placemaking beyond the design and use of physical place to include the importance of the “making” process in benefiting people and relationships recognizes the long-term power of nurturing community capacity and local leadership. The research was conducted by a team of city planning and urban design experts in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
Design of public spaces during much of the 19th and 20th centuries was guided by industrialization, auto-centered planning and urban renewal. Top-down planning, centralization of control and land use regulations eliminated community voices and ultimately, fractured the bond between communities and public places. In the 1960s, a movement began which asked the question, “What makes a great public place for people?” These early placemaking efforts focused on listening to the needs and wants of users to determine the physical design elements needed to create good public spaces. MIT research reveals that in the half-century since the movement began, the “making” has become as important as the “place;” the placemaking process has as much benefit for community-building and empowerment as it does for our public spaces. By engaging in the deliberative and communal processes of shaping public spaces, citizens are connecting with each other, forging relationships, building social capital and engaging with a diverse cast of individuals, institutions and organizations.
Susan Silberberg, lead researcher on the MIT team explained, “Placemaking puts power back in the hands of the people. The most successful placemaking initiatives transcend the ‘place’ to forefront the ‘making,’ and the benefits for community can be substantial and long-lasting.”
The research, which is outlined in a new whitepaper called Places in the Making, “reveals an astonishing range of placemaking projects, methods and instigators that are taking place across the United States. All have a common emphasis on creating positive change for people and communities through the transformation of a physical place. The research shows that, at the most basic level, the act of advocating for change, questioning regulations, finding funding, and mobilizing others to contribute their voices engages communities – and in engaging, leaves these communities better for it.”
Key findings include:
- Process is equal to the outcome: The community engagement necessary in the organizing, deliberating, communicating, building, programming and maintaining of public places has an equally important benefit for communities as the physical outcomes. In short, the “making” of public places builds social capital and enhances community capacity for action and leadership.
- Placemaking creates a virtuous cycle: The relationship of places and their communities is not linear, but cyclical and mutually influential. Places grow out of the needs and actions of their formational communities, and in turn shape the way these communities behave and grow. This mutual influence of community and place creates a virtuous cycle of placemaking that supports the mutual stewardship of place and community and the creation of civic infrastructure necessary for healthy societies and collaborative problem solving.
- Public places are never “finished:” The iterative and interactive process inherent in the placemaking cycle creates multiple entry points for a wide variety of actors and actions; the engagement of community members, funders, advocates and public officials supports an expanding view of “community” and creates a foundation for positive change and healthy communities.
- Temporary initiatives and tactical methods can be remarkably effective: Placemakers are adopting tactical methods that are low-cost, flexible, temporary and sometimes unsanctioned over permanent and costly bricks-and-mortar projects. Tactical methods such as the creation of temporary installations that host pop-up businesses, reclamation of parking spaces for human use and enjoyment, and reallocation of roads for walkers, runners, and cyclists, can be remarkably effective in remaking a public space quickly and cheaply while calling attention to the need for better placemaking on a larger scale.
- Placemaking is open-source: The democratic ethos of the movement and the “trickle-up” nature of tactical placemaking demonstrate the growing influence of an Internet-influenced model where positive change can happen in real time and everyone is empowered to be a maker.
- Public/Private partnerships elevate what’s possible: The growing prevalence of public/private partnerships in the practice of placemaking reflects new types of cross-disciplinary collaborations that mirror the complexity of communities and the issues faced. These partnerships often mix regulatory power and public ownership with private resources and efficient management to create and maintain well-run places that would not otherwise be possible.
Southwest Airlines, which provided a gift to MIT that went toward helping to fund the research, has invested in two placemaking pilot projects in Detroit, Mich., and Providence, R.I. Linda Rutherford, Vice President of Communication and Outreach at Southwest Airlines, explained the company’s interest in placemaking. “We believe public places are truly the hearts of local communities – the communities where our People call home and where our Customers love to visit. Creating and revitalizing public places inherently aligns with our business of connecting people from place to place and our commitment to strengthening the communities we serve.”
Researchers conclude that the process of placemaking has created a new reality for communities: we have gone from consumers of places to makers of placers and this has blurred the lines between layperson and professional – creating a community of makers that feeds the creation of social capital, builds strong communities engaged in democratic processes, and creates great public places.
Places in the Making can be viewed and downloaded at http://dusp.mit.edu/cdd/project/placemaking.
About MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning Since its founding 80 years ago, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at MIT has consistently been rated the premier planning school in the world. DUSP is home to one of the largest urban planning faculty in the United States and enjoy the advantage of operating within the context of MIT’s culture of innovation and interdisciplinary knowledge creation. DUSP’s mission is to educate students while advancing theory and practice in areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the twenty-first century.
DUSP is committed to generating and disseminating knowledge, and to working with communities, governments, and industry to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s most pressing challenges. It provides students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with active engagement in the practice of placemaking.
DUSP goal is to apply advanced analysis and design to understand and solve pressing urban and environmental problems. To this end, the department fosters a culture of learning by doing, while also supporting the development of influential theories in the areas of urban planning and design, economic development, and environmental policymaking. By complementing more traditional seminars with studios, workshops, and practica, DUSP’s faculty, students, and researchers are able to translate path-breaking ideas into practical and enduring solutions. Visit www.dusp.mit.edu for more information.