Transforming neighborhoods through the power of place-making

Peter SkoseyIn 2005, Dave Marcucci of Mississauga, a city in Ontario, Canada, decided his neighborhood needed a change. After surveying his block, he noticed there was no place for people to gather. His big corner lot seemed as good a location as any, so Marcucci dismantled part of his fence, did some simple landscaping, and put in a bench.

The change in Marcucci’s neighborhood was quick and remarkable. Almost immediately, people began congregating around the bench. Neighbors stopped and chatted with each other, kids sat on the bench in the morning as they waited for the bus, and older people rested on the bench during their evening walks.

The simple act of providing people with somewhere to rest and mingle with their neighbors ignited a feeling of community among the residents, according to Jay Walljasper, who told this true story in The Great Neighborhood Book and recounted it for a Chicago audience at a recent event. Marcucci was partly inspired by the idea of place-making, said Walljasper, who is also a senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit based in New York that works to create and maintain public spaces.

Place-making is the concept of designing public spaces around the way people want to use them. Place-making requires working with local residents to ensure shared spaces have the four key attributes of successful places: a variety of uses, a distinct image and sense of comfort, easy accessibility, and a means of encouraging social interaction. As simple as Marcucci’s bench or as complex as a town square, anywhere can become a great place if it builds on these four components.

Place-making can have positive ripple effects for home owners beyond the specific space. Public gathering spaces give people the chance to interact, which fosters a sense of community, deters crime, and encourages volunteerism and cultural activities. Involving residents in creating a public space sets off a virtuous cycle; people tend to feel a personal investment in the space and are more likely to help sustain or improve the area. For homeowners, this virtuous cycle translates into a more attractive neighborhood.

The Lyndale neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minn., is an example of how place-making can create tangible benefits for home owners, according to Walljasper. Once a crime-ridden area avoided by prospective home owners, Lyndale now is one of Minnesota’s most popular communities. This change is due largely to a group of neighbors who came together to form the Lyndale Walkers. Fed up with crime in their area, the Lyndale Walkers started strolling up and down the streets as pairs or in groups to reclaim their neighborhood. Their intent was not to stop crime in action, but rather to send a message that the streets and sidewalks belong to all residents. Eventually, the crime rate in Lyndale fell, and the neighborhood became an attractive place to live.

Marcucci and the Lyndale Walkers are proof that it often only takes one or two people to set the virtuous cycle in motion. According to Walljasper, after a few months of people congregating on Marcucci’s bench, some of his neighbors put in benches on their own lawns. In Minneapolis, several other neighborhoods were inspired by the Lyndale Walkers and formed similar coalitions.

Ultimately, that’s what place-making is all about: encouraging local residents to create public spaces where people feel safe, happy, and a sense of belonging, all of which can start with a single good idea. Or, as Walljasper put it, “You’ll be surprised what can be accomplished if you’re willing to think big about your little place in the world.”

Peter Skosey is vice president of external relations for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit civic group that advocates for sustainable urban development policies.

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