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The Case for Placemaking

Research into active transportation, green space, and creative placemaking

May 22, 2019

A view of Vancouver’s Coal Harbour shows towers of residences above a tree-lined seawall
Research on placemaking and new urbanism highlights factors that investors are also seeking.

The old adage says, “there are only three things that matter in real estate: location, location, location.” Of course, a home must be right-sized, comfortable, and well-built to be desirable. Yet if the location is poor, even the nicest business or residence may pique little interest. People often give up space and privacy to be in a great location.

So what makes for a good location?

Views factor in—but the world’s best views are not enough if the location is inaccessible. Climate matters—but the loveliest climate is not enough to recommend a place if there is nowhere to buy groceries.

A location’s primary value is in its connection. How does a place integrate with the world around it? Great neighborhoods matter, and a good location is linked to resources, work, and people. Yet this connection sometimes constrains what sort of private amenities can be offered at a reasonable price.

The past hundred years of urban planning and architecture have often been about addressing the tension between excellence of location and excellence of property.

Two people sit at a table in front of a bakery café that has several bike bollards out front
Bike parking, street furniture, trees, and green spaces in front of a café invite people to engage.

New Urbanism, with its focus on creating human-scaled, diverse, accessible neighborhoods can also be considered a movement to create excellent locations. Private investors seem to agree. Investopedia suggests property is a better monetary investment if it is central, accessible, walkable, beautiful, and has excellent amenities. The Center for New Urbanism similarly considers these important for human-scaled design.

The difference is in focus. New Urbanism looks at the location’s effect on overall population physical, mental, economic, and social health. Investopedia looks at the individual rate of return on a single property. Yet though these two groups have different goals, they agree on what makes excellent human habitat when they are choosing where to live.

Creating excellent urban and suburban space falls to municipalities, who decide zoning, bylaws, and where tax dollars are best allocated. “What people like” is not usually enough to make big policy or spending decisions. Municipalities generally must show a good return on investment, in the form of observable social benefit, for their work.

What’s the business case for managers and planners to try to create excellent locations all through their municipalities, rather than just a few popular places?

What’s the research into placemaking?

Two children ride their bicycles on bike lanes in a city
Protected bike lanes allow people of all ages and abilities to feel comfortable on their bicycles.

Transportation

How easy is it for people to move between work, home, shopping, and play? If connection is at the heart of what makes a great location, then ease of transportation is the lifeblood of a community.

Suburbanization is often premised on people having cars to help them move through a world that’s spread out and unwalkable. Accessibility by car can make long distances feel easily surmountable. An impossible commute turns into a reasonable one. Suburbs often offer private residential space in exchange for car commuting to work, shops, or activities.

As the density of traffic increases, and people’s lives become increasingly busy, this trade off is becoming less appealing. Length of commute is increasingly part of how young workers evaluate their jobs. Young people are more likely to have left a job due to commute compared to older workers. Research confirms good reasons behind this trend. People with long commutes are more likely to have marital challenges, lower life satisfaction, and stress-related health issues. It’s therefore not a surprise to find that walkability is important to realtors of both commercial and residential real estate. Having a good Walk Score raises the value of property. It’s a pillar in placemaking, because it is one of the most important attributes in creating place.

Bicycle-friendly networks and transit expand the size of the walkable neighborhood, by offering alternative methods for people to get around. In New York City, adding a bike lane increased retail sales by 49%, by slowing people down while moving along that stretch. Bringing people onto bikes also makes for less pollution and traffic, which in turn makes the area more walkable.

Tourists look at a map while sitting on a park bench
Street furniture invites people to feel at home on a city street.

Smaller-scale walkable and bikeable spaces are more like the historic villages of old, where people knew their pub and their green-grocer. Village spaces like this are not just good for the individual; they are also good for society. Research shows:

  • The highest GDP growth comes from “attached” communities, where people are engaged in the life of their neighborhoods, showing a .411 correlation between GDP growth and attachment.
  • Compact development saves municipal governments a lot of money: one case study shows 60% savings in Halifax, Nova Scotia on public services per household.
  • Businesses are worried that bike lanes will cause a drop in business, but as new infrastructure projects are added, they show the opposite. Local studies show consumers are competitive spenders who, like walkers, tend to be more frequent patrons.
  • Cyclists arrive to work in a better mood.
  • Cycling also lowers transportation costs (as does walking, of course), saving American cyclists $4.6 billion dollars a year. This money goes into the economy in other sectors.
  • Drivers are often nervous that more cyclists on the road will increase accidents. Fortunately, the numbers are in, and active transportation does not increase accident rates.
  • Compact land development could decrease emissions per household up to 16%. (Current piecemeal strategies show a smaller range between 1-11%.)

To make a roadway bike and pedestrian friendly, infrastructure improvements are vital. Separated bike lanes, and walkable places secured by perimeter bollards, create safety and ease of movement for all members of society. Street furniture can encourage participation. Benches, wastebaskets, and water fountains invite people to make themselves at home outside: important for socialization, but also important for those who may need a rest during a day out on their feet.

Amenities, plants, and beauty

The World Health Organization recognizes the need for green space in cities as an input to public health. Greenery cools cities, increases physical activity, and filters air pollution. Limited access to green space is also an issue of inequality. Building green space is one way to shore up that inequality and add to the health of a community.

An elegant cast iron tree grate helps preserve the soil for an urban tree
Trees provide shade, fight urban heat sink, provide oxygen, and slow cars, making a street more walkable.

Parks are important, but even trees lining city streets make a huge difference to the health of the public and the ecosystem. Soil at the base of the tree absorbs and purifies water, returning it to the water table and helping with ambient cooling through evapotranspiration. The soil beds can be protected from being walked on or compacted by tree grates or bioswales. Tree-lined streets slow driving speeds, encourage walking and outdoor activity, and lower stress.

The hardscape needed to support water and plant management can also help build community identity. Decorative tree grates and trench grates can be customized for a city or a neighborhood. These touches can provide a consistent sense of place.

Green space is an essential part of a livable community. It keeps the city cool, lowers people’s stress levels, provide oxygen, gives birds and small animals habitat, and manages water.

Social landscapes in a local cultural framework

Placemaking cannot be one-size-fits-all, because different communities have different interests, values, workspaces, ages, and backgrounds. For true engagement, cultural outreach should create events and art installations that appeal to and have meaning for residents—like the Festival of Masks that brought an LA neighborhood together. This event was both beautiful and local, rather than a tourist attraction or destination.

Artists from within the community are often the driver behind this sort of cultural creative placemaking. Cities have been successful offering small grants to residents based on grassroots proposals.

An integrated community, brought together by walkable spaces, overhung by trees, and offering events and amenities have higher social capital. Research shows these citizens are more likely to know their neighbors, participate politically, trust others, and be socially engaged.

An old wooden row house stands between two gentrified, improved homes
Municipalities must fight displacement to prevent needed improvements from destroying communities.

Challenges for placemakers

Gentrification

One of the problems for starry-eyed placemakers is the issue of displacement via gentrification. Realtors and real estate investors know that walkable, beautiful, engaged, amenity-rich neighborhoods are desirable. There will be competition to live there. As competition increases, rents and capital costs increase. Eventually, over time, the businesses that provide the local color can be driven out by their own success. A neighborhood’s character can be overwritten by stripmall-like conformity when big companies become involved. A study by two urban economists traces a link between economic growth and Instagrammable locations—but these locations often are destination tourist attractions, rather than amenities that are useful to the community.

A careful approach that involves the community is therefore important to planning. Communities can be preserved with facilitation of ownership, rental-only zoning, and requirements that developers create subsidized and low-market housing. These restrictions slow the rate of change, removing gold-rush mentalities that can cause rapid development of up-and-coming neighborhoods.

Taking a measured, city-wide approach can also lead to better outcomes. If neighborhoods all over the city are equally accessible, walkable, and offer similar amenities, it becomes unlikely that every one of those neighborhoods will become status locations.

Two people argue with one another on a city sidewalk
Some people see density as leading to conflict; walkable neighborhoods can have a small-town feel.

Conflict in common spaces

Cities sometimes have the reputation of being too close-packed for comfort.

Historically, cities have struggled with the image that they’re a center of crime and conflict. In general, crime rates per 100,000 people are higher in American cities than in suburbs or rural spaces. The Brookings Institute’s study of 2012 shows this trend continuing; yet it also shows marked improvement in urban crime rates between 1990-2008.

Other research suggests that it’s not being in a large city that causes the problem: other factors come into play. In Canada, a 2005 study showed higher crime rates in small cities than in either big cities or rural areas. The only crime committed more often in large urban environments was robbery.

Research into these factors has shown that “fragile” cities, with high levels of poverty and inequality, and experiencing limited infrastructure and governance failure, are more likely to fall into violence. These edge cases point to the need for inclusion, equality, and infrastructure in keeping cities healthy. Clear laws and consistent, equal enforcement create safety for citizens. Maintaining public inclusion and amenities help manage inequality and poverty.

Common spaces increase the points of friction between people at a much less extreme level, and in cities, many people cope with this via the phenomenon of civil inattention. With civil inattention, people ignore each other in public in order to create privacy and lower the risk of conflict. Civil inattention can sometimes produce the effect of feeling alone even in a large group of people. This behavior can make people feel less attached to their community: lack of attachment lowers engagement, investment, and prosocial behavior. This common civil inattention and lack of engagement is one of the reasons that densely-packed cities can have a reputation for being inhospitable.

Ironically, intentional “compact development” can help. Small, walkable “village” neighborhoods increase the emotional connection to space. When people are out and about in their neighborhoods, they can make repeated connections and feel connected to their homes and the people around them. Positive social interactions are more likely. The interconnectedness of a small town is found at the heart of a walkable neighborhood.

Classic decorative bollards help define a public square in Evanston
Research into placemaking practices show increased economic and social health.

Thoughtful approaches to placemaking

It is not just dense urban environment that can benefit from placemaking strategies. Transit, bike infrastructure, and walkable streets can be built into suburban areas that will remain car dependent for the immediate future. South Miami has just completed a suburb revitalization that recognizes both the current needs of the community and looks to build the heart back into a community that was denuded by sprawl.

As these changes happen, they influence what people expect of their built environment. Cities and suburbs will influence each other, making the concrete jungle healthier by changing what is considered standard. More vegetation, trees and tree grates, bike parking, bike lanes, transit hubs, pedestrian infrastructure, benches, parks, and street art: the more that goes onto streets, the more they that invite people to come and make themselves home.

With these approaches, suburbs become more than bedroom communities, and cities become more than business centers. The engaged population sees a lift in its overall social, economic, physical, and mental health.

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