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Placemaking: How do we measure success?
November 10, 2014
You know when it’s right, when a place really WORKS.
Its got something to do with the number of people, all actively engaged, it’s a place that has a certain charm, if not beauty, is easy to get to and where you feel safe and somehow connected – with the location and with the community.
That’s what urban designers call a successful ‘place’, and ‘place-making’, the process of shaping our public realm to maximize shared values, has become recognised as a peculiar mix of social science, art and architecture.
It is not just the act of building or fixing up a space; it is “a process that fosters the creation of vital public destinations—the kind of places where people feel a strong stake in their communities and commitment to making things better" (Placemaking Chicago)
And what is the magic formula for successful placemaking?
The Project for Public Spaces come pretty close to a universal recipe in stating that successful public spaces have “four key qualities: they are accessible; people are engaged in activities there; the space is comfortable and has a good image; and finally, it is a sociable place: one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.”
Their Place Diagram (above) is a useful measuring stick - the inner ring represents key attributes, the middle ring intangible qualities, and the outer ring measurable data.
According to Chris Isles, a director at PLACE Design Group However, often policies and guidelines developed to manage and promote placemaking do not consider the commercial or operational aspects of the value of placemaking, but rather focus on design issues (Planning News Oct 2014 p12).
And yet placemaking is one of the best economic development tools at a Councils disposal:
Investment in the public realm stimulates private investment – a major mall redevelopment in Brisbane costing $4M recently initiated $500M worth of new projects within six months, after a decade of no new projects, a 1:100 rate of return. (Isles)
‘Sense of place’ is key to attracting creative, talented people. Leading businesses compete for talented staff, and locate in towns that talented people find attractive: mixed-use, walkable communities with a sense of place.
Compact, mixed-use neighborhoods are much cheaper to service with utilities and public transport than sprawling suburbs
Placemaking boosts the tax base because it provides a setting for more economic activity in a given area. Central business district properties yield 10 times more per acre than conventional suburban development according to a US study
Walkable urban areas command premium property values. In addition they reduce health costs, increase social capital, and save residents a substantial part of their household income, according to Hazel Borys of Placemakers
Early wins can leverage state and federal grants. Strategic interventions small (eg. pop-ups) and large (eg Maddern Square, Footscray) demonstrates the benefits to the community and politicians and creates enthusiasm to implement the big picture.
Economic values are not the only indicator of success; the number of conversations had, the occupancy rate of street benches (as opposed to carparks), or the success of events are other measures that are in fact equally important. There are many indicators that can be used to evaluate outcomes, and the choice of what to measure depends on what you are trying to achieve.
But like the business analogy that you have to get people in the door before you can make a sale, good economic indicators follow good social indicators.
Naturally the decision to invest in upgrading streets, centres or other public realm areas rarely relies on a simple financial equation - the social and environmental benefits are so appealing!
So here are my Top 5 Tips on embracing the economic benefits of placemaking:
Retain existing participants for longer – its not that difficult to double the amount of activity in the street; all you need to do is keep those people already there for twice as long. This can be done by designing a streetscape that provides spaces to pause, rest, observe, meet or interact, where a designed space takes advantage of an existing feature or function, or adds one in the form of public art or sculpture.
Support the function of existing businesses so that they are able to retain or attract customers. It is well-recognised that urban design improvements such as encouraging kerbside trading and al-fresco dining areas help to create streetlife, and places such as Geelong are going further, installing free wi-fi citywide as an additional way of enriching the urban experience.
Promote walking over car travel. At walking pace people have time to look, stop and shop. Conversely, people don’t window shop from their cars, as they zoom off somewhere else.
Keep a part of the streetscape budget aside for artwork. The power of public art to elevate the mind, to entertain, and to conjure ideas is invaluable in creating a space that has meaning. Increasingly, it is seen as a key component in the competition between towns and cities to attract creative and
Keep another part of the budget aside to create community placemaking grants. Designers and contractors can only do so much towards creating a vital, loved and sustainable place. Add the art (see point #4 above) and its getting close, but ultimately its the influence of the end-users, the public, that links place to community. Making available relatively small amounts of money as grants mobilises social and community resources that too often remain untapped: the passions, enthusiasms, and skills of volunteers.
Thanks to Suzette Jackson of Innate Ecology for the image of the Geelong Better Block event.