A Recipe for Great Placemaking

On Monday, September 26th, Eric Osth, AIA, LEED AP, Vice Chairman and Managing Principal of Urban Design Associates presented “Placemaking in Practice” to the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. The following article includes further detail and support from the presentation.

Great places are easy to spot. They are typically memorable with an organic richness and texture, and flypaper for people, activity and investment around them. However, building a great place is tricky business and much is forgotten in the process. As designers, public officials and developers move forward transforming our cities, much is invested without understanding the key ingredients to placemaking. At Urban Design Associates, we have found that the following themes are essential to the process of developing a place.

1. Ask People

Residents and citizens are intimately connected to a city, and profoundly aware of what characteristics will enhance their town, neighborhood, and city. Too often, we see the voices of people forgotten to what a place once was, and can be. Recognizing and preserving tradition is not about making a place old, but instead remembering what is important, which is the essential context for place making. Urban Design is a participatory process, and people are the cornerstone of this journey. The understanding of economic and cultural backgrounds of the residents and citizens are integral in the effort to holistically understand the patterns and traditions of a place. These insights should ultimately inform on where we collectively go next.  If we want to have a clear understanding of the impact of our designs, we must first listen to the people, so we can create places that are both responsive and respectful of its inhabitants.

2. Be Authentic

Local businesses and local programming are key to authenticity. National retailing and entertainment businesses are neither invested in the same way local businesses are, nor do they provide uniqueness as an exhibit of a region's best characteristics. In addition, we recommend avoiding over-branding so that it becomes a place no longer seamlessly connected to the rest of the city. Creating and designing a new identity should involve building upon the context which already exists. Seamlessly merging together design possibilities that are applied to this foundation deliver on the undisputed origins of a place. These solutions can then be easily accepted by key stakeholders because of this undeniable truth to the design.

3. Think Small

Large, empty spaces are never welcoming on an everyday basis. People want to go to places that are livable and functional. Therefore, we aim to build spaces that are reasonably scaled. Often, a place created with a size-first approach creates unintended consequences. These outcomes are frequently too big to activate and thus lack the ability to be programmed for everyday use. Applying the correct scale leaves room for a meaningful design to take shape.

4. All About the Programming

Architecture, infrastructure, or even a work of art, can often be treated as a draw. The key element to bringing people to a place on a routine basis is the activity within. This includes ground-level programming, or active life. It’s more than just a draw, it’s about who we are building for — those who live, work, and thrive — and this process starts with our ability to create a framework for urban life. Strive to deliver on more than form, color, and style, which have their place in design. Consider outcomes and how they align to functional values of a place.  Successful programming should include plans for every person, of any age, from all backgrounds. 

5. Avoid a Price of Admission

In other words, can you enjoy a place without buying something? When one arrives at a place, it should inherently give back. This open-hand approach provides an extra dimension that is often unspoken, but can be felt as an outcome. To be truly public, make sure there are places to sit, reflect, and enjoy a space without a price of entry. When a place offers no obligation, people gather first and then become willing participants of commerce and urban life. 

6. Create a Parking Problem.

When people recognize the value and livability of a place, the masses can create a predicament to solve. Parking is always difficult in great places, so set out with that goal in mind. Keep the experience centered around people by prioritizing pedestrian connections, bicycling, and public transit access. When you have achieved a parking problem, think about a creative solution to solve it, including improving pedestrian access, shared parking solutions and shuttles to manage parking. This makes good business sense, and it also puts people first.

UDA offers master planning at all scales, and through our history we have become experts at listening, gathering solutions and facilitating a collective vision for the future. We believe urbanism transcends style, and we aim to create an extension of a place that builds upon traditions, preserves character, and enhances an existing identity. These outcomes include urban design, pattern books, and design guidelines which charter and accompany the implementation and development of places.