What Makes Great Placemaking?

Steven Cornwell, global director & CEO — ERA-co

By Steven Cornwell, global director & CEO — ERA-co

At a time when office buildings stand empty and professionals flee to places with lower costs of living, cities must invest in placemaking. Without it, communities neglect to identify their own critical needs — much less address them effectively — while competing with each other.

On the other hand, great placemaking ensures cities’ long-term resilience and survival by creating attachments, helping people connect with spaces, derive meaning from them, and form loyalties to them. It keeps those cities’ current residents happy and attracts newcomers, working to assure their relevance and vibrancy long into the future.

So what makes great placemaking, and how can Denver use it to chart the right course?

A brief history of placemaking

In the 1960s, the field of placemaking focused on the challenges and opportunities of urban development and the gentrification of cities.

It then evolved to focus on centering the human experience, improving the quality of public spaces, and activating the places between buildings. The scope widened from a single developer who seeks to turn a personal profit to community-minded efforts in which human needs — needs like security, mobility, and affordability — inform decisions.

For the past 20 or 30 years, placemaking has developed strategies for creating full ecosystems that include the buildings themselves, the systems within those buildings, the public realm, and surrounding areas. Placemakers strive to integrate these components to improve people’s overall quality of life as well as the overall economy and effectiveness of the city.

What I call “21st-Century Placemaking” involves an even more difficult, challenging discussion of the ecosystem that connects every proverbial dot.

21st-Century Placemaking

21st-Century Placemaking serves as a catalyst for urban renewal and transformation. It includes not only the conventional factors of development, but also new considerations such as asset classes, pricing, experience, and other things that promote a thriving environment. It involves an entire team of specialists, from landscape designers and architects to marketers and brand-narrative writers, not to mention strategists and data scientists.

This process is innovative to the point of disruption. Cities, developers, and other stakeholders need to be willing to unravel the traditional procedures of urban development and pivot toward new benchmarks, such as affordable places for people to live and platforms for people to prosper. They need to jettison old ways of doing things in order to make our world anew.

Since large regenerative placemaking projects can take 10 to 15 years to complete, the goal is to conceive today and start building the more livable, resilient cities of the future. Done properly, great placemaking generates continuous cycles of improvement.

The signs of great placemaking

Toward this end, today’s placemakers don’t just guess what the community wants or needs. Instead, they embark on a rigorous process of listening to stakeholders, gathering intelligence, and conducting research to identify the community’s real needs.

Next, great placemakers combine what they learn from listening to the community with their own expertise and knowledge about what actually works. They also keep generational changes in technology and other factors in mind, positioning the community best to ride nascent trends into the future. They fashion plans that address both what the community knows it wants now and what it likely will want and need later.

Our expertise as placemakers is likewise evolving, which requires a measure of humility. Every new place has its own idiosyncratic behavior, character, topography, culture, etc., and each must be approached with an open mind and critical thinking. You need to listen, understand, and analyze the project through six different lenses. You can’t push things through a standard process. If you do, then you will likely be guilty of hubris, which results in substandard outcomes for the community.

Denver, for instance, cannot be approached like any other place. It needs to be understood for what makes it uniquely Denver.

Ensuring Denver’s resilience

For more than a decade, Denver has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., which has resulted in challenges like overcrowding, pollution, traffic congestion, and higher taxes. To ensure its resilience in the long term, the city’s Planning Department has developed a comprehensive plan to revolutionize itself.

Such visions start with what residents’ ambitions are, as well as their demographics. People move to Colorado for a reason. What is it? For those who have always lived there, why should they stay? In addition, Colorado has a reputation for outdoor wellbeing and lifestyle, as well as industrial manufacturing.

What’s driving this reputation? How can those strengths be built upon?

Great placemaking answers all the above questions and more. In addition, affordability is the number one topic in the placemaking industry nationwide. The cost of living in Denver, CO, for instance, is 10 percent higher than the average nationwide,
which is why the first two priorities listed in Denver’s plan are for “a city that’s equitable, affordable, and inclusive” and “strong and authentic neighborhoods.” These priorities bode well.

In my experience, one of the secrets of making great places is building areas for people from different socio-economic backgrounds and demographically diverse groups. When places focus on pandering only to audiences that can afford it, something even worse than gentrification takes place. Ironically, people have to leave to seek entertainment. These neighborhoods also lose their grit, which is where innovation takes place.

Charting a visionary future for Denver

Charting a truly visionary course for the future of a city incorporates community engagement as well as an understanding of generational change. While developers should be viewed as partners, this process takes more than them. It also takes more than just architects, who are often given too much responsibility. Instead, it takes an eclectic group of thinkers who understand not only how to make beautiful places and big memorable gestures, but also how to support businesses, meet the community’s needs, and ensure economic growth. Short-term thinking is the death of all development and urban design. That’s why great cities like Denver need the long-term planning of great placemaking.

Steven Cornwell is the global director of ERA-co, a place consultancy that specializes in place intelligence, experience master planning, placemaking & activation, and brand & communication. He has over 20 years of experience leading brands and city building from a broad range of sectors, including real estate, place, transportation, and infrastructure.

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