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Placemaking in Legacy Cities Must Be “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper”

The interview below was reposted with permission from Center for Community Progress. The original post is located here.

Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit focused on solutions for vacant properties (of which legacy cities see a lot of – upwards of 20% in some cases), has recently published Placemaking in Legacy Cities: Opportunities and Good Practices. The report explores how residents and leaders in Legacy Cities have used placemaking principles to transform blighted public spaces into revitalized community assets.

CCP recently spoke with the authors of the report, Francis Grunow and Sarah Szurpicki, to get a bit of an overview of what placemaking means in Legacy Cities. You might already be asking yourself, “What IS placemaking?” Well, let’s get started.

In short, what is placemaking?

Placemaking is a fairly new term used to describe the steps needed to achieve a very old idea. The old idea is that when people come together to form communities they often like to create great public spaces designed to express their values and connect with each another. Think about a place like Central Park in New York or the Spanish Steps in Rome. But great places don’t have to be in big cities. They can just as easily be a small town square, or an ancient marketplace halfway round the world. What goes into the decisions that get people together to create a great public place, a place that people care about and invest in, over time, generation after generation. That’s the concept of placemaking in a nutshell.

How does placemaking fit into revitalization efforts in Legacy Cities?

Legacy Cities have suffered decades of disinvestment and population loss. Not surprisingly, some of their great public places have suffered as well. What’s more, leaders and practitioners in Legacy Cities are searching for strategies to remake Legacy Cities, reinvest in them, and make them more livable and vibrant. Placemaking strategies offer ways to think about reinvesting in Legacy Cities, not just in the great places that have already been identified by communities, but as an opportunity to create new great places for the public to gather, sometimes in surprising and unconventional ways.

What different types of places does the upcoming report, “Placemaking in Legacy Cities: Opportunities and Best Practices,” feature? How does successful placemaking differ for these different types?

For this report, we decided to consider four different geographies: downtowns, anchor districts, neighborhoods, and greenways/corridors. While most people understand what downtowns and traditional residential neighborhoods are, there can be variation in their conditions. This can especially be true when discussing neighborhoods, which may face a huge range of factors, from crime to blight to vacancy. Anchor districts are usually centered around “sticky” institutions, like universities and museums – entities that are not likely to pick up and move – and which have a long history of investment (and potential for investment) in their surrounding neighborhood. Finally, greenways and corridors are often places that in Legacy Cities have been underutilized as the result of deindustrialization, like along waterfronts and railways. These places offer huge opportunities for Legacy Cities to connect residents and visitors to different parts of their city, create value, and encourage new investment nodes where none existed before.

In the new report, you talk about “Lighter, Cheaper, Quicker” principle. Can you explain what that means?

One of the world’s thought leaders for Placemaking is the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), based in New York City. PPS has developed a wonderful framework to think about placemaking, using 11 Principles, of which “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” is one. With “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper,” or “LQC,” PPS urges people and communities to just start trying something to improve their public space. This is especially important in Legacy Cities, where resources are limited. We understand this as essentially prototyping—putting down some ideas and seeing what gets used. Limitations, like limited financial resources, sometimes result in wonderful small-scale ideas that can be built on if they are successful. If you wait for big money to start building a sense place in your community, you may wait for a long time (and even then you may spend money on the wrong things). LQC gives the advantage of experimentation.

We found two interesting themes in our case studies regarding LQC in Legacy Cities. The first is that LQC investments—inexpensive and often driven at the grassroots—became the catalyst for a community that cares about a quality place to grow and organize around. This activity can then lead to increased investment. That role of “catalyzing caring” is a vital first step. However, the second theme is that to make a placemaking project truly sustainable over time, LQC isn’t enough. Especially given a lower volume of pedestrians in Legacy Cities, at some point, more significant investment is needed to achieve real transformation in the quality of a public place.

And, lastly, what was one of the most interesting case studies from the upcoming report and why?

We found the example of the transformation of the Pittsburgh waterfront from an industrial and underutilized eyesore to a regional park and trail network a very compelling model. One reason was that it engaged a number of different constituencies, from neighborhood groups, to environmental organizations, to business and recreational interests. The Pittsburgh waterfront project required widespread buy-in, and showed how seemingly different perspectives can collaborate to achieve success. It also showcased an opportunity that is present to a unique degree in Legacy Cities (versus non-Legacy Cities): the transformation of abandoned industrial space, especially along waterfront, to a wholly new type of use—and one that puts people and connectivity first. This is an important direction for Legacy Cities to embrace.

Click here to download the report from Center for Community Progress »

Center for Community Progress is the only national 501(c)3 nonprofit organization solely dedicated to building a future in which entrenched, systemic blight no longer exists in American communities. The mission of Community Progress is to ensure that communities have the vision, knowledge, and systems to transform blighted, vacant, and other problem properties into assets supporting neighborhood vitality.

Francis Grunow and Sarah Szurpicki, from New Solutions, LLC in Detroit, are two of the primary authors of Placemaking in Legacy Cities.

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