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Beyond Arts and Culture: Placemaking as a Tool for Long-Term Economic Growth

Written by Amanda Maher

There are a number of programs and strategies that communities use as part of their economic development toolkits: tax increment financing, brownfield redevelopment, small business support, workforce development—the list goes on. “Placemaking” is a new tool for the economic development toolbox.

Unlike other economic development strategies, most people have a difficult time defining placemaking. And not only do people find it hard to define, but when they do, definitions vary drastically. The Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University recently released a practitioners guide to placemaking, one of the most comprehensive guidebooks created to date, in which it defines placemaking as simply “the process of creating quality places where people want to live, work, play, shop, learn and visit.”

But how do quality “places” lead to long-term economic growth?

Until recently, most employers made location decisions based upon a number of economic factors – availability of raw materials, distance to market, and often, proximity to the CEO’s hometown. And then workers would follow suit, moving to be close to their employer. That paradigm has shifted. Now, knowledge-based industries are crucial for for economic growth and employers are competing for qualified workers. Instead of expecting their workforce to come to them, employers are moving closer to where their workforce lives.

And talented workers are a highly mobile demographic that increasingly want to live in dense, urban places with a high concentration of amenities. Of course, job opportunities matter. However, arts and culture, public transit, recreation and other amenities are also important to today’s workforce. More so than ever, place matters. And quality of place matters most of all.

For economic developers, this shift means creating quality places is critical to the end goal of business attraction and retention.

Creating great places requires a proper mix of land uses and function, physical form and social opportunity.

The Land Policy Institute uses the following analogy: Form creates the stage; Activity is the play; Economic means that if good, the play makes money (as will businesses nearby); and Sense of Place is strong and positive if the above are true.

“When more people live near such places, or have easy access to them, especially by transit, more activity will occur, and more people and businesses will more strongly value these locations,” the guidebook says. “Placemaking can be used to create such places, as well as to activate those places that already have the proper physical form characteristics.”

There are a number of ways to approach placemaking:

  • Standard Placemaking tends to include permanent public realm and brick and mortar improvements. Standard placemaking tends to have high capital costs, complex approval processes and long implementation schedules. Examples include: downtown street and façade improvements, small-scale residential infill, and regularly programmed events in public places like sidewalks, streets and town squares. “Standard Placemaking typically has economic development benefits, but that is generally not the principle reason for which it is used,” notes the Land Policy Institute.
  • Creative Placemaking is when partners strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city or region around arts and cultural activities. The National Endowment for the Arts explains: “Creative Placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business visibility and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire and be inspired.” It’s no wonder, then, that Creative Placemaking is often used in an attempt to grow the creative and innovation economy. Examples include public art, music and performance venues, museums, art galleries and cultural programming.
  • Tactical Placemaking (commonly referred to as “tactical urbanism”) allows project proponents to test short-term, “lighter, quicker, cheaper” interventions that are low-risk, flexible and can be easily changed. Tactical urbanism is often used to temporarily activate spaces or serve as a pilot to test a concept and build community support before more intensive capital investments are made. Examples include conversion of a public parking lot into a food truck park and bringing pop-up retail to a vacant storefront.
  • Strategic Placemaking targets specific outcomes, usually tied to economic development and job growth. Strategic Placemaking stands out for its narrow focus on creating quality places that are uniquely attractive to talented workers. Examples include mixed-use development in downtown centers, green pathways to parks and bodies of water, and investment in permanent social gathering places.

These four types of placemaking are not mutually exclusive. Different types of placemaking can be used in combination or in sequence, and all types, if properly executed, can improve an area’s quality of place. But for the economic development practitioner, Strategic Placemaking can offer the greatest return. Revitalization that increases housing and transportation choices and invests in urban amenities to attract talented workers can result in faster gains in livability, population, diversity, jobs, income and educational attainment than other forms of placemaking.

Placemaking is not meant to replace other, more traditional economic development tools. Those are all still necessary, particular in post-industrial or inner city neighborhoods that have suffered from years of disinvestment. Instead, placemaking should be a way to supplement those efforts.

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