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Community Livability Achieved Through Placemaking

What makes one public space or street corridor better than another? What draws people in and makes them want to stay? At first, you may be tempted to say a variety of goods and services or the ease of accessibility. And you’d be right, but at the same time, it’s much more than that. When it comes to creating inviting community places such as parks, streetscapes, and other public spaces—placemaking is everything!

By enhancing the existing strengths of an area through design, placemaking adds visual interest to an area that attracts activity. It’s often utilized to highlight community character, promote healthy lifestyles, and support the economic vitality of the surrounding area. And while we may not realize it, placemaking is part of what we cherish most about an area.

Placemaking strengthens our emotional ties to a place,” explains Landscape Architect Tim West, PLA, LEED AP. It encourages an individual sense of belonging and ownership of an area, creating favorite locations that we visit again and again.

Tim says some of his favorite public spaces are the small streetscape plazas of downtown Ames, Iowa, and storefront areas in vacation spots like Estes Park, Colorado. He credits these spaces with having been carefully designed to incorporate existing strengths with specific design principles to make them special. However, he’s careful to point out that what works in one area, doesn’t always work in another.

“Strategic placemaking design is based on a few particular strengths of an area, so a one-size-fits-all design approach won’t due,” he shares. “You can use ideas from other spaces, or take a look at design trends, but you need to be sure it’s the right fit for your community and area before moving forward.”

For this reason, West and his colleagues place a lot of emphasis on listening to the users of a space, whether they live, work, or vacation there. They’ve also developed a framework for developing public spaces and streetscapes that guides the design and planning process.

“Replicating a design often fails to be successful, but using a repeatable design process based on the principles of placemaking ensures a clear vision is established for each project space,” states West.

4 Principles of Placemaking

West says there are four key design components—theme, active transportation, gateway and signage, and amenities.

1.  Identity & Theme Creates Sense of Place

Winterset’s streetscape features hanging baskets of flowers that provide a bright pop of color.

Establishing a theme is probably the most important component of community placemaking. The local community will have an opinion on how they’d like their space to look. Some will want a more contemporary, reinvented space; others may prefer a more traditional look based on historical elements. Regardless of the appearance and vibe, using materials and colors in repetition will foster continuity and help define boundaries. Brick, limestone, and decorative fencing are popular placemaking materials for traditional themes, while stainless steel, metal panels, concrete, and LED lighting are often used for a more contemporary feel.

Plant material plays a significant role in establishing and enhancing a theme. Understanding when certain plants come into bloom helps establish a seasonal rhythm, especially within corridors. In Winterset, Iowa, baskets of colorful annuals hang from every light pole, providing a consistent, aesthetic appeal in an otherwise eclectic storefront area. Native plantings can be used in this manner as well, and have the added benefit of being useful for stormwater treatment and infiltration. The use of native grasses and perennials at the Prairie Heritage Plaza in Altoona, Iowa established a colorful theme full of different textures that allows the area to stand out.

2.  Safe Access & Accommodations for Active Transportation

Creating different zones for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians will enhance the user experience and make your public spaces safer. For example, vehicle traffic corridors might utilize reduced lane widths to slow motorists and wayfinding signs to identify access to parking areas. Dedicated bike lanes and enhanced visibility at intersections are often a primary focus for bike zones. Vertical elements such as shade trees, lighting, and architectural features physically separate vehicle and pedestrian zones, creating a more visually-appealing pedestrian experience. Designing streets as a safe and comfortable place for everyone is a simple concept, but there are deliberate design choices that can enable multi-modal accommodations.

“On a streetscape project in Clinton, Iowa, this approach helped us match the speed and type of transportation in each of their circulation zones with appropriate placemaking elements,” shares West. “Larger, vertically-repetitive elements keep drivers focused on the road and the traffic around them, while walkway and storefront areas focus on the use of textures and details to spark pedestrian interest.”

3.  Visual Identifiers: Gateway Features & Signage

A rendering of the Riverside Drive Streetscape in Iowa City, which will utilize speciality wayfinding signage to help guide users.

Establishing the outer limits of a space through the use of gateway features lets users know they’ve entered a unique space. Architectural elements, such as columns or decorative fencing, are often used to help define a space. Specialty wayfinding signs, such as the ones found within the Iowa City’s Riverside Drive Streetscape, let people know what services and attractions an area offers. They also provide an opportunity to use branding and color to reaffirm the area’s theme.

4.  User Amenities: Planning for People

With a focus on user needs, you can incorporate different amenities into a streetscape that will encourage people to stay longer and increase their enjoyment of the area. Defining how the space will be used is key, and it’s important to program a space for each type of activity. Providing a canopy through a mix of tree plantings, awnings, and overhead structures offers relief from the elements while defining the space in three dimensions and separating different traffic zones. Outdoor seating also encourages people to stay longer and can help support local businesses. Seating can take many different forms, including benches, seat walls, tables and chairs. Trash receptacles, wayfinding signage, bike racks, and bike maintenance stations provide site amenities for people to use while they enjoy an area. Best of all, any of these design elements will support whatever programming is being developed for the space.

Placemaking in Action: Enhance Your Community

Native plants and grasses, like those utilized within the Prairie Heritage Civic Center Plaza, add to the aesthetic appeal while assisting with stormwater management and infiltration.

The next time you find yourself really enjoying a public space, look around to see if you can identify these placemaking design strategies at work.

When it comes to placemaking in your community, keep local strengths in mind and capitalize on them. Every community has specific needs to address when it comes creating more usable public spaces. By listening carefully to user groups and employing placemaking strategies, you can strengthen the social interaction of your community and create public spaces that user groups are vested in. And as West points out, it’s never too early to start looking ahead.

“The earlier you start planning for a particular amenity or project, the more opportunities you’ll have to look at the details, gather public input, and maximize the outcome,” he concludes.

To learn more about placemaking strategies and how to strategically plan for public space improvements, contact Tim West.

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