Rooted in Place

The Essentials of Local Placemaking
Photo by Charlie Pruitt

In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, journalist and activist Jane Jacobs theorizes that part of Tokyo’s economic rise at the turn of the 20th century came from the unlikely source of local bicycle manufacturing.

It had started with repairing imported bicycles through a host of small enterprises that specialized in different parts. Improvising at first, these outfits eventually learned enough to start manufacturing bicycles to sell within the country. The culture of improvisation, which “fosters delight in pulling it off successfully and, most important, faith in the idea that if one improvisation doesn’t work out, another likely can be found that will,” generated a busy hive of like-minded entrepreneurs and created an economic springboard.

The architectural side of the equation is placemaking.

The term dates from the 1960s and, not surprisingly, has sometimes sparked controversy. The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, an authority in the field, describes placemaking as both a process and an outcome to create and maintain spaces where public participation is vital to an area’s identity, design, and ongoing care.

During their groundbreaking work, Jacobs and sociologist William Whyte spoke of a rootedness and a human-centered approach involving those living near a place.

In Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All, urban critic Philip Langdonsaw these places as evolving neighborhoods with committed communities. Erin Peavey, AIA, vice president of HKS, observes that people are aware of these spaces even if the public does not have language for them. She recalls recently overhearing a conversation in Lower Greenville, the bustling walkable neighborhood in East Dallas, where two women were discussing how nice the area was and that Plano had a similar type of place. Within this collective framework, placemaking could be defined as crafting inspiring, active pedestrian spaces for and often with communities across Dallas-Fort Worth.

“The WalkUp Wake-Up Call: Dallas-Fort Worth,” a report from the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University, echoes Jacob’s observations of economic value. The report identifies 38 established WalkUps, which are pedestrian-friendly areas that often have unique identities and other placemaking qualities — think the Bishop Arts district, for example. Although on less than 1% of the total D-FW land area, these areas generate 12% of the gross regional product. The dense neighborhoods are powerhouses of walkability, with a high walk score of 70.5 or greater and a concentrated density of 100 intersections or more per square mile.

The center includes additional thresholds on office and retail in classifying WalkUp areas. But urban location and mass transit, while adding value, are not essential to a WalkUp designation. Southlake Town Center is among the highly productive WalkUps located in the suburbs and away from transit.

Single-family houses falling within a half-mile of these suburban WalkUps sell at a premium as people can have a walkable experience while still enjoying the suburban lifestyle. When choosing corporate campuses, companies also prefer walkable places to attract and retain talent. In the past decade, State Farm put offices in the CityLine development in Richardson and Liberty Mutual selected Legacy West in Plano.

To understand the attractiveness of placemaking, it helps to revisit our physical experience of the world.

In his seminal work Life Between Buildings, urban designer Jan Gehl notes the basics: Humans move comfortably at about three miles per hour. The horizontal view is greater than the vertical view. When walking, a person must look slightly downward to see the path ahead, restricting the vertical view. Moving up or down is hard and requires conscious intention.

People can detect another human figure within 325 feet and that person’s gender, age, and activity at 250 to 325 feet. Within 100 feet, facial features and hairstyle become recognizable. At 60 to 80 feet, mood and emotion can be discerned.

These distances define limits for viewing sports (250-325 feet) and seeing theatrical performances (60-80 feet) without technological aids.

Cities that compress spaces can be described as warm and personal. Parts of the French Quarter in New Orleans create these experiences. Those with expansive open spaces, such as the plaza at City Hall in Dallas, can make a city feel impersonal.

Gehl mentions a Scandinavian proverb that people come where people are, and effective placemaking depends on creating the conditions that encourage gathering. That includes creating public spaces and activities where someone might pass the time people-watching, run into acquaintances, or strike up a conversation with a stranger. If musicians start playing live music on a street corner, spectators are likely to gather. But no one comes running to listen to a loudspeaker playing a Spotify playlist.

Amy Meadows, president and CEO of Parks for Downtown Dallas, observed two catalysts that have created more of a sense of place in the city’s heart. One began when public improvement district and nonprofit Downtown Dallas, Inc. and other partners began disassembling the tunnels underneath buildings and urging office workers to use the streets instead.

The second was the opening of the Omni Dallas hotel in 2011, when almost overnight conventioneers wearing their conference badges started filling the streets and creating a buzz. As downtown residents grew from 200 in the late 1990s to over 13,000 today and schools have opened, they’ve added new life. Meadows mentioned walking back from a site visit downtown and seeing how “young people in their school uniforms are holding hands with their teacher to go across the street to a park.”

Whyte researched how people used public plazas in New York City in the 1970s and noted how sun, protection from wind, and food enhance a place. One of his simplest, most profound observations was that people tend to sit where there are places to sit. He dismissed benches as an architectural conceit and preferred low landscape walls instead. But his favorite, by far, was the movable chair, which allows visitors a sense of independence or civility, as circumstances may require.

In the film that accompanies his book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, viewers can see the still photos in which a woman moves a chair several times for no appreciable value other than to make it hers.

Emily Schlickman and Anya Domiesky, researchers at the landscape architecture firm SWA, recently produced the white paper Field Guide to Life in Urban Plazas: A Study in New York City with a polemic opening and keen observations on how people interact with public space. These expand on Whyte’s original research of seating options with notes of visitors roosting in high spaces, preferring a protected back while seated, and choosing seats closer to passersby over isolated areas.

The DFW WalkUp report noted that place management organizations, such as Downtown Dallas, Inc., are vital to success of these spaces as their regular programming generates activity and bolsters a sense of safety and comfort. Meadows says the strategies laid out in the Downtown Dallas 360 Plan, led by Downtown Dallas, Inc., proved “catalytic and transformative” in the changes that have occurred over the past decade.

Matt Nicholette, an assistant professor of Clemson University with previous local experience working at Studio Outside, says experience is an essential element of placemaking. Place management organizations like Downtown Dallas, Inc. offer many of these experiences and provide a conduit for people to influence places so that they evolve with their communities over time.

Experiences can be included in the design from the outset. Marty Hoffman, founder of urban development company Hoffman & Associates, made certain that the design of the Wharf in Washington, D.C., included a fire pit with space for a food truck selling marshmallow-roasting kits nearby. (Lisa Schamess describes his efforts in “Toward Placekeeping: How Design + Dialogue Can Make Cities Better for Everyone.”)

The nonprofit developer Parks for Downtown Dallas has a similar placemaking goal for Harwood Park and other locations, in partnership with the City of Dallas Park and Recreation Department, to provide a total of 23 acres of parkland downtown. As part of its lengthy design process over multiple years, the Harwood Park team went through an additional round of public input. The final feedback session, occurring during the pandemic, went virtual and received record levels of survey participation at nearly 400 responses.

As the design team, led by Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA, of Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, researched the site’s history, they uncovered a great deal of material to shape the park’s identity. The nearly four acres in downtown Dallas’ East Quarter had been home to a number of car dealerships in prior decades. It also was once called Film Row for the movie distributors and suppliers of popcorn machines and other supporting businesses located there.

But wondering what had been there before settlement, team members delved further back in time. Their find? Mammoths.

Dr. Ron Tykoski, director of paleontology at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, confirmed that there indeed had been an abundance of these massive mammals near the Trinity River. These ancient creatures are now the theme for the custom playground design for the upcoming park. Initially designed in bright hues, the playground color “was changed to light gray to create ‘ghost mammoths,’” Meadows says.

Placemaking takes many forms and engenders many such creative responses. However, Roberto Bedoya of the Department of Cultural Affairs in Oakland, California, coined the term placekeeping to suggest a different perspective. The concept of making suggests that nothing was there previously, he contends, while the concept of keeping anchors the process to acknowledge who lives there now.

Ultimately, this controversy may be more about expanding perspective to ensure placemaking is deeply rooted in a community’s history. Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, a professor at Arizona State University, said it may be unhelpful to push placekeeping on a deeply disenfranchised community because some may desire the fresh approach implied through placemaking. This dialogue in “The Future of Creative Placemaking” by Michael Rohd highlights a paradox facing designers and policymakers.

The controversial introduction in the Schlickman and Domiesky white paper posits that public life has transformed in its core essence over the past 40 years and questions the value of Whyte’s work in today’s placemaking. Omnipresent technology, gender dynamics, homelessness, and deinstitutionalization, and even surface temperatures have collectively created a tsunami of cultural change.

The perspective of HKS’ Peavey is more nuanced as she frequently shows the film on Whyte’s work when guest lecturing to college students because “we’re still human to our core and these public spaces humanize us.” Gehl found through 35 years of continuous research on life in public spaces that there is a timelessness to the principles. Although the particulars of society have evolved, the human form has not.

Nevertheless, technology has brought a new layer to placemaking. Nicholette observes that people often go outdoors to be alone with their phones. It creates this world of “being stuck on the screen, the black mirror” in a public space and is something that needs to be acknowledged in programming and design. Even the juxtaposition of a man reading the newspaper in Whyte’s photographs in the 1970s to someone on their phone today is not the same. The information in a newspaper is one directional, while that on an electronic device is multidirectional. Physical space allows better connection and presence, but digital space functions alongside it. The protests that rocked Dallas and the nation in the summer of 2020 were disseminated via social media, but the content took place in physical spaces.

Concurrently, the digital can enhance place as has been done through the efforts of the Innovation District, which Meadows notes was started in response to President Barack Obama’s designation of Dallas as a Smart City. She recalls how technology was a major piece of West End Square. In the construction of downtown parks Civic Garden and Pacific Plaza, the city put in conduit in case there were a future desire for smart features.

Meadows knew that West End Square needed public Wi-Fi from the start as a contemporary park within the Innovation District. The level of thoughtful design included in the details of the park has underpinned West End Square’s success. A generous 50-foot worktable allows people to plug in and charge their phones. The louvers of the overhead pavilion slant to provide shade to make it easier to see a digital screen. Although modern day, these details would please both Jacobs and Whyte.

Recognizing the value of these places in generating economic and social value, the DFW WalkUp report found unexpected grounds for optimism. By its estimate, Dallas-Fort Worth could establish at least 25 more WalkUps. The report finds that emerging and potential WalkUps outside of Dallas and Fort Worth’s more affluent zones have potential to boost their social and economic equity. By focusing on potential WalkUps in other parts of Dallas-Fort Worth, meaningful change through placemaking is possible.

Policymakers and constituents should consider other moves such as reducing parking requirements to improve zoning and legislative tools to support WalkUps. James Rouse, the legendary developer of Rouse Co., once said, “The only valid purpose of any civilization is to grow better people, more creative, more productive, more inspiring, more loving people.”

Decades of research by leading pioneers and modern-day designers point the way to creating places that boost economic vitality and social connection. It is up to architects, planners, developers, residents, and city officials to engage in the essentials of placemaking.

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