Placemaking done right: three successful approaches

An improved storefront in Soldotna, AK. Photo courtesy of City of Soldotna.

It is often hard to quantify what makes a place memorable, successful or special, but to paraphrase an old adage, “You know it when you see it.” Some urban planners have described placemaking as the deliberate re-shaping of the built environment to facilitate social interaction and improve quality of life. While there is no universal blueprint for creating great places, there are successful examples worth noting, especially given the numerous benefits that come with great placemaking.

Placemaking improves the physical, psychological, health, and public safety aspects of a community. Creating attractive places where people want to be increases foot traffic and helps support the local economy. Interesting places with more community interaction also reduce crime and instill a sense of identity to a neighborhood. So, how does good placemaking happen? The following examples from Philadelphia, PA, Soldotna, AK and Orlando, FL showcase three approaches, on different scales, achieved by different means.

Philadelphia’s Percent for Art Program
Public art humanizes the built environment and provides a chance for a neighborhood to express its character through unique design elements while providing cultural, social, and economic value. In 1959, Philadelphia, PA started the Percent for Art Program, becoming the first city in the United States requiring developers to commission art as part of the redevelopment process. The program stipulates that any project using land acquired through the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority must put 1% of the hard construction costs towards public art.

Developers can a) commission an original piece of artwork for the site, b) donate to the City’s Fine Art Development Fund, or c) choose an alternative such as leasing storefront space to a non-profit arts group. They must agree to a 75-year period of upkeep for the public art. To date, Philadelphia has accumulated over 400 murals, sculptures, digital and environmental artworks in areas that may have otherwise remained sterile.

With its Percent for Art Program, Philadelphia has promoted neighborhood placemaking for decades and will continue to do so for decades to come. The program has been replicated across the country on both the state and local level.

Soldotna’s Storefront Improvement Program
Successful citywide initiatives do not just take place on a large scale. Smaller communities like Soldotna, AK have shown that small public investments in placemaking can result in great returns. Soldotna’s Storefront Improvement Program is part of a broader initiative to re-envision the downtown, which is located at the convergence of two state highways. It provides grants to fix up and beautify roadside storefronts as a way to attract commerce. In addition to spurring economic activity on the street, it is a way to boost safety by increasing people and eyes on the street.

The Storefront Improvement grants can fund up to half of a project’s cost with a maximum of $7,500. Since November 2012, the city has provided grants for seven projects at a total cost of $36,975, and private businesses have invested $212,500 in matching private dollars. Projects have included improvements in signage, windows, exterior lighting, permanent landscaping, and masonry work. Grantees must commit to maintaining the improvements for at last five years to ensure continued beautification of the downtown. In its inaugural year, the program won the Best Practices Award at the Alaska State Planning Banquet.

“The results so far have been positive, and it’s meeting our objectives of encouraging redevelopment in our downtown, and improving the streetscape of the highway corridors,” says Stephanie Queen, Soldotna Director of Economic Development and Planning.

Orlando’s Main Street Program
In 2007, with guidance and resources from the National Main Street Center, Orlando, FL became one of only five cities to establish its own Main Street Program, which are more commonly set up as state programs. The program aims to develop culturally and commercially significant streets in distinct neighborhoods.

Orlando has designated eight different main street districts ranging from a sizable and regionally significant market street that is a mile long to several smaller neighborhood-based main streets. A main street district is set up as a tax-exempt non-profit with a paid executive director and a volunteer board of directors. They receive some funding from the City and also raise their own funds through events and donations.

Main street districts facilitate community events, promote the district as a distinctive place to shop and visit, beautify the streetscape, and recruit new businesses. The program has supported 494 new businesses, nearly 3,000 full and part-time jobs and over 300 housing units from 2008 to 2013.

“We’ve seen what a great benefit this has been to the city of Orlando, and it has really helped our small businesses during this tough recession period. They had someone pulling for them and they weren’t on their own,” says Orlando Main Street Coordinator Pauline Eaton.

Local Leaders Council