Strengthening Community Through Placemaking

Place affects our health and well-being

Strengthening Community Through Placemaking

Discover the power of placemaking, the process of enhancing our connections to ourselves, the environment, and each other through changes to the public spaces around us. Taking action to shape our surroundings allows us to discover a renewed sense of purpose and belonging, with benefits to our physical and emotional health.

Lifestyle, diet, and exercise are individual factors that affect our health. But how does our community—our place in this world—influence our emotional, physical, and mental well-being?

Research shows a connection

Public health researchers in Philadelphia recently studied neighbourhood- and community-level factors on individual health. They found that the risk of diabetes and other diseases isn’t just affected by individual factors such as diet, exercise, and education.

They also found that our physical and social environment directly affects our physical, mental, and emotional health. To fight disease, stay healthy, and decrease health care costs, we need to be involved in our communities. And that’s where placemaking comes in.

Placemaking helps us connect

Placemaking is a hands-on tool for improving a community, city, or region. It’s also about reimagining public space to increase our connection to our environment, to each other, and to our healthiest selves.

“Placemaking is about people,” says Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, a Toronto-based nonprofit organization that helps create vibrant communities. “Placemaking is about putting the ‘public’ back in public space. Our streets, parks, and public spaces belong to all citizens regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. These places should reflect the great diversity of its people.”

Great public spaces aren’t just about the “hardware” or design and infrastructure. A great space is also about the “software,” which includes its uses and activities.

Penalosa says, “Look at a public space in your city. Do you see people of all ages, abilities, genders, and economic backgrounds? Is the experience of a particular user or users more pleasant than another’s? Are there activities for people of different ages? Are certain groups excluded due to a problem with design or the sociability of the space?”

Alla Guelber is a Calgary-based environmental educator who agrees that placemaking isn’t just about infrastructure. “Rather, placemaking is about people gathering in public,” she says. “It’s about meeting each other as if we live, once again, in a village and are able to embrace the joy of interacting with our neighbours. Placemaking involves reclaiming a connection to our natural environment and the history and culture of our home.”

Our places—whether skateboard parks, off-leash dog areas, playgrounds, community gardens, or heritage houses—matter to us. No matter where we live—Tuktoyaktuk or Montreal—place is our common denominator. Place is what we share, and it can be a great equalizer.

Placemaking creates a sense of belonging

“We often respond emotionally to places that have character, culture, and a sense of place,” says placemaking consultant Katherine Loflin. “There is a sense of belonging that attracts us to that place and keeps us coming back.”

We inherently want to be in places that have a variety of social opportunities, in a physical surrounding where we feel a sense of belonging and pride. “These places speak to our soul and meet a very basic need that humans have,” she says. “I have often heard residents speak of their place as a part of the family, or even being a harbour in a storm when other things in their lives are going wrong.”

How to make your place

Effective placemaking is about creating a process that allows individuals to be directly engaged in decisions related to a public space’s design, use, and management. “It never ceases to amaze me how generous people are with their creativity, ideas, and time when they feel they are truly part of the process of improving and transforming a space,” says Penalosa.

Penalosa believes cities and communities need to be more creative about public engagement, and remember that what strikes a chord in one community may not work in another.

“Participation should be fun, inspiring, and creative,” he says. “It should also be multi-faceted. Placemakers need to try different ways to reach out to the public, and go directly to the people.”

Penalosa’s placemaking team has reached out to the public in community centres, schools, parks, and even at shopping malls—wherever people gather. This gives them opportunities to share big and little ideas about their neighbourhood. The more diverse the people involved, the easier it is to identify common interests and needs. If only a few community members are consulted, the “squeaky wheels” can dominate and sidetrack the process.

Motivating people to participate in placemaking isn’t always easy. Conflicts and frustrations arise. “Unfortunately, we often fear conflict,” says Penalosa. “But we need to learn to embrace it. The more people involved, the more ideas and needs are revealed. Sometimes they are contradictory. Conflict usually means placemakers are getting somewhere, because it shows people care.”

Placemaking can get messy and complicated—and it’s never finished. But the physical and emotional rewards for individuals and communities are priceless. “The most important thing,” Penalosa says, “is not to give up. A great place is one that is constantly evolving and adapting, based on the desires and needs of the community that uses it.”

Ideas for small projects

Placemakers Gil Penalosa, Alla Guelber, and Katherine Loflin offer suggestions for projects in your neighbourhood. “I recommend getting to know your neighbours before taking on bigger projects,” says Guelber. “Individual actions such as front yard projects can open up conversations and hearts, and lead to bigger ideas.”

  • Bring movable chairs and furniture into a public space. Watch people stop to chat; see how it transforms into a social gathering place.
  • Organize a “walking school bus” to encourage children to walk to school.
  • Build a “poetry post”—a laminated poem that is hung from a tree or attached to a wooden post, encouraging passersby to pause and reflect.
  • Do a secret cookie drop—bake cookies and leave them on the doorstep of a neighbour.
  • Set up a Little Free Library (littlefreelibrary.org).
  • Organize a costumed community bike ride through your neighbourhood. Organizations such as Cyclepalooza (cyclepalooza.ca) in Calgary, Velopalooza (velapalooza.ca) in Vancouver, and others across Canada have great tips.
  • Plant a garden in a place where people pass by. It might be your front yard, the boulevard, or green space. Work with your neighbours and community associations.
  • Close a street to cars a few Sundays every year. Let people walk, bike, and play on their street. “These are called Ciclovias or Open Streets,” says Penalosa. “They’ve been successful in many cities, including Bogota, Colombia, where we pioneered the program.”
  • Organize focus groups and workshops with older adults in your community. Find out if there are barriers that prevent them from using public areas.
  • Run pop-up town hall/public meetings in public spaces. Ask people how they think a space could be improved.
  • Create temporary or DIY street redesigns that are more people-friendly, with bicycle paths and wider sidewalks. Observe how it transforms the street, and try to leverage successes to create permanent improvements.
  • Do a Jane’s Walk (janeswalk.org)—a free, locally organized and led interactive walking tour that focuses on almost any aspect of a neighbourhood. Jane’s Walks occur in cities all over the world on the first weekend of May each year, in conjunction with founder Jane Jacobs’s birthday. Walks have been led by elected officials, residents, children, and many others; topics have included new developments, historical architecture, and “desire paths.” These walks can be exploratory, problem-solving, celebratory, or a mixture. Local sponsors can provide odometers, refreshments, or seed money to implement community projects.

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