News & Views

Placemaking for the People, by the People

This past year has proved how adaptable human beings can be when the pressure is on, demonstrating time and again that placemaking relies heavily on people more than anything else. It’s time to consider the long-term lessons we should be learning, however, to engage in even more impactful placemaking.

While we look to the future – whatever it may resemble – one thing is becoming increasingly clear. These quick adaptations that have helped us through the pandemic, through the election season, through an entirely new reality, are indicative of something bigger. They point to longer term solutions that could lead to permanent evolutions in how cities and regions support their local communities.

None of it seems obvious at first. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees when you’re still in the thick of it, as we are, but let’s revisit some of the year’s success stories to understand how to enhance placemaking by looking at how people and how their ingenuity may be a saving grace.

The takeaway is that while large companies and big investments are great for attracting attention to a region, it’s good for morale, and for business, to focus on the smaller endeavors that are no less impactful. Placemaking efforts, once again, need to focus on the individuals who are already making a region worth considering, for businesses or professionals looking to make a move. Stop and think what stories you can share now with the following few ideas in mind.

Business pivots

It was a big year for small businesses in two very important ways. First, they were hammered by the shutdowns provoked by the pandemic. Yes, it wasn’t just the stock market that hurt. Some studies suggest that a quarter of the country’s small businesses have closed, many permanently, making this a devastating loss for employees and those they once employed. Places like New Orleans and San Francisco have been particularly hard hit.

On the flipside, however, never has support for local business been so pronounced in communities across the nation. Distilleries pivoted to produce hand sanitizer. Restaurants turned to take-out dining and delivery services. Cultural institutions served up virtual programing to families sitting at home, helping to pass the time.

Moving forward, it’s clear that regions and cities need to tap into these local businesses more than ever before. We have to ask ourselves, why did it take a pandemic to awaken us to the potential of our local talent? Placemakers looking to position their regions for new businesses or new talent need to underscore this ingenuity, time and again, before, during and after any challenge that may come our way, pandemic or otherwise.

Work from home

Few would immediately bemoan having staff meetings in their pajamas, but the realities of working from home have been less glamorous for everyone. Parents, especially, have been tasked with full-time jobs and full-time educating, a contract they had never signed initially. Still, our ability to overcome this hurdle with panache is another feather in the cap for communities nationwide.

Restauranteurs who never delivered before were now providing meal kits (see pivots, above!). Teachers were adapting quickly to virtual learning and finding new ways to engage students. Communities were following the data and local guidance – none so clearly as in New York – where solidarity and unity helped allow people to return to work in a city that was once touted as the epicenter of the epidemic.

Not bad, eh?

These shifts in our habits and, more importantly, in our mindsets, have proven how pliable and mutable our local communities are once again. It’s not just about working from home. It’s the bigger picture. We can make sacrifices for the greater good, and regions that have successfully done so need to tap into this mentality more often, to realize people’s roles in placemaking, and how locals – not just newcomers – see themselves as part of the process.

Election mid-pandemic

We’re not going to get political. Not here at least. But let’s look at the groundswell of support that erupted in recent months across the United States. It wasn’t just the 2020 election, either. The protests and demonstrations surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement underscore that, even in a pandemic, our local communities care about what happens in the long-run. We weren’t waiting for a quick fix vaccine or a cure to get us back to normal. People wanted something better than before. Many were looking beyond COVID-19 and engaging people do the same.

And that’s a good thing for regions looking to attract new investments and new talent. No matter your party or creed, it’s a positive trait to have an engaged citizenry. Knowing that people care about their community creates a more long-term, sustainable vision for the future. So for companies expanding or professionals looking to relocate, effective placemaking that positions activism and betterment at the forefront will not go unnoticed.

So yes, while switching from Bourbon to hand sanitizer or protesting in the streets may just seem like one Band-Aid after another, let’s not forget how short-term adaptations lead to the successful evolutions that make a place worth living – and investing – in. Placemaking, again, is about the people, and development will only succeed as far as local communities will allow it.

By highlighting adaptive, creative, forward-thinking and engaged citizenry, your placemaking efforts will help position your region above those where people are less engaged and, possibly, less valued. Given the choices, which story do you want to tell in your placemaking efforts?

Curious about how to reposition your region while building placemaking strategies for the future? DCI is here to help. Contact our very own Dariel Curren at [email protected] for information on how to move forward in a new way, a way that keeps the future in mind to enhance economic development for your community.

Written By

Dariel Curren

Dariel is the Executive Vice President at Development Counsellors International and directs the Economic Development Division. Since joining DCI in 1995, she has worked for clients spanning the globe, including destinations from Maine to Miami and from New York to New Zealand.

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