telling the placemaking story

“Place matters” is a familiar declaration. Its common use shows that profiling places, especially creative, urban places, is very much in vogue. For instance, the phrase graces the Atlantic Cities masthead, is the title of a New York City project that protects distinctive local environments, frames a non-profit corporation and is a campaign of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Similarly, the term “placemaking” has reached critical mass. The founder of the place-centric Project for Public Spaces (PPS), Fred Kent, recently recounted the increasing role of PPS around the world, including an interview in The Atlantic, here.

While placemaking is not a profession, it is certainly a practice that has spread across multiple disciplines, far beyond design and planning roots.

One placemaking premise is to avoid politics and pedantic debate (such as “new” v. “landscape” urbanism)—one of the tenets of the movement is efficiency, often without “starchitecture” or directed urban redevelopment. Rather, placemaking is frequently a low-cost, facilitated exercise which helps enhance people’s faith in their cities and neighborhoods.

Accessible media about placemaking includes articles (e.g. Lisa Rochon in the November 25 Globe and Mail), webcasts (e.g. last year’s National Endowment for the Arts panel discussion here), and the currently touring film by Gary Hustwit, Urbanized. In my home town, the Seattle Times’ “Seattle Sketcher”, Gabriel Campinario, often champions placemaking concepts through his regular, community-based illustrations.

Since writing my article last week on how best to portray city life, I have been pondering which form of media is best-suited to convey the stories of places where people want to live.

Based on my own familiarity with the role of public comment and expert testimony in regulatory decision-making, including the influential voices of citizens at a public hearing, I began a search for compiled, consolidated voices on a variety of topics addressing what makes a livable place. I wanted more than generic “happiness surveys” and similar, more data-oriented presentations.

I concluded that we need more than instructive YouTube videos, such as the Streetfilms series. Rather, we need a syndicated, “60 Minute”-style production, which offers interviews about the universality of placemaking, while distinguishing the narrative, custom stories of varied communities.

Then, I discovered such a radio show is already at work, on the other side of the country, in Miami: Place Matters, with Dr. Katherine Loflin.

From my direct follow-up with Loflin, it is clear that the show is off to a promising start.

Place Matters runs Thursday at 11:00 am EST on Miami’s WZAB, 880-AM. It is podcast accessible, and Loflin’s interviews and unique focus are well worth a listen. According to Loflin, it is the only nationally focused radio show in the country explicitly devoted to placemaking:

Through the show I wanted to bring on representatives of diverse systems in “community” (i.e., political/municipal leaders, young people, corporate, philanthropy, researchers, planners, university presidents, filmmakers, celebrity, technology folks, everyday residents etc.) and have them at some point testify how their work and/or background informs a discovery or conclusions that “place matters.” My thinking was if you could look at my guest list and see a very diverse group of folks coming to the same conclusion on the importance of place from their perspective, it would make a powerful, almost universal, statement.

As a veteran, former program director at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Lead National Expert on Knight’s Soul of the Community project, in partnership with Gallup, Loflin is no stranger to the relationships between people and place. The study’s findings on what ties people to their communities helped to frame the show’s concentration.

Loflin explained the project as backdrop to her pursuit of a radio show:

We had been doing well-being studies for a while. They have been called happiness studies, well-being surveys, indicator projects, and the like and they stay important. But they only tell half the story.

Soul of the Community went further. To understand our experiences and existence, we looked at personal outcomes in the context of place—why people wanted to live where they do—and why location matters to them to begin with. We then derived roadmaps of indicated action. These roadmaps are available for further use to help grow people’s attachment to a place and perhaps impact economic growth as a result.

When we spoke last week, Loflin’s graduate degrees in social work with journalistic and community practice concentrations were clear. I asked her about the show’s goals, and about the challenges of translating placemaking to the public over the air. She replied enthusiastically:

Being the only nationally focused radio show on placemaking, the show was an experiment at first. But clearly audience interest and feedback shows a continued need for a 30 minute shot of placemaking each week, perhaps even an hour, as this topic continues to take off and take root across the country.

Through the show, I wanted to raise the placemaking conversation, reflect that conversation back to the field and provide a platform to show the wide range of sectors coming to the same conclusions about the importance of place. I think I am off to a good start, but there is more to do and many more stories, ideas, research findings, and thought leaders to showcase in order to move the field forward.

Loflin’s “good start” is notable in its diversity, and often builds from Soul of the Community findings. The first show featured PPS’s Kent in late September. Loflin’s further shows have featured several on-the-ground examples in Detroit, Toronto, and Chicago.

Based on my review of several of the podcasts, Loflin’s common themes show important sensitivity to the specific context of a place, from the Detroit renaissance to technological opportunity to inventory place in Chicago, and she is most fond of a very key point: Soul of the Community findings show that Generation Y will often move to a city without guarantee of employment, if the place has draw for other reasons.

Her guests largely center on approaches to community development, based on local preference rather than any tendency to unthinkingly adopt a best practice from another place. She clearly allied with Kent in her inaugural interview: look to what community members want, especially younger representatives. Rather than “bag the buffalo”, seek lighter, quicker and cheaper ways to revitalize a community.

Among her more recent guests: Nick Arnett, age 19, who is central to an effort to make Fort Wayne, Indiana a better place with his 12 cities in 12 month placemaking tour, and Sarah Marder of Milan, Italy, who is in the process of filming The Genius of a Place about challenges to Cortona’s unique identity after the attention brought to the town by the work of Frances Mayes (see my piece on Marder’s work here).

I asked Loflin why, given her show’s uniqueness, she chose a title, Place Matters, which was in frequent use already. “Well, honestly, I didn’t know when I started that quite so many things and organizations already use that moniker,” she said. “However, my reasoning when I was formulating the show was that I found myself saying it so much in my speeches—it was a core message.”

She elaborated on her as-applied focus:

After I discovered that so many others use “place matters”, I researched it further and found that still in fact my show’s message and focus was unique as a nationally focused showcase/platform/clearinghouse for place. Plus, as part of Soul of the Community, we really centered on the dissemination and practical application of a project that some argue was the first to empirically show that place matters in real, measurable ways.

Loflin’s interviews suggest the potential for even greater focus by moving beyond her current themes and involving the more project-oriented architects, developers, elected officials and others (even lawyers), whose practices implicate the evolving city.

I asked Loflin, in closing, whether, without such specifics, might a radio show premised on popular terminology become an overbroad proposition. Perhaps predictably, she explained her step-by-step approach:

When you’re trying to get entire community systems to think differently about place, you have to start with the big ideas, and you have to get an initial following in all sectors to help spread the word. Recently, I have begun to showcase resident-led projects, where frankly I see the best placemaking ideas originate – and I think many local leaders, planners (and lawyers) would agree. Perhaps leaders will end up following local residents’ lead in some cases! But I also have a couple of mayors already offering to be guests in 2012 and hopefully they will encourage their counterparts in other cities to listen to the show and adopt a place-focused approach to their leadership as well. In 2012, I’m hoping that those stories can continue be told and provide community leaders and residents with a stream of placemaking ideas and projects that inspire the betterment of their place.

Loflin’s answer illustrates the importance of integrated and inclusive placemaking discussions. Place Matters may be among the best venues to tell the story in a new and universal way.

All images composed by the author. Click on each image for more detail.

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