Place Making: Turning Our Communities Into Places We Are Proud Of

In one of those totally unpredictable shifts in sensibility that occur when least expected, it is the landscape architects who are re-engaging today’s radically innovative aesthetic with human needs and social functions; this is where the essential connections with the human condition are being made. And just in time, as architects, seduced by celebrity and technology, engaged in a dead-end contest in egos and engineering, have become more fixated on object making than place making, more removed from the intrinsic social purposes of their art.

Ada Louis Huxtable

How do we turn the places we inhabit into the places we want to live in, work in and play in?

Have you ever gone on vacation to a historic city, perhaps Charleston, Missoula, Savannah, St. Augustine, or Williamsburg and wished you lived there, or wished simply that where you did live was more like those places of character you love to visit? Our images of those places, how we identify with those cities, are by the districts, neighborhoods and public space venues that define them.  New Orleans is branded by Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, and of course, the rich musical history associated with that region. New York City has many cultural and identifiable districts from Central Park to Times Square, Chelsea and the Highline to Battery Park, and of course the rich ethnic boroughs beyond.

French Quarter-New Orleans & Times Square-New York City, Author’s Photos
French Quarter-New Orleans & Times Square-New York City, Author’s Photos

So what is place making?

How can we make those places we actually do live and work in like the places we love to visit? The National Endowment for the Arts is promoting this very ideal around the country, partnering with cities to encourage this very undertaking. Portland, Maine has embarked on something called Meeting Place, which Kad Benfield of Better! Cities and Towns (09 Jan 2013) reports, aims to “encourage civic dialogue, restore a sense of neighborhood pride and unity, engage new and diverse neighborhood voices, identify and empower community leaders, improve the quality of place, and strengthen the cultural and economic vitality of neighborhoods.”

Our town of Cincinnati, Ohio is enjoying a rejuvenation of one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city: Over the Rhine, or OTR, as we know it. It is a great example of creative place making, which aims to rebuild community by encouraging the arts and “maker” culture to drive economic growth and vitality. This neighborhood is also rich in a stock of Hyper-Adaptable buildings which are ripe for re-use into living units, shops, restaurants and artisan and craftsman work spaces. Examples include the recently revived brewery district brewers who have returned to their German roots and began brewing beer here again. Rookwood Pottery has returned to its roots and is in production of tiles, pottery, ornaments and all that they were known for here once again.

While there is some organic growth taking place, it hasn’t happened by accident. Planners, designers and city leaders along with property and business owners, worked together and expressed a desire and will to turn what was the low point for this city just a decade ago when the race riots erupted in this very neighborhood, into a Renaissance of energy and new development in this city, while the economy still sluggishly tries to return to health around it.

Over the Rhine–Gateway, Cincinnati, Ohio     Image Source, Image Source
Over the Rhine–Gateway, Cincinnati, Ohio Image Source, Image Source

Place Making is a Rebirth

So, place making is a call to arms to all of us to return to “the intrinsic social purposes of our art,” of our endeavors, our social contract with one another to redefine our communities, our neighborhoods and our public spaces. For all of us regardless of our vocations, our task is to go about turning our communities into places we are proud of. To define our community’s brand, make it in our collective image, and share it with our neighbors. Our passion for this work shall lie not in the satisfaction of our accomplishments, but in the hopes of what is still possible.