Jan 13th, 2021

What is Placemaking: Examining the Art and Science

Elizabeth WellingtonPlaceLab’s contributing journalist and lifestyle writer pens her work in a historic Vermont farmhouse. Liz's writing has appeared in Vogue, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, BBC, and The Week.

On any typical day, Pearl, a 22-acre former brewery complex in San Antonio, Texas, is teeming with life. Teenagers hang out in the plaza, office workers come and go, and families pop into The Twig Book Shop for the latest read. While there are restaurants, local retailers, offices, residences and an award-winning hotel all along the San Antonio River, it is clear that the whole of the experience here is greater than the sum of its parts. What exactly are the magic ingredients that make Pearl the place where everyone wants to be?

Placemaking, a term used by designers, architects, developers and urban planners, is the intentional process that can help to turn places like Pearl into compelling, vibrant communities.

At Pearl, the community reimagined its historic buildings to cultivate a sense of place that’s both true to its San Antonio roots, and at the same time, forward-looking. Placemaking, a term used by designers, architects, developers and urban planners, is the intentional process that can help to turn places like Pearl into compelling, vibrant communities. In this article, we’ll explore why placemaking matters, what it takes to help it succeed, and the ways that this process can inspire us to rethink the way we work and live in 2021.

Pearl District, Photography by Visit San Antonio

Why Placemaking Matters

Priti Patel, the Program Manager for Placemaking at the Project for Public Spaces, a design and planning nonprofit, defines placemaking as “the collaborative process that taps into the talent and aspirations of a community and draws them out, sustaining both through public spaces.” Instead of a top-down approach, placemaking empowers stakeholders — especially those who already live and work in the surrounding neighborhood — to share their perspectives on what would serve them.

CANVAS Costa Mesa, art install from local artist Teddy Kelly. Photography by Ryan Garvin.

At EQ Office, we talk about giving the workspace a job. We believe that the same ethos extends to defining the role of any space or place in serving the greater good. In the process of placemaking, the end result is inherent in the means. Intentionality leads to quality places, which Michigan State University (MSU) defines as having “good form, good activity, and good land use or function.” Studies show that “quality of place” is not only a way of attracting younger talent, but also a way of providing other benefits that help to enhance a population’s health and happiness and overall quality of life.

Attracting dynamic talent hinges on the magnetism of a culture and community while offering visitors a tempting array of things to do and a place they want to be.

Although the ideas behind placemaking have traditionally focused on public amenities like parks, institutions and public markets, they’re just as essential for thriving businesses, neighborhoods and organizations. Attracting dynamic talent  hinges on the magnetism of a culture and community while offering visitors a tempting array of things to do and a place they want to be. As MSU writes in its report, “Business needs talent, talent wants quality places, and quality places need business.”  People crave a tangible sense of belonging and groundedness, and this has become even more critical in the wake of the pandemic.

Olafur Eliasson Public Art Install at Willis Tower, Chicago. Photography by Darris Harris

How to use Placemaking Principles

To create a place where human connection can blossom, leaders, developers and architects need to put people’s experience front and center and to encourage well-being, creativity and innovation. The following suggestions can help to unlock economic growth and create spaces where people grow and thrive. 

1. Listen to the Community

When organizations are tuned into the needs of their community, they create desirable areas for people to live and work. “The placemaking process starts with identifying the stakeholders, the community, the local champions, and reaching out to them early on,” says Patel. Interviews and surveys can yield insights for building safe, inclusive places that extend a sense of the community outside the office.

2. Honor the Geography and Culture of the Neighborhood

Patel notes that many companies are transforming lobbies into art galleries. Art installations from local creatives can not only be enjoyed by the tenants of the buildings but at the same time welcome passersby. Beautiful spaces that reflect local values and talents can have a powerful effect that reaches beyond the purely aesthetic. Landscape architecture, too, can fulfill a similar need: Local fauna and flora can ground a space, especially when they’re paired with local materials. 

3. Prioritize Local Talent and Partners

When selecting talent and partners, tap into the pool of local professionals. “Economic opportunities can really soak into a community’s social growth and social health, benefiting them in multiple ways, ” Patel says. She challenges leaders to commit to making room for local entrepreneurs, by presenting them with opportunities for retail and restaurant spaces. 

Programming offers an excellent way to strengthen a community. Instead of organizing closed networking events, transform feedback from neighbors into programs that invite people in. Farmer’s markets, free or discounted exercise classes for locals, and activities that engage local activists and performances all create occasions for  people to gather together. When leaders create a feedback loop with community members, they can experiment with exciting programs that cross demographic and socioeconomic lines.

4. Facilitate Open Programming

Similarly, Patel suggests that one of the most successful ways to build enduring connections with the local community is to engage professionals who live in the area and solicit their help in guiding management and maintenance processes. Offering free space to local nonprofits and including them in programming and philanthropic efforts is another way to build a shared sense of purpose in infusing new life into a neighborhood. 

Placemaking in a Post-COVID World

Our world has changed tremendously over the past year, and the placemaking process can help us adjust to the new realities. It offers an actionable blueprint for designing physical spaces that can be adapted as society’s needs evolve. After the unprecedented constraints of sheltering in place, professionals now crave interaction with dynamic communities and the chance to leave their cramped workplaces at home for the world outside.

Placemaking can add meaning to people’s lives and transform locations into neighborhoods where creativity and collaboration can flourish.

Spaces for in-person connections and community-building will be in high demand from now on in every aspect of people’s lives. Use of the workspace may look different going forward. We wouldn’t be surprised to see a group of co-workers holding a meeting on an open veranda instead of in a conference room, or taking a 30-minute walk together in place of a stand-up meeting. After long stretches of isolation, people will feel the need to build human connections and to put down deeper roots upon their return to work. 

Placemaking can add meaning to people’s lives and transform locations into neighborhoods where creativity and collaboration can flourish. The more quality places there are — in the workplace and beyond — the more we’ll be able to live into our purpose.


Putting the Power of 10 to Practice

The Project for Public Spaces challenges communities to create quality places with an idea they call the Power of 10. A place thrives when there are at least 10 unique things to do that build social connections between members of the community. “Scaling this up, a specific destination or neighborhood needs at least 10 places that offer people a reason to visit and spend time there. One more level up, a city needs at least 10 major destinations, creating a powerful network of a thousand things to do,” they write.

The organization uses the same principal in their own office, which ensures that people have the opportunity to fulfill their unique purpose and work together. What 10 things do you want to be able to do in your workplace, and how can you envision that in this new phygital (digital plus physical) world?

Elizabeth WellingtonPlaceLab’s contributing journalist and lifestyle writer pens her work in a historic Vermont farmhouse. Liz's writing has appeared in Vogue, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, BBC, and The Week.