A Placemaking Journal

It’s not me, it’s you (and you, and you)

I had the pleasure of presenting at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference last week in Kansas City, Missouri with Nathan Norris, Chad Emerson and Eliza Harris. Nathan assembled an entertaining panel (100 points to anyone who can identify the former Broadway star) to present the top 20 municipal placemaking mistakes. As we debated exactly what those top 20 were going to be, a lot of the usual suspects emerged — giving away connectivity, failure to provide resources for implementation, lack of a meaningful vision, ill-suited codes, and a host of others — all pointing to ill-advised actions or techniques. But what the discussion danced around was the software of the process: the personal leadership role of staff, advocates and elected officials.

In short, all the placemaking techniques in the world will fail if you embrace the tools but discount the skills of the person wielding them.

In Decatur, Georgia, where I serve as planning director, a big part of our successful redevelopment has been the elected officials and staff. They’re great listeners, willing to modify their plans to incorporate others’ ideas, and they avoid technical, wonky language when presenting or referencing our vision.

They have a well known philosophy of “Yes, if…” rather than “No, because…” when it comes to working with the development community. They show their belief in residents through small actions such as allowing unlimited time for public comments at commission meetings and large actions like convening a resident task force to update our zoning ordinance.

They make placemaking fun through entertaining planning processes, engaging communications materials, and plenty of special events (a.k.a parties).

Such actions are explicitly inclusive, encouraging those at all levels — elected leadership, city hall, advocates or just engaged residents — to personally invest, claiming a sense of ownership in the process and responsibility for the outcomes. And that’s the key. Community is a product of both people and place, so nothing sucks the fun out of placemaking more than removing yourselves from the process and leaving it all to the “experts.”

Speaking of fun, I presented my best practice recommendations in Kansas City in the form of a dance film. Dance is a lovely way to illustrate relationships and ideas. We are all in the process of shaping space, tangibly and intangibly. Here’s to doing it more consciously.

Happy Placemaking!

Amanda Thompson

P.S. Speaking of dance, the Zoetic Dance Ensemble, a non-profit organization of which I’m a member, has until February 18th to raise $5,000. Click here to donate and the City of Atlanta will match your donation dollar for dollar.

P.S.S. I bet Nathan Norris that I would beat his record for most blog post views. Please forward incessantly. If I win, Nathan will dance in public at the next New Partners for Smart Growth conference.

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