What Do We Mean By Placemaking?

I grew up in two distinctly different agricultural landscapes, the flat corn and soybean fields of central Iowa and the rolling hills of wheat and lentils in southeast Washington state, and developed a strong attachment to both. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of family road trips across the United States and a trip to see my sister’s family in South Korea. After graduating from high school, I was fortunate to move around and see a lot: Bellingham, Washington; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Tucson, Arizona; coastal Orange County, California; and now the Sacramento Valley. Each of these places left a mark on me, and so it makes sense that, as a professional, I want to make a mark on the places where I work.

The concept of placemaking requires that the creation and enhancement of a place through architecture and infrastructure go beyond a small group of planners, design professionals, government officials, and landowners to involve a broad cross-section of the community. In doing so, placemaking efforts become grounded in a certain environment and its people. In their book Placemaking on a Budget, Al Zelinka and Susan Jackson Harden (2006) define placemaking as:

The process of adding value and meaning to the public realm through community-based revitalization projects rooted in local values, history, culture, and natural environment.

Zelinka and Harden refer to placemaking as a process because community leaders need to consider different perspectives in order to develop community consent on the character of a place and strategies to enhance that character. A place is perceived through each of the five senses and, like food, art, music, perfumes and colognes, or clothing fabrics, people have different likes and dislikes. Cultural differences can also potentially lead to conflicts over the symbolic meaning of a place and preferred direction. Lynda Schneekloth and Robert Shibley (1995) argue that placemaking should involve an opportunity for dialogue, where the community can discuss and develop their shared stories. Community involvement should be coupled with research and observation (Zelinka and Harden 2005, p. 1).

Support for public art is a relatively inexpensive placemaking strategy. Public art has been an important part of public buildings and infrastructure in the state of Washington, even prior to the establishment of the “½ of 1% for Art” program in 1974 that funds public art through the state’s capital construction budget. Under this program, local committees are responsible for making the final selection on artwork. Western Washington University in Bellingham has a premier outdoor sculpture collection that enhances the natural beauty and built environment of the campus. The City of Seattle also has a percent-for-art program that has funded the landmark inlaid bronze dance steps on Broadway and Hammering Man at the Seattle Arts Museum. The City employs panels consisting of professional artists and community and city representatives to evaluate applications.

These types of placemaking projects can come from the private sector as well. The private non-profit group Manteca Mural Society, founded in 2002 in Manteca, California, has so far completed 13 murals in Downtown Manteca celebrating the city’s connection to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, community organizations, city history, and children. The City Redevelopment Agency teamed with the group to create plazas along with these murals. Four new murals are planned for dedication in mid-April 2012. Placemaking on a Budget offers a treasure trove of these types of projects initiated and implemented by the community.

I have found myself drawn to downtown planning because a downtown often embodies a community’s history, is where a community comes together for casual meetings and celebrations, and represents the community for residents and visitors, but special places can be created anywhere. The key step in the placemaking process is to identify the role of that place for the community, in the past, present, and future. As Shneekloth and Shibley note, “Placemaking is not just about the relationships of people to their places; it also creates relationships among people in places (p. 1)”.


Schneekloth, Lynda H. and Robert G. Shibley. 1995. Placemaking: The Art and Practice of Building Communities. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Zelinka, Al and Susan Jackson Harden. 2006. Placemaking on a Budget: Improving Small Towns, Neighborhoods & Downtowns Without Spending a Lot of Money. Chicago, IL: American Planning Association Planning Advisory Service.

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