Places in the Making – new report from MIT

In this blog we often write about Place Development, Place Branding and Place Management as fundamental factors in the innovation based process to achieve Place Excellence. Last week, when I was doing research for another article on the subject Top Travel destinations 2014, I was delighted to find that an interesting new report within the area of Place Planning and Development had been published.

clip_image002Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, and their department of Urban Studies and Planning recently published a report titled Places in Making: how placemaking builds places and communities.

The department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at MIT is one of the premier urban planning schools in the world, and they are home to the largest urban planning faculty in the United States. They conduct research within MIT’s well-known culture of innovation and interdisciplinary knowledge creation where they combine rigorous academic studies with active engagement in development of neighbourhoods, cities, regions and nations. In the 20th century, the School came to be known as a leader in introducing modernism to America.

Development of places and placemaking, as we know it, can trace it roots back to the seminal works of the urban thinkers like William Whyte, Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch, who in the 1960’s, promoted a new way to understand and think about human behaviour in urban setting. Their theories were most certainly ground breaking at the time, but in the decades since then  our understanding of these topics has grown up.

Today, placemaking includes several diverse and complex dimensions in order to reach success, not the least from challenges with globalisation, increased complexity and increasing importance of intangible factors. The illustration below shows a graph from the book Place Management, which we published in Bearing two years ago and where we illustrated the changing place climate since the 1950s.


The main conclusions of the MIT report is that the importance of placemaking through a pro-active management process, is a fundamental factor that has often has been overlooked in the work towards other goals. Recent trends rely fundamentally on strong, strategic and inclusive foundational process, and as a whole, placemaking has become more interactive and iterative.

clip_image004Placemaking has, until now, mostly mirrored what has happened in countless other fields in the past decade. The new model of placemaking however rather share information, embraces impermanence and emphasizes flexibility. It empowers all individuals to become place managers and creators, form associations and to share ideas.

The most successful and interesting placemaking projects today all point toward a new “making focused” paradigm for the practise; it shows a true act of doing rather than just planning, and the public and private sector place managers, community advocates, public officials and funders all have an important role in successful placemaking.

Outlined below are the reports key recommendations for framing conversation and action within the field.

  • The placemaking universe is expanding: think more broadly about the potential benefits for your specific place or community. It is through involvement in the creation, management and branding of a city, that citizens are most likely to identify with it and, thereby, also thrive and act as good representatives of it.
  • Show that it is working – or that it isn’t. And then do something about it! Many placemaking projects do not include any plan and way to measure success, which is a fundamental mistake. Therefore, before the project even begins leaders need to ask both what specifically do we hope to achieve with this project? and how will we know when we have been successful?
  • Embrace the benefits of open-source placemaking: support national and international placemaking communities. Placemaking has much to gain by sharing knowledge and information, and the field is moving towards a more open-source model that makes this easier. Place managers and project leaders should do all they can to foster a sense of collaboration and not competition with other placemakers.
  • Look far and wide for placemaking tools that might work. Adept and proficient placemakers are strategic about embracing all the possibilities and thinking about the continuous creation of the place. Hence, it is important to research and benchmark every aspect of the project.

Lastly the authors conclude that success is not reached simply by finalising one project. It is often reached by identifying on going “to-do” activities and thereafter engage all people around them; creating a mutual relationship between the community and the place that lifts the placemaking projects above the simple sum of the parts. A wisdom that I think is important to keep in mind in most of what we are doing. Commonly it is just as simple as the wise man Aristotle once expressed it – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In the conclusion, the report writes:

What separates the projects we brag about from the disappointments? It clearly isn’t the “type” of project; case studies highlighted in this paper range from volunteer and community-driven temporary events to large urban parks with multi-million dollar budgets and big-name funders. Rather, the most successful projects seem to be those that can combine tactics that historically would have been kept separate.


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