When I first developed my interest in placemaking twenty years ago it was driven by design. I was a brand advertising person which, by necessity, involves the study of behavior. Not just of people but of their context.
Where and how people choose to live, I learned, provided a lot of insight into the kinds of things advertisers care about. Circumstances. Values. Aspirations. The things people choose to buy to get through their everyday lives.
It doesn’t tell you everything, of course, and for every broad stroke there’s no shortage of individuals who defy the generalization. But still, when you’re observing people in the aggregate, there’s a lot of content there.
But here’s the rub: Observing the data of the 90s made a pretty compelling case that Americans were in love with suburban/exurban life by a ridiculous margin. Flat out crazy about it. And that’s where I hit a disconnect.
I could certainly see some level of utility in the everyday subdivision. Shelter, relatable neighbors, access to decent schools and basic amenities. I could see how it provided a reasonably comfortable life at a seemingly accessible price. But I just couldn’t figure out what was so desirable that it would’ve come to dominate our notion of the American Dream.
That’s about the time I stumbled into the emerging collective of architects, engineers, and urban designers — known at the time as both new urbanists and neo-traditionalists — who’d felt the same thing. Only a lot earlier than I had. And they’d done a lot of work to figure out what was going on.I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version: People were disproportionately choosing single-use subdivisions because a host of immensely powerful forces — from Federal housing policy to Federal transportation policy to corporate finance to local zoning codes — had converged over the years in a mutually reinforcing tryst to ensure that that was the extent of the options.
In short, what was being viewed as an overwhelming preference for suburban life actually reflected a Soviet-level dearth of choice for Americans seeking a place to call home.
The design fix
It seemed pretty clear to me that these folks were getting it all figured out. They were out there, scrutinizing the well-loved, well-lived historic places. Figuring out what made them work. Measuring streets and set-backs. Understanding mixed use. Observing behavior. Trying to reconstruct a DNA of place that had evolved along with humans for millennia and then been lost.
Then they were designing and building new places around what they found. And guess what? Those places were proving desirable. In short order it became clear that a lot of people — perhaps 30% or more — had been choosing life in a subdivision not because it reflected exactly what they wanted but because it was all there was on the menu.
Now new projects with an integration of different housing types, uses, parks and civic amenities began outperforming similar housing in nearby subdivisions. People were willing to pay premiums of 25% or more to live there.
It was a critical finding. At the end of the day, the early practitioners of the New Urbanism accomplished something key: They revived a dying skill set and proved the existence of significant pent-up demand.
The inevitable downside
Of course, no one could satisfy the housing demands of 30% or more of Americans overnight. It would take decades to meet that — decades in which supply would inevitably fall short. And that means premium pricing and a lot of money to be made by development interests. Enough so that the solid new places being created developed, and continue to develop, a not unfounded reputation as enclaves for the affluent.
So then I had my next revelation: So long as this was playing out as it was, great places — be they new or historic — would become premium places. Enclaves outside the city; gentrifying neighborhoods in-town. Basic economics at play as demand continued to reveal itself and an increasing number of builders, developers and other interests emerged to meet it.
Such impacts are not benign. At the heart of placemaking is a desire for better places to live. For everyone. Where those of modest circumstances share in the choice, opportunity and amenity available to the more affluent.
There was no denying that the market had been rising to meet demand and that alone was a key part of the puzzle. But a marketplace pursuing its own interests was not fully getting it done.
The root of pretty much everything
That led me to the opinion I hold today. Placemaking is not just a design endeavor. Or a business proposition. Or a public health pursuit. Or an equity concern. Or an avenue for culture and the arts. It’s all of these things, and more. It’s the basis for how we, as human beings, organize ourselves. It’s how we physically embody our values in the built environment. It’s how we make opportunity available to all. It’s how we build resilient local economies and legitimize the prospects for people of all stripes to build wealth over their lifetimes.
But in the context of our present regulatory and financial environments, that doesn’t necessarily happen naturally, requiring the need for municipal intervention to ease the pains of change. Two things in particular: enabling meaningful placemaking so that good places can be built faster to meet demand; and, as that process unfolds, protecting — via tax policy, affordable housing initiatives, and similar endeavors — the most vulnerable who are frequently the casualties of rapid change.
Which means this: Placemaking is ultimately a governing strategy.
Local governments are the ones in the driver’s seat. They’re the ones who can facilitate a community vision and then build an operational and regulatory framework to enable it. But more importantly, they’re the ones that can ensure that, as that vision takes shape, the soul of the community is not lost.
Not every community will choose this path and that is what it is. But for those that do, you gotta be all in. Approving a curious mixed-use PUD, no matter how well designed, doesn’t cut it. It’s a novelty which, by definition, will exist in distinct contrast to the status quo when it should ultimately be redefining the status quo.
The only way to accomplish that, at least through the lens of my experiences, is to commit to the place where you are. Unreservedly and at all levels. Push towards a vision while vigorously recognizing and mitigating the impacts along the way.
Forego economic development, or environmental preservation, or anything else as the centerpiece of how you organize your efforts. Commit instead to a livable and lovable place, and to the worth of the people within it, and all those individual concerns — from quality of life to equity to resilience — will begin to find their own place within the bigger picture.
A bit of an oversell? Perhaps. But the preferences of 30% or more of Americans aren’t going to get met by niche providers. We need more than that. Something normative.
We need to get on with it.
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