Placemaking: People make “great places”

The concept of placemaking is the newest evolution in planning and it involves creating attractive, interesting and viable places that draw people. However, planners must never forget the key ingredient in a creating a “place” is people.

The evolution of planning has placed the process of placemaking at the center of community development. And the key tool to creating places is form-based codes. Not too long ago – and by “not too long ago,” I mean back to the time when the United States Supreme Court upheld zoning in the famous Village of Euclid, Ohio versus Amber Realty Company in 1926 – the highest court in the land gave communities the ability to regulate land use. Shortly before that case, the U.S. Department of Commerce produced a model zoning ordinance that was copied throughout the nation, the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1921. Thus Euclidian zoning was born as many cities saw zoning as a way to protect property values and reduce incompatible land uses. However, the 86 year old system has been called into question and has been deemed obsolete by many planners as an effective way to organize land uses and create economically viable places.

The new concept is placemaking and the new zoning tool is form-based codes. The major difference between form-based codes and Euclidian or traditional codes is that traditional codes focus on the separation of land uses while form-based codes focus on the built form. To form-based codes, uses are a secondary issue to the form and interconnectness of the buildings, streets and the overall organization of the neighborhood or other defined unit of development. Form-based codes are focused on creating interesting urban places as they seek to regulate such issues as building types and massing, land use categories, building standards and frontages. Their goal is to create a viable mixing of land uses that create desirable places.

Whether the form-based codes become the new zoning standard is still to be determined. In the meantime, Euclidian codes still dominate most American communities and regardless of the code type, people decide the overall desirability of a community. How different individuals come together and use spaces, places, and districts will determine the long term viability and sustainability of such areas.

Older cities like New York and Detroit grew initially in an unplanned process based on economic development and the need to bring together and move goods, services and people. Interesting places were created not by planners, architects or engineers, but by speculation and the need to accommodate economic growth and development. The interactions of people living, working, and playing in the defined spaces made these communities some of the most desirable places for urban dwellers. While the tremendous loss of population in Detroit has significantly change its collection of interesting places, it still retains urban places like Midtown, Downtown, Indian Village and other areas that still draw people because of the unique and interesting nature of these urban places.

Viable, sustainable urban places will always be defined by the people that use them and help to make them unique, interesting and desirable.

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