What if we built our communities around places?

As both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region, Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban design, Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.

With community-based participation at its center, an effective Placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.

When PPS surveyed website visitors about what Placemaking means to them, we found that it is a crucial and deeply-valued process for those who feel intimately connected to the places in their lives. Placemaking shows people just how powerful their collective vision can be. It helps them to re-imagine everyday spaces, and to see anew the potential of parks, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, neighborhoods, streets, markets, campuses and public buildings.

Placemaking begins at the smallest scale.

Placemaking is not a new idea. Although PPS began consistently using the term “Placemaking” in the mid-1990s to describe our approach, the thinking behind Placemaking gained traction in the 1960s, when PPS mentors like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte introduced groundbreaking ideas about designing cities for people, not just cars and shopping centers. Their work focuses on the social and cultural importance of lively neighborhoods and inviting public spaces: Jacobs encouraged everyday citizens to take ownership of streets through the now-famous idea of “eyes on the street,” while Holly Whyte outlined key elements for creating vibrant social life in public spaces. Applying the wisdom of these (and other) urban pioneers, since 1975 PPS has gradually developed a comprehensive Placemaking approach.

Throughout our experience working with over 300o communities – in all 50 US states and in 43 countries – PPS continues to show by example how adopting a collaborative community process is the most effective approach for creating and revitalizing public spaces. For us, Placemaking is both a process and a philosophy. It is centered around observing, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work, and play in a particular space in order to understand their needs and aspirations for that space and for their community as a whole. With this knowledge, we can come together to create a common vision for that place. The vision can evolve quickly into an implementation strategy, beginning with small-scale “Lighter Quicker Cheaper” improvements that bring immediate benefits both to the spaces themselves and the people who use them.


When you focus on place, you do everything differently

Unfortunately, the rigid planning processes of the 20th century have become so institutionalized that community stakeholders rarely have the chance to voice their own ideas and aspirations about the places they inhabit. Placemaking can break down these silos by showing planners, designers, and engineers the broad value of moving beyond the narrow focus of their own professions, disciplines, agendas. Experience has shown us that when developers and planners welcome this kind of grassroots involvement, they spare themselves a lot of headaches. Common problems like traffic-dominated streets, little-used parks, and isolated or underperforming development projects can be addressed – or altogether avoided – by embracing a model of Placemaking that views a place in its entirety, rather than zeroing in on isolated components.


Even though cities ultimately fail or succeed at the scale of “place,” this is the scale that is so often overlooked.


Key Principles of Placemaking

The PPS Placemaking approach can be a springboard for community revitalization. Emerging from forty years of practice, our 11 Principles of Placemaking offer guidelines to help communities (1) integrate diverse opinions into a cohesive vision, (2) translate that vision into a plan and program of uses, and (3) ensure the sustainable implementation of the plan. Turning a shared vision into a reality–into a truly great place–means finding the patience to take small steps, to truly listen, and to see what works best in a particular context.

Just as community input is essential to the Placemaking process, it is equally important to have a mutual understanding of the ways in which great places foster successful social networks and benefit multiple stakeholders and initiatives at once. The 11 Principles, along with and other tools we’ve developed for improving places (such as the Power of 10), have helped citizens bring immense changes to their communities–changes that are often far more extensive than the original vision had imagined.


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The Place Diagram is one of the tools PPS has developed to help communities evaluate places. The inner ring represents a place’s key attributes, the middle ring its intangible qualities, and the outer ring its measurable data.



What makes a great Place?

The Place Diagram is one of the tools PPS has developed to help communities evaluate places. The inner ring represents a place’s key attributes, the middle ring its intangible qualities, and the outer ring its measurable data.


From theory to practice: Placemaking grows into an international movement

Placemaking is at the heart of PPS’s work and mission, but we do not trademark it as our property. It belongs to anyone and everyone who is sincere about creating great places, and who understands how a strong sense of place can influence the physical, social, emotional, and ecological health of individuals and communities everywhere. We do feel a responsibility to continue protecting, practicing, and advocating for the community-driven, bottom-up approach that Placemaking describes. To be successful, this process requires great leadership and action on all levels. Leaders need not, and certainly should not, have all the answers, and by acknowledging this, and providing space for experimentation and collaboration, Placemaking allows an even bolder process to unfold.

Today, the term “Placemaking” is used in many settings–not just by citizens and organizations committed to grassroots community improvement, but also by planners and developers who use it as a “brand” to imply authenticity and quality, even if their projects don’t always live up to that promise. But using “Placemaking” in reference to a process that isn’t really rooted in public participation dilutes its potential value. Making a place is not the same as constructing a building, designing a plaza, or developing a commercial zone. As more communities engage in Placemaking and more professionals come to call their work “Placemaking,” it is important to preserve the meaning and integrity of the process. A great public space cannot be measured by its physical attributes alone; it must also serve people as a vital community resource in which function always trumps form. When people of all ages, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds can not only access and enjoy a place, but also play a key role in its identity, creation, and maintenance, that is when we see genuine Placemaking in action.

Placemaking pays close attention to the myriad ways in which the physical, social, ecological, cultural, and even spiritual qualities of a place are intimately intertwined, and we continue to be inspired by the visionary Placemakers who have worked to promote this vision for generations. Through the Placemaking Leadership Council, PPS is working to establish a broad network of Place advocates and practitioners, and to help leverage the growing momentum of the Placemaking movement. We have also organized the Future of Places conference series, along with partners UN Habitat and Ax:son Johnson, to support the practice and impact of Placemaking internationally, with a focus on urbanization and global developing cities.

Placemaking belongs to everyone: its message and mission is bigger than any one person or organization. As a “backbone organization,” PPS remains dedicated to supporting the movement, growing the network, and sharing our experience and resources with Placemakers and allies everywhere.

Placemaking is

  • Community-driven
  • Visionary
  • Function before form
  • Adaptable
  • Inclusive
  • Focused on creating destinations
  • Context-specific
  • Dynamic
  • Trans-disciplinary
  • Transformative
  • Flexible
  • Collaborative
  • Sociable

Placemaking is not

  • Top-down
  • Reactionary
  • Design-driven
  • A blanket solution or quick fix
  • Exclusionary
  • Car-centric
  • One-size-fits-all
  • Static
  • Discipline-driven
  • One-dimensional
  • Dependent on regulatory controls
  • A cost/benefit analysis
  • Project-focused


Effective public spaces are extremely difficult to accomplish, because their complexity is rarely understood. As William (Holly) Whyte said, “It’s hard to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”

In our 1999 book How to Turn a Place Around, PPS identified 11 key elements in transforming public spaces into vibrant community places, whether they’re parks, plazas, public squares, streets, sidewalks or the myriad other outdoor and indoor spaces that have public uses in common. This was a key milestone in our history, as this book helped to launch and define the Placemaking movement. These elements are:

  1. The Community Is The Expert

    The important starting point in developing a concept for any public space is to identify the talents and assets within the community. In any community there are people who can provide an historical perspective, valuable insights into how the area functions, and an understanding of the critical issues and what is meaningful to people. Tapping this information at the beginning of the process will help to create a sense of community ownership in the project that can be of great benefit to both the project sponsor and the community.

  2. Create a Place, Not a Design

    If your goal is to create a place (which we think it should be), a design will not be enough. To make an under-performing space into a vital “place,” physical elements must be introduced that would make people welcome and comfortable, such as seating and new landscaping, and also through “management” changes in the pedestrian circulation pattern and by developing more effective relationships between the surrounding retail and the activities going on in the public spaces. The goal is to create a place that has both a strong sense of community and a comfortable image, as well as a setting and activities and uses that collectively add up to something more than the sum of its often simple parts. This is easy to say, but difficult to accomplish.

  3. Look for Partners

    Partners are critical to the future success and image of a public space improvement project. Whether you want partners at the beginning to plan for the project or you want to brainstorm and develop scenarios with a dozen partners who might participate in the future, they are invaluable in providing support and getting a project off the ground. They can be local institutions, museums, schools and others.

  4. You Can See a Lot Just By Observing

    We can all learn a great deal from others’ successes and failures. By looking at how people are using (or not using) public spaces and finding out what they like and don’t like about them, it is possible to assess what makes them work or not work. Through these observations, it will be clear what kinds of activities are missing and what might be incorporated. And when the spaces are built, continuing to observe them will teach even more about how to evolve and manage them over time.

  5. Have a Vision

    The vision needs to come out of each individual community. However, essential to a vision for any public space is an idea of what kinds of activities might be happening in the space, a view that the space should be comfortable and have a good image, and that it should be an important place where people want to be. It should instill a sense of pride in the people who live and work in the surrounding area.

  6. Start with the Petunias: Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper

    The complexity of public spaces is such that you cannot expect to do everything right initially. The best spaces experiment with short term improvements that can be tested and refined over many years! Elements such as seating, outdoor cafes, public art, striping of crosswalks and pedestrian havens, community gardens and murals are examples of improvements that can be accomplished in a short time.

  7. Triangulate

    “Triangulation is the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to other strangers as if they knew each other” (Holly Whyte). In a public space, the choice and arrangement of different elements in relation to each other can put the triangulation process in motion (or not). For example, if a bench, a wastebasket and a telephone are placed with no connection to each other, each may receive a very limited use, but when they are arranged together along with other amenities such as a coffee cart, they will naturally bring people together (or triangulate!). On a broader level, if a children’s reading room in a new library is located so that it is next to a children’s playground in a park and a food kiosk is added, more activity will occur than if these facilities were located separately.

  8. They Always Say “It Can’t Be Done”

    One of Yogi Berra’s great sayings is “If they say it can’t be done, it doesn’t always work out that way,” and we have found it to be appropriate for our work as well. Creating good public spaces is inevitably about encountering obstacles, because no one in either the public or private sectors has the job or responsibility to “create places.” For example, professionals such as traffic engineers, transit operators, urban planners and architects all have narrow definitions of their job – facilitating traffic or making trains run on time or creating long term schemes for building cities or designing buildings. Their job, evident in most cities, is not to create “places.” Starting with small scale community-nurturing improvements can demonstrate the importance of “places” and help to overcome obstacles.

  9. Form Supports Function

    The input from the community and potential partners, the understanding of how other spaces function, the experimentation, and overcoming the obstacles and naysayers provides the concept for the space. Although design is important, these other elements tell you what “form” you need to accomplish the future vision for the space.

  10. Money Is Not the Issue

    This statement can apply in a number of ways. For example, once you’ve put in the basic infrastructure of the public spaces, the elements that are added that will make it work (e.g., vendors, cafes, flowers and seating) will not be expensive. In addition, if the community and other partners are involved in programming and other activities, this can also reduce costs. More important is that by following these steps, people will have so much enthusiasm for the project that the cost is viewed much more broadly and consequently as not significant when compared with the benefits.

  11. You Are Never Finished

    By nature good public spaces that respond to the needs, the opinions and the ongoing changes of the community require attention. Amenities wear out, needs change and other things happen in an urban environment. Being open to the need for change and having the management flexibility to enact that change is what builds great public spaces and great cities and towns.









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