Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Waterfronts and waterways are one of a community’s greatest assets.  Water draws people in.   Where there is water, there are people.   People gather around water to relax, play and enjoy.

Water builds on a community’s authentic historical, cultural and environmental place-based assets and r provides a great opportunity for placemaking.   In many communities, lakes, rivers and pond have been long forgotten and are now unwelcoming spaces.  But plans are underway by private, public and nonprofit organizations to make these places destinations once again.

The first tenet of Dan Gilbert's master plan for downtown Detroit was to reconnect the Detroit River with the rest of the city.  The riverfront in Detroit was an industrial wasteland, Gilbert said, and its redevelopment of the riverfront is seen as an indispensable tool for the revitalization for Detroit as a whole.  Plans are underway, or have been completed, to build continuous green space along the river from Joe Louis Arena to Gabriel Richard Park including new landscaping and installation of LED lighting and interactive features along the park and several spots along the walk.

Gabriel Richard Park, Detroit, MI
Gabriel Richard Park, Detroit, MI

Waterfront Seattle is led by the City of Seattle's Office of the Waterfront, working closely with civic leaders, stakeholders and the broader Seattle public.   The project is the Pacific Northwest's largest civic project in a generation, a chance to reconnect Seattle to its waterfront and to re-center the city on Elliott Bay.  Waterfront Seattle spans the waterfront from Pioneer Square to Belltown and includes a rebuilt Elliott Bay Seawall, a new surface street providing access to and from downtown, new parks, paths, and access to Elliott Bay.

Waterfront Seattle, WA
Waterfront Seattle, WA

What began as a flood control project transformed into a year-round place for the community to gather.  Mauch Chunk Lake (between the boroughs of Jim Thorpe and Summit Hill, PA) was built in the late 70’s and now has become a popular vacation destination providing camping, swimming, picnicking, hiking, biking, fishing, and boating.

Mauch Chunk Lake, Jim Thorpe, PA
Mauch Chunk Lake, Jim Thorpe, PA

Nonprofit watershed organizations are promoting placemaking as a way to steward local water resources.  The Clinton River Watershed Council's WaterTowns and the Huron River Watershed Council's RiverUp! are programs focused on developing recreational opportunities and public spaces along waterways. Both organizations are part of a Southeast Michigan Water Trails Consortium, a group initiated by Wyandotte's Riverside Kayak Connection to develop and promote water trails across southeast Michigan with a focus on helping businesses take advantage of opportunities presented by the needs of recreational paddlers.

Downtown Utica, MI has a revamped river walk designed to bring people close to the Clinton River.  Photo by City of Utica.
Downtown Utica, MI has a revamped river walk designed to bring people close to the Clinton River. Photo by City of Utica.

And Realtors are getting in on the action too.   The Mainstreet Organization of REALTORS® (IL) is helping to turn an unkempt and unsightly area by a riverfront into a more welcoming, aesthetically pleasing place where people can gather and relax.  Plans include development of a community garden, benches, retaining walls and new plantings.


Lakefront Park, IL
Lakefront Park, IL

The Greater Harrisburg Association of REALTORS® (PA) is participating in Lighten Up Harrisburg to encourage residents to visit the waterfront along the Susquehanna River.   Their efforts will include  providing lighting in Riverfront Park and along the Walnut Street walking bridge to make the area safer and accessible in the evenings.


Riverfront Park, Harrisburg, PA
Riverfront Park, Harrisburg, PA

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) describes 10 qualities of a great waterfront destination.   Here are 3 of them.

  • Flexible Design Fosters Adaptability: Successful waterfronts must adapt to many changes that bring different users at different times. Programming and management are helpful in serving diverse audiences, but flexibility must also be built into the design of the place. Instead of a permanent stage, for example, which is well-used in the summer but not the winter, a retractable or temporary stage could be used. Likewise, it is important to have on-site storage for movable chairs, tables, umbrellas, and games so they can be used at a moment’s notice.
Long Island City’s Water Taxi Beach provides an example of the potential for NYC’s waterfront by successfully layering uses.
Long Island City’s Water Taxi Beach provides an example of the potential for NYC’s waterfront by successfully layering uses.

  • Activities go on Round-the-Clock and Throughout the Year:  Waterfronts that thrive year-round will reap substantial community and economic benefits. Rain or cold is no reason for a waterfront to sit empty. Creative programming can take rainy and winter weather into account, and smart use of amenities can provide protection from inclement weather. Likewise, people enjoy being by the water at night if appropriate lighting and special events make them feel welcome and safe.
Waterfire, a pyrotechnic public art project, brings crowds to downtown Providence in the evening hours.
Waterfire, a pyrotechnic public art project, brings crowds to downtown Providence in the evening hours.

  • Creative Amenities Boost Everyone’s Enjoyment: The best waterfronts feature amenities that increase people’s comfort and enjoyment. A bench or waste receptacle in just the right location makes a surprising difference in how people choose to use a place. Lighting strengthens a square’s identity and can draw attention to specific activities, pathways or entrances. Public art is a great magnet for children of all ages to come together. Whether temporary or permanent, amenities help establish a convivial setting for social interaction.
Public artwork, "The Riparium”, at Ruocco Park, Port of San Diego.
Public artwork, "The Riparium”, at Ruocco Park, Port of San Diego.

If you want to get people to come to your community, focus on its water.  The possibilities for water-based placemaking are endless.

Is there a neglected river, pond or lake in your community that could become a destination for residents and tourists alike?


Community Outreach Programs

Housing Opportunity Grant
Housing Opportunity Grants support state and local REALTOR® Associations’ affordable housing activities. The goal of the program is to position REALTORS® as leaders in improving their communities by creating affordable housing

Smart Growth Grant
Smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement. The Smart Growth Program offers state and local REALTOR® Associations to way to engage with government officials, community partners and the general public in planning and designing community’s future.

Planned diversity initiatives makes good business sense. REALTOR® Associations with well-planned diversity programs create a stronger sense of community, particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreign-born and minority residents who are moving up the socioeconomic ladder and are buying homes.

NAR Placemaking Resources

Placemaking Guide: A Guide to Transform a Public Space into a Community Place
REALTORS® and state and local association staff can learn the details of Placemaking, the kinds of projects placemaking entails, how to organize them, and where to go for assistance and resources.

Placemaking Webinar Series
Our Placemaking Webinar Series will provide more in depth information on the various types of Placemaking and how REALTORS® were involved in Placemaking activities in their communities.

Placemaking Grant
The Placemaking Grant funds the creation of new public spaces, like pocket parks, trails & gardens, in a community. The grant focuses on “lighter, cheaper, quicker” placemaking projects, which can be built under a year and cost less  than $200,000.

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Smart Growth

The healthier a community, the better the environment for REALTORS®. Keeping a community attractive, livable and functioning well is a complex task.