Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Placemaking is defined in many ways. For the National Association of Realtors, we look at placemaking as a way to transform an unused or underutilized public space into a vibrant gathering place for the community.

I just read a short article posted by the Penn State Extension Economic & Community Development Team that shares some of NAR's views of placemaking and thought it's a nice recap of what makes a public space great.

Repost of What makes a Great Public Space
Penn State Extension
Written by Peter Wulfhorst, AICP

Have you ever been somewhere and noticed a public space or gathering place grabs your attention and just draws you in? Maybe it’s a small urban park, a plaza, a town square, marketplace, or a water feature. It could be almost anything but it is usually full of life, buzzing with people, and seems to be the place everybody wants to be.

College Avenue & South Allen Street, State College PA
College Avenue & South Allen Street, State College PA

So, what is it that makes those spaces great? Great public spaces are those places where celebrations are held, social and economic interactions take place such as friends running into each other, and cultures mix. Great public spaces are accessible to people, engage the public with activities, are comfortable, project a good image and foster a sense of community.

Other characteristics of a Great Public include:

  • Promoting human contact and social activities
  • Is safe, welcoming, and accommodating for all users.
  • Has design and architectural features that are visually interesting.
  • Promoting community involvement.
  • Reflects the local culture or history.
  • Relates well to bordering uses.
  • Is well maintained.
  • Has a unique or special character.

It is important for a great public space to provide a sense of comfort and safety to those people using the space, encourage social interaction amongst users of the public space and provide activities or events that attract and engage people in the public space.

Walking through the center of some communities in this country can be a profoundly alienating experience, as if the whole place had been evacuated for an emergency no one told you about. The decline of public places represents a loss for communities because the street, the square, the park, the market, the playground are the river of life for our communities.

In the 20th century, towns and cities spread out, with houses on big yards. Merchants moved to outlying shopping malls. Inventions like telephones, television, and computers transformed our lives. People withdrew from public spaces. Many new developments neglected to include sidewalks, parks, downtowns, transit, and playgrounds. Many people today wonder if public spaces serve any real purpose.

The PA Chapter of the American Planning Association is recognizing Great Public Places in Pennsylvania such as:

  • Market Square in the City of Pittsburgh, a vibrant, pedestrian-oriented public space in Pittsburgh’s Central Business District that attracts commuters, tourists, students and others.
  • The Oval, city of Philadelphia, a thriving pedestrian environment that connects the many cultural venues on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and provides a gathering place for residents and visitors.
  • Allen Street & College Avenue in State College, known as the “Corner” serving as a link between Penn State University and downtown State College a year-round gathering place, multi-modal transportation hub and community events.
  • Steel Stacks Campus, City of Bethlehem, home to many community events, festivals and concerts that attract well over one million residents and visitors annually.
Steel Stacks, Bethlehem, PA
Steel Stacks, Bethlehem, PA

These public spaces exhibit the characteristics of great public spaces while connecting people with each other.

The key to restoring life to public places and to our communities as a whole is to understand that most people today have more options. A trip to downtown, the farmers market, or the library is recreational as much as practical, a chance to have fun, hang out, and enjoy the surroundings.

People are not out in public spaces because they have to, but because they love to be there. People can choose to go elsewhere if the place doesn’t appeal to them.

So do you have a public space in your community that attracts people for community events or social gatherings. I would think Pennsylvania is home to many great public spaces.


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.