Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Activating Revitalization Efforts Through Placemaking

Written by Michael Wagler, Main Street Iowa State Coordinator, Main Street Iowa

There is a growing understanding in the economic development discipline that creating a place where people want to be is a critical element to creating a strong, sustainable, interconnected community and economic development strategy. Broadly referred as to ‘placemaking’, this concept is neither new nor foreign to the revitalization movement. However, the new broadening interconnectedness of placemaking and economic development positions community revitalization and Main Street programs perfectly to demonstrate their effectiveness and value now more than ever.

“The future of economic development must include an emphasis on place-based economic development,” according to Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham. “Community and economic development go hand-in-hand and the Main Street program continues to lead the way in this connection. Successful businesses and their employees help support and create thriving downtowns, and in turn, thriving downtowns attract new businesses, employees and residents.”

In the early 1980’s, the National Main Street Center’s Main Street America program introduced a pioneering approach to downtown revitalization. The Main Street Approach offers community-based revitalization initiatives with a practical, adaptable framework for downtown transformation that is tailored to local conditions. The Approach helps communities get started with revitalization and grows with them over time.

When implemented effectively, the Main Street Approach is inherently placemaking. However, too many times we see placemaking introduced as a totally new strategy that diverts us from focusing on active implementation of the Main Street Approach. At the same time community leaders (including Main Street programs) get caught up in the ‘right way’ to do placemaking, or the ‘right person’ to hire to help us do placemaking, or the ‘right place’ for a placemaking activity, or what the term ‘placemaking’ means in the first place. In the end, we generally tend to overthink placemaking.

In many successful examples, the actions encouraged by the placemaking principles are utilized as an implementation strategy of the local revitalization effort rather than placemaking being implemented as a separate process. By using small scale placemaking to drive incremental implementation, the local revitalization program can empower local people that don’t always feel like they have the power to be engaged or impact change. This empowerment acts as an activation moment for the Main Street Approach and revitalization program.

There is no prescription to how placemaking happens in a community. This is a good thing and a bad thing. While it provides the opportunity to customize, this openness also creates the environment ripe for overthinking and analysis paralysis. When using placemaking to activate the revitalization efforts, consider each of these elements to help move to action:

  • Implementation: We must constantly focus on getting things done. If a local revitalization program is not focused on implementation, that program is not doing placemaking or Main Street. In the words of Elvis, “a little less conversation, a little more action, please…”
  • Activation: This includes bridging the gap between creating a space where people “can be” and a place where people “want to be”. Sometimes to activate a space, it is necessary to bring people into a space and demonstrate to the community how a space can be used. Other times, it may be being more deliberate about including the community in the implementation and invitation process. When the implementation process is collaborative and activated, the implementation may be just as much of the placemaking effort as the outcome.
  • Attachment: Magdelena Florek, co-founder and vice president of the International Place Branding Association, comments that place attachment is “the emotional connection between a person and a place that is formed when a person can connect to the past, have a feeling of belonging to a place, and have the potential to grow closer to a place with repeated experiences in that place.” This provides the opportunity for a community to build a healthy relationship with a place, feel secure, connected, and have a desire to invest in this place in their own ways. Revitalization efforts need to constantly consider how they are enabling these emotional connections in all that they do.
  • Inclusion: Now is the time for all revitalization programs to take a lead role in building an environment of openness, empathy, and engagement for all. Primarily because revitalized places (including downtowns) at their best, are engines for social friction and creating spaces for the interactions of different groups of people who would not otherwise meet.
  • Public and Private Investment: Buy-in from both public and the private sectors is critical for any community development activity. It opens the door for conversation and helps build in the ability for longer-term impact beyond individual activities. Placemaking in public spaces has the ability to spur investment by the private sector and vice versa. It is not about creating a plan and hoping people buy into it. It is about starting to do things that build love for a place. That love will, in turn, build confidence in the future of that place and encourage other people to demonstrate their love through investment.

Incorporating these elements consistently into a revitalization program’s implementation strategy will create a built-in, action-oriented placemaking strategy to get things going. This idea doesn’t replace the need to ensure that an ethic of long-term planning is incorporated into a community’s priority development process. However, by not overthinking a revitalization program’s next steps and leaning into inclusive and comprehensive action, the spark will be created to guide and build the future of downtown.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Wagler is the Main Street Iowa State Coordinator at the Iowa Economic Development Authority. In this role, he guides the long-term vision, innovation, and implementation of Iowa’s Main Street program and downtown revitalization movement. Michael has worked with the Main Street network in different capacities since 1996. He earned a B.F.A. in Historic Preservation and Architectural History from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. Michael earned a Masters of Community and Regional Planning from Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.


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.

Comment Policy

The opinions expressed in reader comments sections on this website are those of the reader and not NAR or REALTOR® Magazine.

Smart Growth

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