Enhancing Places by Engaging People in the Design Process

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Places hold special meaning in our lives. They reflect our cultures, our hopes, our dreams. And we can’t deny they also reflect our realities. This means the people who create places have an important role in shaping everyday life.

The Roots of “Placemaking”

In her influential book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961), Jane Jacobs criticized the modernist urban planning policies of her day. She emphasized the importance of organic, community-driven development and highlighted the importance of lively neighborhoods and streets, mixed-use areas, and human scale urban forms. Jacobs didn’t use the term “placemaking,” but her ideas laid a critical foundation for the concept.

Journalist and urbanist William H. Whyte conducted extensive studies on the use of public spaces in New York City. His book, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” (1980), showcased the importance of designing urban areas to facilitate social interaction, a key component of placemaking.

Founded in 1975, non-profit Project for Public Spaces (PPS) popularized the term “placemaking.” PPS advocates for community-based planning, design, and management of public spaces, incorporating the ideas of Jacobs and Whyte. PPS has been instrumental in spreading the placemaking concept globally, emphasizing that the process should be inclusive and community-driven to create public spaces that are functional, welcoming, and accessible.

Who Makes Places?

Placemaking has evolved over the years to incorporate elements of urban design, planning, economic development, and community building. The practice tends to focus on creating places that are not just physically appealing but also foster a sense of community, are adaptable and resilient, and promote healthy and sustainable living. This complexity means it takes many professionals to collaborate in making a place: community leaders, planners, developers, bankers, architects, and designers, to name a few.

Community engagement is a cornerstone of the placemaking process, ensuring that the creation and revitalization of spaces are rooted in the needs, desires, and aspirations of the people who use them. Through active participation, community members become co-creators of their environments, infusing spaces with local identity, relevance, and vibrancy. This collaborative approach fosters a sense of ownership and belonging among residents, promoting stewardship and sustainable use of spaces. Furthermore, community engagement ensures diversity of thought, tapping into a rich source of ideas, insights, and innovations. It ensures that spaces are not only beautiful but also functional, inclusive, and responsive to the socio-cultural dynamics of the community, thereby enhancing social cohesion, well-being, and quality of life.

Enhancing vs. Making

To many, placemaking is still rooted in design for public or civic spaces. However, in our practice, we see clients and collaborators using the placemaking term or concept in many other types of projects, including hospitals, universities, workplaces, hotels and resorts where the goal is similar to create a sense of connection within a space—and ultimately with the community or organization. One thing we see missing is consistent user-engagement in the design process, once deemed vital by Jacobs and Whyte and others to achieve the goals of placemaking. Budgets, timelines and pressure to deliver a project have increasingly become the norm and engaging those who will use the finished design doesn’t always happen to the level it could.

In our work at Altitude, we have started using the term “place-enhancing” to better describe the communications, graphics, moments and elements that we design and contribute to a project. We work painstakingly to plan and create meaningful moments for our projects and the people who will use those spaces (and hopefully they’ve had the opportunity to participate in the design process), but we aren’t the only ones making a place. The reality we graciously embrace is that we are one part of the equation as we work alongside landscape architects, structural engineers, lighting designers, interior designers and architects. Together each member is contributing to shaping the space or place and enhancing people’s experience with it. And most importantly, when a project is complete and we leave, the people will make it theirs—just as they should. They will continue to customize, tweak and contribute to the place over time to reflect their evolving needs, ideas, aspirations and hopes. To us, that is true placemaking.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Greg Nelson founded Altitude Design Office in 2014, and has since built a design practice centered around his belief that meaningful design moves people forward. Throughout his career, Greg has refined a strategic approach to creating award-winning brand experiences, wayfinding programs, architectural graphics and brand identities for a wide range of spaces and places including performing arts centers, hotels, stadiums, convention centers, hospitals, corporate campuses, exhibits, restaurants and retail centers. Across all these scales and types of projects, Greg has seen firsthand that the environment is a powerful communicator. By thoughtfully integrating identity and communication into public and private places in a human-centered way, he believes businesses and communities can create better relationships with the people they serve.