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Placemaking 101

I love strolling through a vibrant and distinct shopping district— perusing the shops and finding gems to take home from my visits. It is undeniable that a strong downtown district or seasoned shop can cause us to linger just a bit longer over found items that weren’t even on our shopping list.

I rarely ‘make a run downtown’ to pick up a single item. I find myself strolling and shopping these neighborhoods as more of a pastime. And I’m not alone. As Internet shopping and sterile strip malls begin to burgeon and create a new norm, many of us are still seeking out places to intermingle with other people, ideas and experiences. Even fresh, local groceries can be boxed up and conveniently shipped to our doors—but no box can deliver the sights, smells and sounds of a bustling night in an active downtown restaurant.

There’s a big difference between a dynamic shopping neighborhood and those areas where owners struggle to keep the lights on. Shopping districts and rural main streets can create the spaces that allow the community to emerge and express itself organically. This movement to create such open spaces has been coined placemaking.

Placemaking is simply a method of creating that energy so many of us are seeking in a downtown area. Local business owners can spur the creation of this mythical place with a few simple steps. Much like me, most people are drawn to neighborhoods where there are lots of things to do. Placemaking experts recommend having at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons for visitors to shop your district. We aren’t talking about big, themed events (although those are fun, too).

Placemaking is found in the simple things that make neighborhoods unique and appealing:  a functioning historic clock tower, a bench under a flowering tree, a random splash of art on a corner, the smells of a local eatery or a small jazz quartet playing the corner during the Farmer’s Market. Your district's 10 reasons should be on a variety of scales:  a giant sandcastle building contest in an open lot coupled with a slushie vendor. 

Clear, interrelated concepts help people draw the connections between these spaces in your neighborhood. Remember, streets and sidewalks are not simple, utilitarian corridors that are used to drive people to the strip mall. Create new spaces and places within existing ones will capture the energy of your destination.

Downtown associations and active community groups can re-ignite their areas by drawing on the concepts and tools of placemaking. Encourage entrepreneurial activities of every size to bring out the community’s creativity by supporting incentives for people to invest their time and talents into diversifying your shopping district. 

Saving our downtown districts and main streets is not about competing with big box stores or online vendors. It is about giving area residents and visitors what they crave– a sense of place and community.

About the Author

Angela Raby
Mid-Plains Community College
Angela lives and works in rural western Nebraska. Her passion for community and experience in the field continue to spur her advocacy work for rural community vitality.

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