From the Neighborhood Up! Why Placemaking is the Key to Building Resilient Cities

Photo Credit: City Repair Project
A City Repair Project in Portland, OR. Photo Credit: City Repair Project

By: Marissa Mastors, EcoDistricts

They’ve become emblems of Portland’s quirky, yet tried and true motto, Keep Portland Weird: brightly-colored, painted murals in the middle of intersections; cob benches lining sidewalks; little wooden libraries nestled outside of homes encouraging passersby to “take a book, leave a book”; and even corner tea stations with canisters of hot water replenished each day by local residents.

I remember viewing these oddities as welcome signs that I had landed in the right city when I first moved to Portland. When I started volunteering with the City Repair Project, the nonprofit that spearheads these projects, I began to understand how placemaking plays a key role in creating resilient cities. And at EcoDistricts, we’ve built an imperative into the EcoDistricts Protocol to empower leadership to propel innovative projects like these in cities everywhere.

Urban resilience is defined as the capacity of communities to survive, grow and adapt to change; from the impact of extreme weather events to rising housing costs. To cultivate resilient cities in the face of inevitable environmental, social and economic challenges, city makers are beginning to adapt their approach to urban regeneration. Their aim is to design cities that can “bounce back” from change or disaster while preserving and sustaining the rich identity and culture of the people and place. This can only be accomplished when community members themselves are central to the process, their voices heard and their needs addressed.

Travis Park, San Antonio. Photo Credit: Project for Public Spaces

Placemaking is a creative design process emphasizing inclusive, community-led decision-making originating from a shared vision for reimagining place. Placemaking is an effective methodology for creating resilience at the neighborhood level and thus strengthening the resilience of the city as a whole. The placemaking process empowers the people who live and gather in a place to be the active citizenry responsible for envisioning, designing, building and using it.

City Repair began with a citizen-led effort to reclaim neighborhood intersections and transform them into public gathering places. These intersections are not only places to sit and rest. They have become central to building relationships, sharing resources and creating support systems. City Repair’s founder, Mark Lakeman, reminds us that, “People will talk to other people, they will feel safer, crime will drop measurably. People will immediately start relating differently if you change their physical environment in strategic ways.” The emotional resonance inspired by the placemaking process results in community trust and a shared investment in the pocket of a city that a community calls home.

And the movement is growing. In Milwaukee, citizens transformed an abandoned parking lot into a vibrant community gathering place. The Tri-State area on the east coast is rapidly increasing its placemaking efforts as a form of building strength and resilience after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. And there has been a massive effort in Detroit to encourage citizen-led revitalization efforts, encouraging residents to channel the deep admiration for their city into places they help transform. Placemaking is proving to be an effective (and fun — grab your neighbors, roll up your sleeves, paint an intersection, and you’ll see what I mean) way to build community resilience in cities nationwide.

At EcoDistricts, we too believe that starting at the neighborhood level is the key to building resilient cities. Our services — from the EcoDistricts Protocol to the annual EcoDistricts Incubator — encourage multiple stakeholders, from practitioners to local residents, to communicate and co-create their city together. Change is inevitable, but resilience — the capability to adapt and maintain the heart and strength of what makes a city great — this takes work. It takes a united voice, a collaborative approach, and a concerted effort that bridges stakeholders across all of the elements that make a city thrive. If you love where you live, and want to support turning your city into a resilient place, join the EcoDistricts Community and take the EcoDistricts Pledge today!


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