What Is Placemaking? (And Why It’s So Important!)

PBJ Design considers itself to be a placemaking non-profit but how does that help describe the projects we do and the people that we work with? The projects we coordinate are all rooted in the arts and creative industries because we believe that collaborative public art installations and events have positive effects on the development of a community’s economy and social cohesion. Jane Jacobs and William Whyte would agree that creativity and collaboration are two key components to designing public spaces that will be loved and taken care of by the public. Both urban planning superstars advocated for public spaces that are interactive and comfortable for the people who use them. 

Another couple of placemaking founders, Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, defined creative placemaking as a process to “animate public and private spaces, rejuvenate structures and streetscapes, improve local business viability and public safety, and bring diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” (Vazquez, 2012). Together, they wrote “Creative Placemaking” in 2010 which is one of many books and research papers about the growing trend of placemaking as a community development and design method. 

Placemaking projects are important to communities for a variety of reasons. Increased community safety is one of the best social benefits of placemaking. The well-researched ‘Broken Window Theory’ states that if there is a broken window in a community it will lead to more crime and dangerous streets (Finlaw, 2013). This theory implies that well-maintained buildings and spaces are more likely to be safe and respected. Placemaking and beautification projects can lower crime rates because they show that the community cares for and is proud of their space. Placemaking projects attract people and add eyes to the street that will report dangerous behaviour. This creates an informal but effective community surveillance system. For example, Times Square in New York City was rampant with drugs, prostitution, and crime after World War II. The dangerous reputation scared the public away when they should have been enjoying the public space in the middle of the city. In the 1990s, the City started to renovate Broadway theatres and close seedy businesses (Finlaw, 2013). The greatest change came in 2009 when the City closed parts of Broadway to make Times Square pedestrian-only (Chakraborty, 2016). This evolving placemaking process illustrates the Broken Window Theory and has helped the public feel safe in Time Square. 

Placemaking projects also have many benefits to local economies. The Knight Foundation conducted a 3-year study on factors that make a person feel connected to their community (Ellis, 2010). They found that communities where people felt most connected, were also communities with the highest GDPs per capita. This is because when people feel connected to their community, they are more likely to spend money in local businesses and take care of their streets. Placemaking projects help people feel connected by developing community and cultural identities. Other economic benefits include attracting people to local businesses and events as well as increasing property values. It is important to consider how placemaking projects can gentrify a community and work towards mitigating these impacts because these projects should make community members feel more at home instead of out-of-place.

These social and economic benefits are why PBJ chooses to do placemaking projects in communities across Nova Scotia. Please visit our placemaking process infographic to see how we like to create these positive changes. 

Kelly , Finlaw. “Placemaking: A Study Of Public Education, Behaviour, and Place .” 2013.

“Overall Findings.” Knight Foundation, knightfoundation.org/sotc/overall-findings/.

Vazquez, Leonardo. “Creative Placemaking: Integrating Community, Cultural and Economic Development.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2012, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2474862.