Curbside-Chat-with-Chuck-Marohn-350x186This spring, in a proud moment for the whole state of Michigan, Traverse City won the March Madness-style tournament to be crowned the Strongest Town in North America. As part of their reward, Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns will be visiting TC June 7 to present them with an award and talk about what can make the city even stronger.

Marohn’s message is relevant to all League members, so we strongly encourage them to attend the event. See details here: Curbside Chat with Chuck Marohn.

Even if you can’t attend, be on the lookout for a Strong Towns-themed session at the League’s Convention in September. Several cities across Michigan have participated in one or more Strong Towns events, so we plan to showcase their experiences with a focus on what other communities can learn.

Milan’s downtown Tolan Square is a great example of tactical placemaking. Two summers ago, the city turned a piece of this street into a plaza with nothing more than a few heavy planters at each end and some picnic tables. For a budget of around $5,000, the community suddenly had a town square and events space—and one that could be undone quickly if the experiment turned out not to work.

A good space + a reason to be there = placemaking. (And a "coffee-off" is a great reason, in my opinion.) Photo from Milan Coffee Off.

A good space + a reason to be there = placemaking. (And a “coffee-off” is a great reason, in my opinion.) Photo from Milan Coffee Off.

The plaza hosts the farmers & artisans market, as well as events ranging from the Let’s Chill winter festival to the “Coffee Off,” Halloween movie screenings, and youth theater demonstrations.

After the first year, the city asked a local market research firm to evaluate the project. A survey of residents, business owners, and visitors found that the benefit of having the plaza outweighed the frustration of having the block closed to car traffic, as well as providing recommendations for how to improve on this existing level of approval. (For example, having more activities geared towards children would balance the frustration of parents who used to use this block to access the nearby elementary school.)

Tolan Square is a demonstration that placemaking projects don’t have to be grand and flashy—sometimes, smaller efforts can make a big impact on a place. It also points to the importance of programming public spaces: people value the space more than they mind the traffic inconvenience because of what happens there. As the evaluation found, people who participated in events at the plaza regularly were much more likely to state strong support for it. With the approach of conscious discussion, evaluation, and incremental change Milan is applying here, Tolan Square should continue to improve and contribute to downtown in years to come.

Building on success

One thing that stood out to me, both in the evaluation the city did and in my casual observation as a visitor stumbling onto the space, is that the business mix around Tolan Square may limit its impact on downtown. This is not an issue specific to Milan, by any stretch—many small downtowns struggle to create critical mass of storefront businesses that are predictably open in the evening and weekend hours when most retail activity occurs.

A street plaza can be created quickly an inexpensively: take one street and add a combination of barriers and seating to make clear that it's a space for people, not vehicles. Making it successful, though, requires programming activities in the short-term, and nurturing businesses that can mutually reinforce that activity in the long-term.

A street plaza can be created quickly and inexpensively: take one street and add a combination of barriers and seating to make clear that it’s a space for people, not vehicles. Making it successful, though, requires programming activities in the short-term, and nurturing businesses that can mutually reinforce that activity in the long-term.

As the evaluation noted, certain downtown businesses—those that were open evenings and weekends, and sold food and drink or retail shopping experiences—see significant benefit from the plaza. The evaluation report includes quotes from business owners:

“When the farmer’s market turnout is low, my sales are still double that of a typical Friday. But when the farmer’s market has a big turnout, my sales are triple.”

“On the best day of Winterfest, my sales were 15% greater than my previous best sales day in history!”

…but the evaluator also notes that “most downtown businesses are not positively affected” by events in the plaza, because they are office/service businesses that do not rely on (or generate) significant foot traffic, or because they are not open evenings and weekends, when events in the plaza typically occur.

The experience of the businesses that are successfully taking advantage of the plaza shows both the power of placemaking to support a healthy retail district, as well as an opportunity for new businesses to take advantage of the foot traffic generated by Tolan Square and its events—I look forward to coming back for some of these!

 

I first visited Vancouver  for a few days of vacation in 2012.  It is a place that I’ve always known that I would return to. That opportunity arose when I was asked to attend the Placemaking Leadership Forum conference in September, which I will talk about in a minute.  First, a few observations about Vancouver.
waterfront-smallIt’s all about the feeling that you have been invited to participate in the daily life of a city that makes one feel so welcomed.  Upon my arrival, the first place I walked to was the waterfront. Everyone is drawn to the waterfront. Water and mountains define Canada. Vancouver doesn’t have a big public square, so people gravitate to the edge of the water. Waterfalls, big and small, are scattered throughout the city.  The city is even adding water fountains to fire hydrants so that less privileged areas can have waterfalls. The goal of the city is to have all streets end at public spaces with a view of the harbor, but there is still a lot of work to be done before that is reality. In order to achieve this, a very complex undertaking of private investment and public support has been ongoing to build a climate of cooperation and understanding.

vancouver-hornby-streetVancouver has amazing street edges – bike lanes, trees, and curbs – giving you a sense of protection as you walk or bike in the busy downtown. I very quickly identified Hornby Street as my favorite street, and on every outing, even if I had to go out of my way, I made sure that street provided a thruway to wherever I was going.

Although I have never been a big fan of glass architecture, I’m beginning to understand the role it plays in connecting people to its buildings. You see slim towers with low rise podiums, which have rooftop patios and trees, (to attract the suburbanites). The towers are separated and seem to float above the podiums. Images of people and places can be seen through these buildings, creating a relationship between the people and the buildings.

With this backdrop, two main events took place during the week of September 12-18:  the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place Annual Conference, and the Placemaking Leadership Forum, building on the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) Placemaking Leadership Council and the discussions on the outcome of the three Future of Places conference series. (The New Urban Agenda, the agreed upon outcome of the three Future of Places conferences, was adopted in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016.)  I only attended the Placemaking Leadership Forum, but both conferences took place at the same venue and overlapped, providing an exhilarating hub for placemakers around the world.
ethan-kent-smallThe discussions at the Placemaking Leadership Forum certainly reinforced for me that the power of placemaking continues to grow and spread around the world, and its impacts – socially, environmentally, and financially – are too significant to ignore.  An especially proud moment was when Ethan Kent, senior vice president of PPS, recognized Michigan as a leader in placemaking governance.  He emphasized that as placemaking becomes institutionalized, we must guard against the tendency to create new gatekeepers. The roots of placemaking came from taking power, not giving power.

Although I have been attending placemaking conferences for several years now, I always leave with new ideas and concepts to add to the conversation. This conference was no exception.  Listed here are some notable takeaways worth thinking about:

  • “We don’t want a masterpiece but a great canvas – it’s the layers afterwards that matter.”  (Eduardo Santana-Pershing, executive director, Pershing Square Renew)
  • “The system isn’t broken, it was built this way.” (Husam Alwaer, professor of Urban Design, Scotland)
  • “First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.” (Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban design consultant)
  • “People change their habits according to services and infrastructure provided.”
  • “The new generation wants to consume experiences.”
  • “From a health perspective, there is nothing more important than placemaking”
  • “Placemaking for peacemaking.” (Rony Al Jalkh, visiting fellow, PPS)
  • “At their heart, cities are the absence of physical space between people.” (Ed Glaeser, American economics and author)

 

 

Vassar is a unique place. The small city, with a population less than 2,700 people, had six new businesses open in just over a year. The one-block downtown now offers a variety of experiences with a historic movie theatre, coffee shop, boutique, pet groomer, ice cream shop, gym, specialty bakery, and a variety of bars and restaurants. People in Vassar are friendly, community-minded, and truly excited about the city’s future.

In late 2015, the Vassar City Council hired a new city manager, Brian Chapman. He felt the community’s excitement and knew he had to support existing businesses, get the new ones in smoothly, and make sure the downtown would thrive. To Chapman, that meant transforming Vassar from a place people drive through, to a place people drive to. So he decided to focus on placemaking.

The site plan in it's current form is on the left, and the Vassar Vision concept plan is on the right.

The site plan in it’s current form is on the left, and the Vassar Vision concept plan is on the right.

Download the full report here

Download the full report here

After leading the PlacePOP project over the past many months, Vassar City Council unanimously approved to support the Vassar Vision public space concept plan earlier this week. We’re very proud of the work we’ve done in Vassar and look forward to following the public space enhancements throughout implementation.

The Vassar Vision 2016 PlacePOP Concept Plan report shares detail on the project site, methodology, concept plan, implementation recommendations, and community impact. We also want to share lessons we learned while working in Vassar, which we hope can help other local leaders implement successful placemaking projects in the future.

Lessons Learned

  1. Use a steering committee and give them power – Vassar Vision was initiated by the City, but the majority of creativity, outreach, and heavy lifting came from the steering committee. These volunteers were trusted advisors and decision-makers, and they worked hard because they felt ownership and pride in the work. Vassar Vision is their project.
  2. Local business owners sampling their food during the Taste & Talk.

    Local business owners sampling their food during the Taste & Talk.

    Get business owners to the table right away – Business owners have an incredible stake in the success of Vassar’s downtown. The steering committee identified right away that improvements to the project site needed to reflect nearby business owners’ needs and hopes, as well as the needs of residents and visitors. The committee kicked off the project with a successful and unique visioning event, the Taste & Talk. Here, incoming and existing business owners hosted tables with samples or products displays. At each table, we had a map of the project site and asked people to write down ideas of what could-be in the space. More than 200 people attended the event, which had the feel of a festival, rather than a city meeting. The Taste & Talk was a perfect way to invite business owners to the table and illustrate the value the community places on supporting these important community institutions.pullquote

  3. Use an outside facilitator to educate and manage the steering committee – Sometimes what people think they want and what placemaking and economic research suggests doesn’t always align. Bringing in an outside facilitator from the League helped bring an “expert” to the table to share research, case studies, and trends, to help residents and business owners see what could-be in Vassar. Most importantly, the steering committee needed to be well managed and facilitated, something city staff or volunteers don’t always have time to do. The support the League offered allowed the project to move forward smoothly and effectively.
  4. Create a brand and marketing campaign – After one of the first steering committee meetings, the group selected the name, logo, and color scheme for Vassar Vision. They wanted it to be identifiable and to stick so they could use the brand throughout implementation phases. It’s quick, easy to remember, and meaningful to the community.
  5. Plan events you actually want to attend – Visioning events and community meetings are rarely thrilling, unique events. It was important to the steering committee to host fun, creative, social, and engaging “meetings” that people would be excited to attend after work or on a Saturday afternoon, which they so successfully did through their public engagement events like the Taste & Talk.
  6. Engage like crazy and apply the feedback to the design renderings – The Vassar Vision project spanned for eight months and included about three idea generation events and at least six formal feedback opportunities. After each, the design team applied what they heard into the next version of the design and sent it back for further review. It takes time and patience, but fosters the best results.

    Collecting feedback during Vassar's annual RiverFest.

    Collecting feedback during Vassar’s annual RiverFest.

  7. Collect feedback in different ways The steering committee collected ideas and feedback by hosting a stand-alone public event, participating in an existing weekend festival, hosting meetings, sharing online surveys, having informal discussions, posting renderings in businesses, and presenting at formal council meetings. This ensured that a wide range of residents knew about the project and were able to participate in way that best suited them.
  8. Use existing community events as a way do more engagement – The steering committee took advantage of the annual RiverFest as a way to reach a wider audience. RiverFest already attracted hundreds of people to the project site so the steering committee set up boards and had volunteers grab passersby to share information and collect feedback.
  9. Collecting concept plan feedback before a City Council meeting.

    Collecting concept plan feedback before a City Council meeting.

    Test ideas through pop-ups – At RiverFest, the steering committee tested some of the ideas people came up with in past events and showed what could-be through temporary improvements to the space. They put out lawn furniture, games, and art to help people understand how much nicer the space could be with just a little effort.

  10. Have fun It’s clear many steering committee members enjoyed the work they were doing. They were proud of the project and had fun doing it. If people enjoy the work they’re doing, they’ll often work harder, longer, and create a better product. Similarly, keeping Vassar Vision on a clear timeline helped people realize the end was near. Working on forever-committees can allow people to lose momentum and focus. Make sure to create benchmarks, celebrate successes, keep it social, and don’t make it too much work for just one or two people.