“Place is the word.” Since it is #throwbackthursday, we thought we’d modify a phrase from the movie “Grease” and talk about a trend that we have seen on the rise over the past two years – place. It’s popping up not just at community and economic development conferences, but also at health and poverty conferences. In the 1950s, which the movie “Grease” showcases, communities were the epicenter of our lives. (If you feel the need for a 1950s-style break this Thursday, you MUST see a fun viral video of “You’re the One I Want.”)

Placemaking is a movement that seeks to reclassify community and economic development as more than a “bricks and mortar” philosophy to understanding the role that place plays in creating a collective identity for a community. The Knight Foundation showed in their recent research, which we covered in a past post, that even with the rise of globalism and technology, community attachment still remains important in the 21st century and is positively correlated with local GDP growth. In fact, a 2014 poll by the American Planning Association showed that there was a striking similarity between baby boomers and Millennials on what they want from their communities (e.g., good schools, walkability and aesthetics).

Today, place is being used as a way to connect once siloed strategies in the pursuit of higher impact and greater synergy. We have found organizations across the country that have adopted innovative placemaking to transform their communities through three main areas of impact.

  • Equity – Purpose Built Communities employs a community quarterback model around its key underpinnings – education, unemployment, health disparities and substandard housing – to end poverty. It started in the East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta and has grown to a network of more than 17 partnersIts success comes from braiding various funding sources together and working with (not “on”) community stakeholders to find innovative solutions. It is our favorite kind of silo-busting effort and, more importantly, has been proven to work.
  • Creativity – “Creative Placemaking” was coined recently and centers on the ability to leverage the arts, culture and creativity to drive larger community goals around social change. It caught fire in this decade through the innovative funding opportunities from ArtPlace America and Our Town, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts. As Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America puts it: “In creative placemaking, ‘creative’ is an adverb describing the making, not an adjective describing the place. Successful, creative placemaking is not to be qualified by how many new arts centers, galleries or cultural districts are built. Rather, its success is measured in the ways artists, formal and informal arts spaces, and creative intervention contribute toward community outcomes.” We love this trend because it represents the next generation of thinking about community development and elevates our creative sector to change agent status.
  • Connectivity – With widespread disillusionment in democracy, we are always looking for new and better ways to give people a voice. One project, Project for Public Spaces, stands out for its ability to connect and engage communities in a sense of place. It “helps citizens transform their public spaces into vital places that highlight local assets, spur rejuvenation and serve common needs.” Project for Public Spaces has been an advocate of public markets, waterfronts and even the old-fashioned public square. It even has a fabulous graphic based on decades of research on “What Makes a Great Place?”


In our experience, when you focus on place, you often find that the conversation allows for the co-creation of a community identity. We welcome your feedback on these projects and others to make “placemaking” a priority in all of our communities.

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