Connecting people to places: effective community involvement in placemaking

Brick wall of a boarded up industrial building with the words 'Together we Create' graffitied on it

Placemaking. It’s a term that’s been around since the 1960s but it’s only over the last five to ten years that the buzz around this magic word has become more of a philosophy.

So what is it, exactly?

Creating a sense of place in a new development or regeneration project means creating a bond between people and place; a shared personality built around the needs, ambitions, lifestyle and outlook of the community.

Placemaking involves both art and science in creating characterful spaces that promote wellbeing and a sense of belonging. In essence – inviting, memorable, accessible places where people want to be.

Placemaking or placefaking?

True placemaking simply can’t be done without the authentic involvement of those who live, work and play in the spaces that are being created or reimagined.

To try to create a sense of place without this human involvement leads to designs that do not resonate with the community and therefore cannot realise their true potential.

Stateside, the Project for Public Spaces believes that the placemaking process starts with broad public input and that this cannot be ‘one and done’ – community voices must continue to be heard as a space evolves and grows.

Effective engagement of community tops the list of crucial characteristics of successful placemaking

MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning

All too often, though, community involvement is still seen as a tick-box exercise rather than a critical part of the design and planning process. Meaningful engagement can also be stymied by well-intentioned lack of knowledge about how to facilitate genuine connection.

Community engagement strategies (that really work!)

  1. Understand your people: recognise the diversity within the community – different ages, cultures, professions and needs. From local residents, business owners and community leaders, to visitors and tourists, each group has unique perspectives and insights that can add value to the planning process.
  2. Prioritise inclusivity and accessibility: ensure your consultation process provides platforms and opportunities for all voices to be heard, especially those who are often marginalised and overlooked. Simply ‘inviting in’ diversity to a consultation does not make it inclusive.
  3. Choose the right tools and platforms: employing a mix of face-to-face and digital methods can significantly widen participation. The precise mix will depend on the project, but the possibilities are broad. Online platforms and virtual consultations employing walk-throughs and VR, traditional ‘town hall’ meetings, focus groups, surveys, interactive mapping tools and social media discussions can all play a part.
  4. Be transparent: transparency builds trust – when people trust the process they are more likely to participate in a meaningful way. Being open about the goals of the consultation, the constraints, and how the feedback will be used is crucial.
  5. Foster open dialogue: allowing people to share their narratives means creating spaces where they can express their aspirations, concerns, and ideas freely. Skilled facilitation of both online and offline meetings and focus groups leads to constructive debate by encouraging people not only to speak but also to listen to others.
  6. Make it collaborative: when people feel they are part of the creative process, they become more invested in the outcome. Rather than a top-down approach where planners or developers present finalised ideas for feedback – a co-creation approach can be more effective, involving workshops where community members work alongside urban designers to brainstorm and prototype ideas.
  7. Be adaptable: every community is unique, and so too should be your engagement approach. What works in one community or with one group of people may not work in another. Regularly evaluate and adjust your strategies based on the feedback and level of engagement you are seeing.
  8. Close the loop: community engagement does not end when a consultation process is complete. Sharing how the community’s feedback was implemented and explaining any deviations closes the feedback loop and shows respect for the time and insights people have provided.
  9. Celebrate achievements: when projects come to fruition, celebrate with the community. Highlight the collaborative aspects of the project and thank people for their role in making the place better. This not only builds goodwill for future projects but also reinforces the value of community involvement (assuming, of course, that community input has been meaningful and has been acted upon!)
  10. Cultivate long-term relationships: by maintaining open lines of communication after a project’s completion, you pave the way for smoother engagements in future endeavours, particularly in large-scale projects where multiple planning consultations will be required over a period of years.

Broad listening and deep learning leads to lived-in, well-loved spaces

If we are going to do better than the status quo of under-utilised public spaces and places that reinforce existing inequalities, planners and developers must tap in to the rich reservoir of local knowledge, insight, and passion.

This will ensure our places and spaces are well-designed, loved, lived-in, and truly representative of the communities they serve.

In the realm of placemaking, spaces that are co-created with the community not only foster a sense of ownership but also stand the test of time.

Analogy PR is a specialist communications agency that advises organisations in the private and public sectors on how to effectively engage communities.

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