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‘Placemaking’: Helping downtown districts reclaim vitality

A bench on Fourth Street Southwest offers small-scale potential for placemaking, or the development of public spaces that welcome and engage people. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR — For a low-income neighborhood in Queens, New York City, placemaking resulted in lively retail development that included the addition of a restaurant and art gallery.

On the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, it involved movable outdoor chairs, a pingpong table and bocce ball court.

How to translate the concept of placemaking to rural Minnesota was explored at a recent day-long seminar for community developers, hosted in Willmar by Minnesota Main Street and the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.

Part art and part science, successful placemaking can be elusive but most people recognize it when they see it, said Max Musicant, owner of the Musicant Group of Minneapolis, one of only a few consultants in the U.S. focusing on this approach to design.

“We sort of know when something works. We can feel it,” Musicant said.

Placemaking, or the creation of public spaces that are accessible and people-centered, has been part of the urban design scene since the 1960s but only in more recent years has it begun to gain broader traction.

Historic downtown districts such as the one in Willmar and other Minnesota towns are especially well-positioned for placemaking that can help them reclaim their vitality, Musicant said.

For one thing, they’re designed for pedestrian traffic and multiple storefront uses, he said. For another, traditional downtowns are made up of many stakeholders.

“There’s lots of people that have ownership and are really dedicated to making this space work,” Musicant said.

Many of the projects he has undertaken have involved public spaces “that have pretty much been left for dead,” he told the participants at the Willmar seminar, among whom were city planners from Gaylord, Red Wing and Winsted.

Although zoning, maintenance and hard data about traffic and pedestrian activity are important elements of placemaking, the real magic lies in how a particular space engages people at the human level, Musicant said.

“Just stop and watch and listen closely,” he said. “Talk to people who are using the space.”

Changes needn’t be expensive. Musicant has found that movable chairs are often an easy and effective first step, allowing people to sit wherever they like and encouraging conversation or people-watching. Other strategies might be outdoor merchandising or formal and informal activities that draw people in.

Trial and error are usually necessary, and the development of a place is often never-ending, Musicant noted. “You are constantly trying things out. You’re never really done.”

Placemaking isn’t only about people and aesthetics, however. There’s also a business case to be made for placemaking, Musicant said, citing projects that resulted in increased traffic for surrounding businesses.

“To be near a place where people want to be is very valuable,” he said. “If you create places where people want to be, good things happen around there.”

It’s this type of technical assistance that many cities in outstate Minnesota are looking for, said Beverly Dougherty, project coordinator for the Willmar Design Center.

As the design center works on reclaiming downtown Willmar, organizers can benefit from hearing concrete ideas and success stories about what’s happening elsewhere, she said. “People are doing this in other places. We just need to do it here.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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