Sunday, January 11, 2015

Why Placemaking is Integral to a Sustainable Community

Written for Healthy Indoors Magazine - January 2015

“Build and they will come!” has been the mantra of more than one Western city, especially since the 1950’s; many of which are now dealing with sprawl, urban heat island effect, loss of historic buildings and air pollution.

Take my current residence Phoenix, Arizona for example. In 1950, the population of Phoenix was 106,818 and was comprised of 55 square miles. In 2010, population reached 1,445,632 people, spread out over 1,147 square miles, or basically about the same size as the state of Rhode Island.

Within this sprawling land of beige & stucco, gated communities and strip malls however, there are some very integral neighborhoods that have a strong sense of community, and have done an excellent job of placemaking. The mainly grassroots community activism and action has reaped the rewards of not only national press, but is home to one of the largest self-guided art walks in the country – Roosevelt Row’s First Fridays. This is the neighborhood where both my business and accidental gallery, Treeo are located. It is the neighborhood I’ve chosen to spend the majority of my time when not at home since moving to Phoenix, mainly because I like the way it feels. Warm. Friendly. Inviting.

So what is placemaking?
“Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community's assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people's health, happiness, and well-being.”

This neighborhood feels good to me for various reasons. It is one of the only walkable areas in Phoenix in my opinion. Because the district is located in an arts overlay, many of the old bungalow homes and buildings were converted to gallery spaces, cafes and retail stores. There is life on the street and human scale buildings. There are trees and people and interesting murals everywhere. Even though Phoenix is a young city, many of the buildings in the neighborhood are from the 40’s and 50’s which helps give it a sense of place.

Before sprawl, the automatic garage door opener and high walls around properties, people would gather in community areas and talk. They would meet new people, connect with one another, and help each other out. When people care about their community, they look after it. They are invested in something bigger than just themselves.

Explaining placemaking to most developers and politicians is like speaking Pig Latin to your two year old and expecting them to understand you. Nine out of ten times they won’t, nor do they really care. They just want what they want.

And so it is that the neighborhood I love is in the sights of several developers looking to sanitize and beige-wash my ‘hood.

From tearing down some of the oldest murals in the state of Arizona which were painted by famous artist Ted DeGrazia (there is a petition if you’d like to sign it) to tearing down many of the old, human-scale buildings within a two block stretch to build 4-story residential dwellings they’ll most certainly call lofts, even though they’ll just be regular ‘ol apartments. The term “life on the street” is lost in translation as things are tucked behind nondescript walls and a shiny marketing brochure points out the private gym and community grilling area.

Everything which once drew national media attention – the vibrancy, the art, the eclectic feeling of the place, will be lost to a numbers game as many are priced out, become bored or simply wish to move on to greener pastures.

A sustainable city is a livable city. It is lively, diverse, animated and community oriented. The neighborhoods should be shaped by those who reside in them. Buildings should be repurposed and reused whenever possible. New development should incorporate itself into the neighborhood in a way that is friendly and beneficial.

Though downtown Phoenix is indeed in dire need of density, razing old buildings in one of the only lively arts districts to make way for suburban feeling apartment complexes isn’t going to bring an economic boom to our city as I think some are anticipating. There are numerous vacant lots which could be better utilized for this use in my opinion. A mixture of building types, uses and sizes is key, as is weaving together an interesting tapestry that blends old with new, valuing local businesses and arts and culture, and not continuing to ignore the voices of those who call the place home.

Though I speak of Phoenix, this is a story for everywhere. Placemaking. We all can get involved in shaping and adding to the places we live, work and play. It is sustainability at its core.

One of the best placemakers of our time, Jane Jacobs, said it best:

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

I hope Phoenix will hear this in time…

Love and laughter,

Ms. Champion

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