The Rapidian

Build a better city

Public participation is the key to "making" a place. Here's a look at lessons from the recent Re:STATE event and how you can begin your journey as a "placemaker."
Participants enjoying the afternoon with local food and beer in the Alleyway Café on State St

Participants enjoying the afternoon with local food and beer in the Alleyway Café on State St /Nicole Gaunt

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Whether it’s organizing a block party, planting trees in your neighborhood or placing a bench in front of a bus stop, placemaking can be easy. We hope it can all intersect right here on The Rapidian with Place Matters.

This page is your place. It is the intersection for action-oriented community dialog. I invite you to raise questions in the “Talk about It” section, check out what “The Buzz” is all about, and get inspired from ideas happening elsewhere. Keep checking back for resources and opportunities to get involved in the “Do It” section. But by all means, don’t wait for us. Start your own creative collaborations with your neighbors, and make sure to tell us about it. 

It is adding up all the little things that truly make for a great place.

Equitable places are made when everyone has a part to play. The quality of place matters. How safe, inclusive and unified a place feels has a huge impact on how it will grow and retain its largest asset: its people. No one should feel out of place in engaging in this platform for social change.

In a democracy, public participation is vital to ensure that policies and regulations reflect what’s best for everyone. The same holds true for the built environment. When citizens are not involved in the process of shaping the places in their lives, they feel left out and are less likely to utilize these places that were intended for them to begin with.

We don't need just architects, engineers, planners and developers to build a better city. They are an integral part, to be sure. In placemaking, the entire community is the expert. When citizen action around “place” is affirmed, people begin to come together in unexpected ways. 

Placemaking belongs at the heart and soul of the community. It begins at the smallest scale, but is an integral part of the community achieving its larger goals. It’s more than touting popular amenities and designing cool urban landscapes.

Placemaking is about empowered citizens breathing new life into their streets and neighborhoods- making them attractive, inviting and safe. It acknowledges that, ultimately, people hold the power to creatively transform blight into assets, sometimes even through temporary projects.

A great local example of placemaking at its best is the recent Re:STATE—Build a Better Block event, a two day grassroots revival of State Street May 18-19. Prior to the event, State Street was a diagonal speed zone that missed the renaissance of its surroundings. It was a jumble of sparse incoherent structures interrupted by barren surface parking lots, hard to see as a “place.”

The organizers, however, saw the potential for it as a destination in and of itself: a cultural corridor anchored around a great city park. Rather than wait around, they took an active role in re-envisioning long term change for the street. They launched a campaign with the slogan “This is Your Block: Remake it” and set out to show the city, the neighborhood and frequent users what the depressed strip could look like with a little civic intervention.

As a result, for two days everyone shared the street. With the influx of pedestrian activity, motor traffic slowed down and created a safer environment for everyone, including cyclists, who traveled a little more reassured down a protected bike lane. 

Re:STATE mobilized the citizenry. Volunteers poured in to help beautify Foster Park, staff the Brew and View filming at the former Public Museum, sweep the sidewalks, or prune urban trees. Though volunteers were involved far before the event date, the nature of the event gave ample opportunity for visitors to lend a  hand. I remember explaining what was going on to a stranger on the street, who promptly turned around and went home to change and volunteer. 

Re:STATE reinvigorated the corridor with a creative injection of new business activity with pop-up shops and on-street merchants. A food truck, food stands and a recycled shipping container serving fresh local coffee complimented the established brick-and-mortar food businesses. They reminded us that good cities are places to explore innovation, which often can come from those with the skill but lack of capital to open up a full restaurant or business.

Re:STATE tested conventions. It pointed out the arbitrary nature of some rules, particularly associated with food trucks, parklets, and bouquinistes, and paved the way for future discussion around related policies.  

State Street came alive. Pedestrians strolled, lingered in parklets, lounged in the park and congregated in the “Alleyway Café” to relax and enjoy their time out. They came for yoga, play-time in the park, bike repair and not least to learn about the various organizations in attendance. 

Most importantly, people came to connect with each other, see old acquaintances and make new ones. Suddenly, it was easy to start a conversation with practically anyone on the street. The whole place felt like a shared living room.

For two days, Re:STATE created a memorable place and planted the seed for transformation along those two city blocks. This event took over a microcosm of our larger Grand Rapids community. And communities need social capital- time invested by people- just as much as economic capital. 

It wasn’t until I read The Great Neighborhood Book, a DIY guide to placemaking authored by the folks at the Project for Public Spaces that it clicked that I too was a legitimate player in improving public space. It’s what inspired and led to collaborating with Lee Mueller, our Urban Forester, to build Grand Rapids’ first Free Little Library, present at Re:STATE. Neither of us has any background in carpentry (I barely knew how to operate a saw), but all it took was printing off design plans from Little Free Libary, a quick run to Home Depot, and the kindness of a neighbor who shared his space and tools to build it.

I became a placemaker when I took action.

Now it's your turn to become a part of "making" this place we call home. 

You can begin by giving suggestions about the meeting place itself. Let us know what we can do to make Place Matters a better gathering space. Email us at [email protected] with suggestions, news of placemaking in your own neighborhood and inspiration you've found. 

We’re eager to hear your thoughts, and make this place matter together. 

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