Not necessarily the tourist and business destinations of their larger brethren, nor the sprawling enclaves of their suburban kin, small- and medium-sized cities strive to create, maintain and foster identity through placemaking. Everywhere wants to be a “place” – for tourists, businesspeople, shoppers, residents or otherwise. Everywhere wants to have an identity that invokes positive memories and experiences. But not everywhere has the resources to make it happen, whether those resources are money, human capital, political will or physical stamina. But, as cities continue their millennia old evolution, smaller cities are growing more proactive in making places that improve the quality of life for residents, workers and visitors.
Cities are supposed to be “places” by virtue of the manifestation of decades of growth, development and redevelopment. But, this isn’t always the case. For larger cities, such as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, placemaking is more difficult on a citywide scale. As such, it usually occurs on the neighborhood or district level, with the “downtowns” of these cities one such district. The continued rise of economic development tools, such as BIDs, strive to create nodes of identity within the larger cityscape, but do not address the city as a whole. Instead, citywide strategies tend to be focused on marketing programs to boost the tourist or convention business. These strategies may focus on the individual nodes that together make a city desirable, but do not represent a citywide strategy of placemaking. The scale is simply too large.
Alternatively, the rapidly urbanizing suburbs also strive for identity, long absent as they sprung from the highways and auto-centric models of growth. In the suburbs, placemaking usually (but not always) occurs on a project-by-project basis whereby a “town center” program is employed as a means by which some identity can be infused in to a community. At the core, though, these town centers are re-formatted shopping centers, often times still surrounded by pavement but punctuated by some sort of central gathering space.
The town center format is not necessarily urban, but they provide something new and put suburbs on the path towards an urbanization that provides some "urban" amenities without the perceived negative attributes of the city.
But a Starbucks and an Apple Store do not a place make.
Stuck in the middle are the smaller cities - such as Santa Monica, California or Newark, New Jersey - where the downtowns are truly the central business district where much of the activity is focused. But, in today’s continuing saga of urban evolution, what once were the residential districts of these smaller cities have become, in many cases, the far flung suburbs of a distant larger city, relegating the original downtowns to secondary or even tertiary destinations that find it difficult to compete. So, in an effort to prevent the leakage of tax revenue and social interaction to the larger cities, smaller cities need to become aggressive in creating unique identities to breed civic pride and create real “places.” And, different from their suburban or larger urban counterparts, the smaller scale of these smaller cities permits the public sector to take a more active role, as opposed to struggling to create a framework and hoping the private sector will build and include provisions of that framework in to their development plans.
Although bigger cities have significant political and financial muscle behind them, and individual “placemaking” projects have private interests guiding them, smaller- and medium-sized cities with a real downtown core need not be left behind when it comes to creating desirable venues for living, working and playing. In these trying economic times, and with severely limited municipal budgets, there is still a need to focus on economic development and long-term viability and quality of life. If the public sector leads the way with investments, sound urban design principles and a cohesive strategy and framework, a true “place” can be created to improve quality of life for local residents and workers and attract others with a shared idea of identity.