Place Making: Filling the Void Caused by Suburban Sprawl

12/28/2005 |

The ULI offers info on place making - recreating a sense of place as it relates to the entire community

Creating authentic places with a mix of uses that provide an identity and a sense of community is difficult, complex, and requires a variety of approaches, according to industry experts at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute’s recent Place Making Conference in Houston.

"There is no formula," said Howard F. Elkus of Elkus/Manfredi Architects in Boston. “It’s about details; a variety of spaces and places.”

Sprawling subdivisions built farther and farther from the city’s core have eroded American’s sense of community. "Today, 74 percent of rural counties are growing at their fastest rate in 20 years," said Joel E. Embry, president, Home Town Neighborhoods Inc., in Fernandina Beach, FL. This sprawl increases the desire of people to reconnect to real places, Embry added. 

Place making is about recreating that sense of place as it relates to the whole community. "Place making is focusing on activities of daily living," Embry said. "We are at the threshold of a major lifestyle change," he said. The 76 million baby boomers (1946-1964) are changing lifestyles around 55. Developers will rise or fall based on their ability to respond to this trend, Embry said.

The reality of place making starts with a market, said Brian R. Stebbins, chief executive officer, Cooper & Stebbins in Southlake, TX. But he pointed out a number of other necessary elements in place making:

  • A comprehensive master plan that evolves over time.
  • A mixed-use environment that includes shops, restaurants, movie theaters, offices, hotels, residential, government, and public spaces.
  • A plan and design that is sensitive to the geographical location.
  • A pedestrian-friendly environment.
  • A variety of public meeting places.
  • A focus on nighttime as well as daytime activities.
  • An emphasis on architectural details - make buildings look like what they are.
  • Public gatherings and traditions, like “Art in the Square,” Independence Day celebrations, high school homecoming parades, or a holiday tree lighting with Santa Claus.
  • A requirement for tax incremental financing of public improvements.

The goal is to create places people will come to regularly. Different types of architecture can convey the impression of evolution over time, but the most critical elements are streets and great public spaces.

One element of place making is public transit, which can unlock the development potential of a location, said Charles C. Bohl, director, Knight Program in Community Building, University of Miami School of Architecture in Coral Gables, FL.

Research shows that for transit to be successful it needs to be part of a large network, such as New York City, which has the lowest car ownership in the country, said Dena Belzer, principal, Strategic Economics in Berkeley, CA. Belzer pointed out that Arlington County, VA, has successfully created density around its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor transit stations. Consider this: 38 percent of residents take transit to work, 73 percent of riders walk to transit, 12 percent of residents don’t own cars, and one-third of the real estate tax base comes from only 8 percent of its land.

The city of Plano, TX, has become a transit village, said Phyllis M. Jarrell, director of planning for the city. In 1960, Plano had 3,000 residents; today it has 250,000. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit station in Plano is a block off Main Street; within a half mile of the DART station are 3,500 housing units. To spur transit-oriented development, the city created public-private partnerships and used land banking, tax incremental financing, and Neighborhood Empowerment Zones. “The city had to educate politicians,” Jarrell said. “Cities have to become facilitators rather than regulators,” she added.

Place making is about creating a destination and reinventing communities, and requires innovation. The site of a former Naval Air Station in Glenview, IL, now contains 2,000 homes and 1 million square feet of office space with a 400-acre central core devoted to sports, leisure, and entertainment. It serves as a center for the community by providing social inclusion and interaction, said Donald Owen, director of capital projects and planning for the Village of Glenview. The area includes a 470,000-square-foot town center, two golf courses, a children’s museum, a community center, a 40-acre lake, soccer fields, tennis courts, and an amphitheater.

"The aging population is changing the profile of communities but that’s not the only demographic," said Paul F. Morris, vice president, PB PlaceMaking in Washington, D.C. "The success of communities is the diversity of age and uses." Developers have to reinvent communities and need to become a part of the community building process, he said. The adversarial relationship between builders and communities needs to change. And the process has to change: It has to be timely, predictable, collaborative, and evolutionary. "The challenge is finding a way to get the planning process done in 12 to 24 months."

The Urban Land Institute (www.uli.org) is a non-profit education and research institute supported by its members. Its mission is to provide responsible leadership in the use of land in order to enhance the total environment. Each year, the institute honors an extraordinary community builder through the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. Established in 1936, the institute has more than 28,000 members representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines.


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