What is placemaking, and why should we care?

August 23, 2012 

It’s hard to believe it has been more than two months since I retired as the City’s downtown liaison. While I am enjoying retirement, there is one initiative I brought forward that still means so much to me that I feel compelled to write about it in the hopes that I will allay some misconceptions and unrealistic expectations: the art of placemaking.

But let me first state what placemaking is not.

It is not a magic bullet to cure all the ills of our downtown.

It cannot wave a magic wand over our publicly owned spaces and rid them of the domination of single user/demographic groups

It does not work by making one or two changes and all of a sudden our downtown is open to all.

It is not a process that requires major funding or infrastructure and/or capital projects to be successful.

And now let me state what placemaking is:

It is a process that engages downtown stakeholders who are willing to do the hard work to envision public spaces that not only invite but entice all manner of demographic groups to play, gather, eat, listen to music and engage in activities that are welcoming and safe for all.

It is a process that relies on envisioning public space with ideas that are lighter, quicker and cheaper so that honest evaluation of what works and what doesn’t work is not tied to how much the improvements cost.

What has the city done so far to create wonderful public spaces?

Last October we brought Project for Public Spaces, the premier nonprofit international organization, to Olympia to train more than 80 participants on how to reimagine both underutilized public spaces and those areas that are dominated by single groups to the exclusion of others.

The participants represented stakeholders from social service providers, Intercity Transit, the port, city and state staff, residents, downtown business people and several of our elected officials. Their task was to determine what public areas in the downtown represented the greatest opportunities for change.

The four areas chosen were:

 • The artesian well north parking lot.

 • The 300 and 400 blocks of Fourth Avenue.

 • Sylvester park and its environs.

 • The Intercity Transit station.

After the all-day training session, a public meeting was held at The Washington Center where more than 100 people from the general public came to listen to what this thing called placemaking was all about and have their say in which public spaces they believed to be the areas of greatest opportunity for renewal. There was broad consensus that those four areas chosen earlier were indeed ripe for positive change.

The next step was to invite the public and any interested stakeholders to visit these sites and employ the concept of “The Power of Ten.” The very basis of successful, great public spaces is to find at least 10 amenities for each area through a process called place games.

For two months, I joined many groups at the four sites and recorded the ideas they had to accomplish their placemaking goals. More than 150 people came to do the work, from schoolchildren to young adults to city and state staff, downtown residents, business people, our elected officials, and local agencies. We then went about the task of gathering their place audits (booklets recording grades and wishes for each site) and developed a list for each site of their top 10 amenities.

We took all of their comments and suggestions and brought them back to the original group of 80 in February for their review and the development of action plans.

So where are we now?

To implement the action plans on two of the sites, the placemaking initiative received funding from the Parking Business Improvement Area to enable city staff to develop a request for proposals process for ideas and designs to enhance our public spaces, with special emphasis on the 300 and 400 blocks of Fourth Avenue and the artesian well area.

The first grant has already been awarded to a mosaic artist for the artesian well. This art project employed more than 200 volunteers. This is only one of many steps in the placemaking process for the artesian well. Installing parklets in the downtown core was top of the list for major changes to Fourth and Fifth avenues.

The Power of Ten is real and compels us to look beyond the quick fix and one or two ideas to somehow transform a public space. Some of the great ideas coming out of the place audits included such amenities as seating, parklets on the street, adult game tables, children’s play areas, art projects, food vendors, movie nights and potential performance areas.

It is important to remember, one amenity does not make a place.

This is what placemaking is about, and this is why I am still passionate and excited about possibilities for our amazing downtown.

Let Olympia be the model for the rest of the Pacific Northwest and let them know that Olympia can bring people together in their downtown. Our downtown and public spaces are works in progress, but above all else they are for everyone to share and enjoy.

If you need more information please contact my successor, Brian Wilson, at 360-709 2790. He has so skillfully and adroitly picked up the ball on placemaking.

Ruth Snyder recently retired as Olympia’s Downtown Liaison and Code Enforcement Officer, a position for which she drew on her experiences as a former small business owner and past mayor of Mill Valley, Calif. She’s called Olympia home for the past 22 years.

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