'Placemaking' key to success

Fred Kent of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces talks about making Martinsville a destination.

August 30, 2007

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Placemaking - or the process of turning a neighborhood, town or city from a place you can't wait to get through into one you never want to leave - is essential to the future success of an area, community representatives were told Wednesday.

Fred Kent of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping create and sustain healthy, vibrant communities, was the guest speaker Wednesday morning during a presentation at Piedmont Arts Association.

Kent's presentation was titled "The Role of Placemaking in Community Revitalization: Ideas for Martinsville/Henry County." He said that while he was in Martinsville, he walked city streets to get a feel for the area.

"Martinsville is a fascinating place. You walk down the street and see all these wonderful treasures," Kent said.

The old Henry County Courthouse, the Southern Virginia Artisan Center, the Farmers' Market, businesses and other agencies uptown are among the city's "extraordinary assets," Kent said.

Slow-moving and "tight lanes" of traffic combined with the varying heights of uptown buildings also prompted Kent's assessment that Martinsville "has a very good feel to it."

However, maintaining that foundation while building upon it is a never-ending process, he said.

When placemaking, or creating a great place, it is important to include the key attributes that people like in a place. Activities that draw people to a place, how comfortable they feel there, how accessible it is and its image are among those factors, he said.

For instance, including comfort and image in the placemaking process ideally would result in communities that are safe, clean, green, walkable, sit-able, attractive and historic, Kent said.

Low crime statistics, a favorable sanitation rating ("a feeling of clean," Kent said), building conditions and environmental data are measurements of the effectiveness of the comfort and image component, he said.

Kent said that great places are created in layers of the power of 10: 10 major destinations or districts, 10 places within each district or destination, and 10 activities within each place.

Littleton, N.H., is similar to Martinsville, Kent said, and it transformed itself from adequate to extraordinary by clustering a few service areas together in order to draw more people and encourage longer stays.

"Service areas" are things that draw people to a place, such as a library, a coffee shop or a park, said Rich Killingsworth, executive director of the Harvest Foundation, which sponsored Kent's talk. If those kinds of places are grouped together, they attract different types of people and create "an interesting social atmosphere," Killingsworth said.

Rather than having disconnected service areas, communities should aim to "create public spaces, community gathering places, streets and parks, and build the services around them," Kent said.

Kent said his agency has worked in 26 countries on more than 2,000 place-based projects.

Placemaking is popular because it defines community identity, helps people have meaningful contact with each other, draws a diverse population, creates improved accessibility, and builds and supports the local economy, he said.

"Good places breed healthy activity," Kent said. "It takes a place to create a community and a community to create a place."

Kent said the principles used in the placemaking process can be successfully applied to any community.

In talking with residents, Martinsville Mayor Kimble Reynolds said job creation emerges as a high priority, closely followed by revitalizing uptown.

The major concern, however, "is what's going on in my front yard, my backyard ... my community," Reynolds said.

Martinsville City Council recognized the importance of neighborhoods during its retreat last September, and members are open to incorporating new ideas to build a sense of place, Reynolds said.

Martinsville has many places that are attractions - the Virginia Museum of Natural History, the artisan center, Piedmont Arts and others - but now they are not clustered together within walking distance of one another, Killingsworth pointed out. One thing participants at the talk discussed was how additional destinations might be created in between those places to create a cluster.

Killingsworth said the talk was designed to point out the work already being done by groups such as MURA, Gateway Streetscape and Piedmont Arts while exploring what else might be done to make Martinsville a destination.

"Quite honestly, we're already doing this thing called placemaking," he said. "But it's also saying, to the larger public ... you have such a wonderful asset here, let's begin participating in a larger civic discussion about how we really cement this place as a destination for other people to come here, but for us to stay here and be nurtured by it" as well.

The presentation attracted nearly 40 participants, including community representatives from the Harvest Foundation, Patrick Henry Community College, the Martinsville Historical Society and others.


Select News Year: