MIT research reveals the power of placemaking

A recently released report highlights the power of communities in the design of public spaces

Bryant Park, New York City

By Ash Blankenship

The MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning released new research that examines the evolution of urban planning and its effects on communities. The report defines placemaking as “an innovative approach to transforming communities by creating and revitalizing open, public spaces around the needs and desires of the community.”

"Placemaking puts power back in the hands of the people"

“Placemaking puts power back in the hands of the people,” said Susan Silberberg, lead researcher of the MIT team that performed the study. “The most successful placemaking initiatives transcend the ‘place’ to forefront the ‘making,’ and the benefits for community can be substantial and long-lasting.”

The research is summarized in a whitepaper titled, Places in the Making. The key findings of the report—as noted in the press release—are listed below.

  • Process is equal to the outcome: The community engagement necessary in the organizing, deliberating, communicating, building, programming and maintaining of public places has an equally important benefit for communities as the physical outcomes. In short, the “making” of public places builds social capital and enhances community capacity for action and leadership.
  • Placemaking creates a virtuous cycle: The relationship of places and their communities is not linear, but cyclical and mutually influential. Places grow out of the needs and actions of their formational communities, and in turn shape the way these communities behave and grow. This mutual influence of community and place creates a virtuous cycle of placemaking that supports the mutual stewardship of place and community and the creation of civic infrastructure necessary for healthy societies and collaborative problem solving.
  • Public places are never “finished:” The iterative and interactive process inherent in the placemaking cycle creates multiple entry points for a wide variety of actors and actions; the engagement of community members, funders, advocates and public officials supports an expanding view of “community” and creates a foundation for positive change and healthy communities.
  • Temporary initiatives and tactical methods can be remarkably effective: Placemakers are adopting tactical methods that are low-cost, flexible, temporary and sometimes unsanctioned over permanent and costly bricks-and-mortar projects. Tactical methods such as the creation of temporary installations that host pop-up businesses, reclamation of parking spaces for human use and enjoyment, and reallocation of roads for walkers, runners, and cyclists, can be remarkably effective in remaking a public space quickly and cheaply while calling attention to the need for better placemaking on a larger scale.
  • Placemaking is open-source: The democratic ethos of the movement and the “trickle-up” nature of tactical placemaking demonstrate the growing influence of an Internet-influenced model where positive change can happen in real time and everyone is empowered to be a maker.
  • Public/Private partnerships elevate what’s possible: The growing prevalence of public/private partnerships in the practice of placemaking reflects new types of cross-disciplinary collaborations that mirror the complexity of communities and the issues faced. These partnerships often mix regulatory power and public ownership with private resources and efficient management to create and maintain well-run places that would not otherwise be possible. Southwest Airlines, which provided a gift to MIT that went toward helping to fund the research, has invested in two placemaking pilot projects in Detroit, Mich., and Providence, R.I. Linda Rutherford, Vice President of Communication and Outreach at Southwest Airlines, explained the company’s interest in placemaking. “We believe public places are truly the hearts of local communities – the communities where our People call home and where our Customers love to visit. Creating and revitalizing public places inherently aligns with our business of connecting people from place to place and our commitment to strengthening the communities we serve.”

The white paper, Places in the Making, is available for download. We will report more on the key findings of the report in the coming weeks, including individual case studies.



Ash is the founder and editor-in-chief of Parksify and also writes about urban policies, technology, sociology and other topics for a range of publications, including Urban Times, Medium, Tiny Buddha and others.

Prior to founding Parksify, Ash worked at the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit journalism organization.

Header image by Brian Clift, Flickr

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