Although the dictionary has yet to include placemaking among its numerous entries, there is no shortage of definitions online. The Project for Public Spaces notes that “placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community.” And Wikipedia describes placemaking as, “…a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces.”
The popular term has even inspired its fair share of critics who often note that placemaking has been around for decades, and has only enjoyed renewed popularity because of the ubiquitousness of unmemorable public spaces. But what does this term actually mean for those interested in creating dynamic public places in the heart of their community?
At its population peak in the 1950s, the city of Detroit had over 1.8 million residents and the built infrastructure to support them including single family homes, apartment complexes, schools, commercial districts, and places of worship. But the city’s population loss has had many casualties, most notably its residential neighborhoods. And at the heart of its neighborhoods are schools and their surrounding parks and playfields. In the last fifteen years, the city has closed down more than 100 schools, with more slated for future closure. One approach to address the trend was a community-based design project that invited residents to generate ideas for the adaptive reuse of shuddered schools in their neighborhoods.
The project started in 2009, during the height of public school closures, and focused on two vacant schools, one on the east side (Edmund Atkinson School) and one on the west side (Kosciusko Elementary School). The process started with a simple question: What would you like to see here in place of a vacant school building? The responses were surprisingly similar, given that the question was asked of two different communities divided by Detroit’s downtown. During the course of several meetings facilitated by architects, planners and historic preservationists, residents requested a multi-use community space that included edible gardens, recreational facilities, health clinics, continuing education, trade schools, and studios for dance, gymnastic, art, film, music and cooking.