Creativity flows at Kalamazoo placemaking event

Placemaking is about creating public places that have the ability to bring the community together. A lot of interested citizens gathered recently to find out how they could help. 
During a day set aside to learn about placemaking projects already taking place in Kalamazoo and to discuss ways more could be done two definitions of how placemaking works emerged.

Participants gathered around tables to undertake exercises to help excercise their civic muscles at the third "Go Places" event.

One table came up with this way to explain what happens through placemaking: "Improving quality of life for all revitalizes and re-energizes our community. We need to simultaneously improve basic needs for those most disadvantaged while also thinking--and acting--in big ways to collectively, collaboratively, and proactively address deep and systemic issues that have driven inaction. Speaking to peoples’ highest aspirations can show that we, as a community, can deliver on them through many small and large projects. We do this by showing that everyone has a role to play in this process—and we lower barriers of entry to make this possible. By activating people’s imaginations, creativity, and energy through demonstrating the possibility of positive change, these early successes build awareness and trust and, thus, create a virtuous cycle."

Another table described it in haiku form:
"Action springs from need
small bites create momentum
fun town built for all"

Those gathered around the tables had spent the morning absorbing the expertise in placemaking presented by Susan Silberberg. The urban designer, architect and author was invited to lead the "Go Places" discussion and had spent the preceding day visiting various projects in Kalamazoo and learning about the city.

From Eastern Market in Detroit to Streets Alive, an initiative to build support for bikes in Fargo N.D, Silberberg gave many examples of communities and organizations across the country that are successfully shaping the spaces around them to make social interaction easier, create high-quality public spaces and improve communities quality of life.

"Placemaking affects our relationships, what we do, and how we feel." Silberberg says.

She explained that historically people have created places that reflected a community's needs, places that helped keep members of the community connected. But with the progression of the industrial age and the emphasis on building highways and suburbs, the public places that brought people together were dismantled.

The opinions of experts became more valued than that of citizens and government officials implemented top-down plans that ignored the voice of citizens.

Urban-planning thinkers began to question this approach and sought ways to restore a human scale to public spaces and ways to get people back into the planning of their communities. They called it placemaking, and it focuses not only on the places being made but the process of making them.

Silberberg told the group the new model of placemaking emphasizes flexibility, embraces impermanence, shares information, and draws on unorthodox sources for influence. It empowers everyday users to become makers, to share ideas, and to form alliances. In this mutual relationship, communities transform places, which in turn transform communities.

"The placemaking table  is open to all who dream, listen, collaborate, compromise, share, create, and act," she says.

She says the most successful placemaking initiatives are less about "place" and more about "making." The process of making empowers people and helps build local leaders. The process is not linear and though steps are achieved along the way, it may never be done as one project leads into the next.

As part of the day, the group learned of four placemaking projects now ongoing in Kalamazoo: The Kalamazoo County Landbank Authority’s Riverview Launch, The Kalamazoo Nature Center’s Urban Nature Park, The Kalamazoo River Valley Trail, and KVCC’s Health and Wellness Campus.

In the afternoon session, Silberberg emphasized placemaking is about taking action. "The goal is to think about action at every meeting," she says. "Never leave a meeting without knowing the next action steps."

At each meeting participants also should ask who are potential collaborators who are not in the room.

As part of the exercise in doing placemaking, Silberberg asked participants to find connections between the four projects they heard described earlier in the day.

Silberberg advised them to think in terms of small, achievable successes.

The table groups emerged with suggestions such as a mobile city hall with a food truck that could be used to ask the community what its needs are as the truck was driven through the neighborhoods.

Another group came up with a similar idea, and drew the picture of a van they would send across the community. It could be part art gallery, meeting space, health care dispenser and place that offers healthy food.

One group took on the perceived problem that Kalamazoo lacks an identity other than its unique name. It suggested slogans based on one used by a local bike advocacy group, Bike Friendly Kalamazoo. The city could be known as Art Friendly Kalamazoo, Beer Friendly Kalamazoo, Run Friendly Kalamazoo and so on.  

Another suggested a local Wiki be created to collect information residents might need.

Those gathered agreed to come together again in the near future to pursue some of the ideas being explored during the sessions.

Silberberg told the group that "through the process of collaboration and action, we become makers of places, rather than consumers of places. And that means that your efforts, no matter how large or small, will be challenging…it is more difficult to 'make' and to be proactive than to react and to 'consume.'  It takes learning new ways of being in the world and new ways of using civic and collaborative muscles."

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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