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Columnist Sarah la Cour describes the importance of downtown placemaking



Sunday, September 10, 2017

People are attracted to quality places that they feel comfortable in when they want to relax, work, meet and mingle.

Placemaking is planner’s lingo for the process through which public spaces are created, and it represents a means to an end of quality public places that enhance a community.

A standard definition for placemaking is that it is a multi-faceted, people-oriented, approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. In addition, placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being.

The placemaking process manifest itself in a variety of ways but specifically through projects and activities that invite public collaboration, interest and creativity. This is where the Amherst Business Improvement District comes in.

For the past five years, the Amherst BID has been engaged in active placemaking in downtown Amherst including the annual block party, our 140 planters and baskets of summer flowers and thousands of holiday lights for the historic Merry Maple on the Town Common. Those are our most visible and prominent contributions, but every season we have programs, projects and activities that promote downtown as a quality public place that attracts people.

Just this summer, the BID hosted seven concerts as part of our Downtown Beats music series. We had record crowds at our 4 Kendrick Park performances, especially kid-favorite Mister G who rocked the 3- to 6-year-old crowd!

We also hosted the Amherst Community Band at lovely Sweetser Park that attracted a different demographic but was equally well-received. These events bring families, the old and young to downtown and provide a much-needed boost to the summer economy during the months when students are absent.

When students arrive — as they did last week — we hosted over 2,000 incoming University of Massachusetts freshmen for a fabulous Adventure into Amherst this past Saturday. The great thing about this event is that it provides these students with an early glimpse of the incredible public places that they now can share with us for the next four years.

In addition to the process of placemaking, there are several key principles that the BID tries to follow as we plan and execute projects and activities in downtown. Most of these principles involve the BID’s many partners and include successful collaborations with residents, workers and visitors alike. Some of our favorite highlights from the process in Chicago, as described on the website www.placemakingchicago.org are these:

You can’t do it alone — A good public space requires partners who contribute innovative ideas, financial or political support, and help plan activities.

They’ll always say, “It can’t be done” — Every community has naysayers. When an idea stretches beyond the reach of an organization or its jurisdiction and someone says, “It can’t be done,” it usually means: “We’ve never done things that way before.” Keep pushing.

Start with the petunias — Simple, short-term actions such as planting flowers can be a way of testing ideas and encouraging people their ideas matter, as well as providing pride of place.

You are never finished — About 80 percent of the success of any public space can be attributed to its management. This is because the use of good places changes daily, weekly and seasonally, which makes management critical. Given the certainty of change and fluid nature of the use of a place at different times, the challenge is to develop the ability to respond effectively. A good management structure will provide that flexibility.

That last one is particularly important to us. As a successful downtown management district, the BID has taken to heart all of the above and works hard every day to create a quality public environment for the town.

We love bringing color to town each June, lighting up the winter and coming up with new and innovative ideas such as pop-up parklets and our upcoming Full Disclosure Project.

We look forward to continuing the process of providing quality places that people can embrace in downtown Amherst. See you there!

Sarah la Cour, of Amherst, is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.