A Case for Place-making

If you’re familiar with the H+W blog you know that we are huge fans of creative place making. We love the idea of leveraging the arts and culture of a community to generate long-lasting, sometimes permanent, change in underutilized areas.

Taking an idea and embedding it into an area to re-calibrate it sounds easy, right? In reality - it is a huge challenge. Creating a strategy that works for the area that creates the desired effect requires hard work and determination, but not necessarily money and resources.

Lately, we’ve been interested in how an intervention into a place can create long-term, positive effects (see case studies below) and how we can influence our scarce financial resources to radically challenge the way that place is used and/or perceived and create the biggest possible impact. Every city has lots, blocks or neighborhoods that are underutilized, unusable, undesirable or just plain scary. We may initially avoid these places by walking on the opposite side of the street or driving around them. These spaces have a stigma about them that gives a continuing impression that they are not to be inhabited. Maybe it has historically been an area of negative activity that has just been left vacant for decades to decay, or perhaps the perceived safety of the space is marred by bad smells, aesthetics or lighting. The space itself might have a wonderfully rich, albeit forgotten, history. Our memory of this place has completely formed our perception of what this place is and in our minds, that space has negative value.

How can we change our perceived notions and give them new identities? How can we reclaim these areas for the community and create new positive memories? How does this impact the surrounding area?

It can be as simple has adding plants and planters to nondescript streets and sidewalks. The planters along Madison Avenue in Covington make the street more inviting and habitable. Outdoor seating is starting to pop up at eateries along the route and it encourages people to walk, stop, and smell the flowers. People become more invested in the city and want to continue to beautify its underutilized areas.

Planters on Madison Ave.

Planters on Madison Ave.

Another prime example is the Zen garden at the Pike Street railroad underpass. This unused underpass is being transformed into a rock garden with sculptural benches of stone and pebbles that can be manipulated to created complex patterns. The addition of a mural transforms the crumbling concrete into a blue sky – complete with foam birds inspired by artist Matt Hebermehl and painted by students at Glenn O. Swing elementary. This project is a creative and artistic exploration with a hard focus on community and place-making. It is based more on bringing the arts into a space and making it something else. But installs don’t always have to be directly related to the arts.

Rock/Zen garden at the corner of Pike and Russell streets

Rock/Zen garden at the corner of Pike and Russell streets

Installations can deal with other senses, too. Less explored options like those dealing with light and smell, have been just as successful. “Bring to Light,” a 2011 light installation in Brooklyn, NY, created small scale installations on park benches and blank walls. Projections onto those walls gave life to the inanimate by creating impromptu movie nights for the neighborhood. This brought people from all walks of life together. The projections created a new sense of community. The park benches, outlined with silhouettes of people sleeping or reading books, were ways to engage passersby. People were reminded that these public spaces have a presence when they’re not there. Through this idea of memory and presence a sense of connection to place and community developed.

Tiny interventions can immediately change surroundings. Installations that require very little money can really alter the way a space is used and perceived. Covington has many initiatives that fall under this category. In 2014, Make Covington Pop hosted a small scale, intervention at the site of a run down and vacant building – the Mutual Fire Insurance Building at Madison and Pike Streets. With a little time and some elbow grease, the space was given a purpose again. The pop-up shops took over the unoccupied storefronts for just a few weeks in November and December that year and then were gone. After the pop-up shops closed the building went through a complete renovation and several of the participants opened permanent shops elsewhere. The businesses are thriving and expanding. This project turned a negative space into something vibrant and positive that changed the financial future of the participants and neighborhood.


Another case is the 2010 mural, “The Divine Proportion of All Things” aka The Phoenix Mural, was painted on the side of an unremarkable building with two blank facades and parking lot, by artist Tina Westerkamp. The mural was a huge, bright, and uplifting addition to an area that was in major need of some intervention. The location was chosen for the Art Off Pikes annual art sale, then used by the Covington Arts, and then as a performance and art space for Madlot in 2014. The stigma of this place had changed - people wanted to be there and hold events there. So, in 2015, it was no surprise that Braxton Brewing decided to open in the building adjacent to the site. With all this new-found energy and life, that site is currently being transformed into a multi-million-dollar mixed use development known as Duveneck Square. Although the wall that injected life into the area is now gone, its impact will be felt for many years to come. These projects started small and grew into something bigger.

On an even larger scale a few projects come to mind that have completely transformed an unused/undesired space. Now, in all honesty these three projects have huge budgets, top designers, or major civic and institutional backings. The following examples show the scale-ability of the concept – from an alley, to Covington to New York City. The idea of taking undervalued space and making it desirable is not just a rich-man’s game. The ideologies and principles executed in these projects and be adapted to small scale interventions that can forever alter its surroundings and vice versa.

1.       Case study 1 - The High Line in New York City; a former New York Central Railroad elevated track called the West Line that has been transformed into a lush, busy 1.45-mile-long park nestled in the heart of Manhattan. The development took a crime riddled, eye sore and transformed it into a shiny beacon that has completely changed the surrounding neighborhood for the better.

2.       Case study 2- The Tate Modern; a former power station rehabbed into the premiere modern art museum in London.

3.       Case study 3 – Smale Riverfront Park in Cincinnati, an example you should be familiar with, took an industrial area and transformed it into a thriving park.

The idea that minimal, thoughtful interventions can create such a massive change is encouraging. It takes some hard work and creative minds but it is possible. Creative place making is a way to inject real change into community and encourage further development. Whether its creating an avenue of used pianos for impromptu public performances or pop-up walls used as an art gallery, we can create change that can radiate throughout the community. Sure, not every project is going to be so space-altering that new million dollar projects pop up, but even the slightest positive change is good for the community. Taking minimal risk with low initial monetary investment isn’t harmful. And if it doesn’t work - no big deal - we can get it right next time. How can we continue to inject life and vitality into this city?

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