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Translating Qualitative Place Elements into Measurable Data

Placemaking is a concept that focuses on creating a built environment that reflects the unique character and needs of a community. It’s a collaborative approach that involves the community in the design and development of the public space, because placemaking’s goal is to be a magnet for people. A place is a community destination that generates buzz. Placemaking can also be used to revitalize underutilized or neglected areas, such as brownfields and abandoned buildings, turning them into vibrant public spaces.

We know the built environment has a significant impact on quality of life. Design and development of public spaces should be shaped by the needs and aspirations of the community. The most impact happens when there’s a robust participatory process like this one Downtown Miami effort.

One of the key benefits of placemaking is that it helps build a sense of community and a sense of place. People feel a sense of ownership and pride in these spaces that can lead to increased social cohesion and a stronger sense of local identity.

These are wonderful outcomes, but a bit abstract and impossible to measure or quantify. How should we planners quantify placemaking efforts to track progress?

A Formula for place

It’s impossible to measure the economic impacts of a family enjoying an outdoor concert or movies under the stars with neighbors. But there are certainly contextual elements that could be used as metrics. Maybe it’s time for community leaders to develop a “formula for place” to help guide community engagement and consultation, site analysis, design and development, and maintenance and management. Above all, to guide more objective decision-making.

What can be measured?

Although many of placemaking’s goals aren’t measurable, there are a wide range of physical characteristics that can be measured. Planners track acreage of public open spaces like parks, squares, and streetscapes. Placemaking is often associated with those types of land uses. But there’s also an opportunity to tie in vertical metrics linked to characteristics in an urban setting, because a vibrant place (city, district, neighborhood, or block) has more going for it than Shakespeare in the Park.

Urban planners measure building height and density in order to understand the physical characteristics of the built fabric in a city and to make informed decisions about land use, zoning, and development. These are easy enough metrics to wrap into a formula for place.

How can we measure?

Placemaking is more than an abstract aspiration, it’s a measurable tool for urban planners. A great place has three important qualities that can be approached scientifically:

  1. Walkability measures the level of connectivity and integrity of the urban fabric.

  2. Building engagement measures the level of interest at the building interface with the pedestrian realm.

  3. Character & Comfort measures the level of safety and quality of the pedestrian experience.

Walkability = Connectivity + Enclosure

Building Engagement = Access + Articulation + Permeability

Character & Comfort = Pedestrian zone + Streetscape + Active Uses

It’s helpful to quantify placemaking in order to improve local decisions about land use, housing, and transportation planning. These formulas are just a starting point for measuring success. Send me an email at to schedule a time to talk in more depth.

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