The macro and micro of place




“Placemaking” is a popular catch-phrase among politicians, planners, and economic development experts these days. Generally, everyone knows what they like in certain places and they would like to see such amenities replicated, particularly in those locations that may be lacking them. However, I rarely see discussions on the difference between placemaking generally (or on the macro level) and specifically (or on the micro level).

First, I believe the term “placemaking” applies to the macro or community-wide level. When people say they really like Ann Arbor or Santa Fe, they are usually not zeroing in on one specific aspect of the city, but are expressing their feelings based on their overall perceptions and experiences.

On the other hand, “third place” is the best term for describing placemaking on the micro or local/individual level.  The reason for the distinction is that there are very few individual amenities that can translate to making a place on a community-wide basis. Disney World, Times Square, the French Quarter, and the National Mall are certainly examples of such a phenomenon, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Most cities are not blessed with a single, overarching definition of place. Instead, most communities need to build upon their collection of individual amenities to enhance their identity.

Generally, placemaking is a process of encouraging, establishing, and maintaining a series of vibrant third places. Once a community has successfully produced an agglomeration of third places, its status/perception as an attractive place to live, work, and play becomes solidified.

I would appreciate any comments on these thoughts. If I am way off base, please let me know. I shall look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts on the topic.

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14 Responses to The macro and micro of place

  1. Erik says:

    I think you’re dead on that most cities try to emulate other cities on vague generalities, but don’t zero it down any further. There’s more vague statements like, “Can’t we make ____ more like _____?” and less discussion as to the elements on the ground level that make it up as a whole.

    Most “professionals” in any related industry use the buzzwords but also seek out trends which also misses the underlying aspects of why people like what they do. Example: People like malls because of the variety of stores so let’s build more malls. However, digging a little deeper we find people like being by people, a variety of stores, a variety of restaurants, something that is aesthetically appealing, and will walk around in an environment that is safe, entertaining, and comfortable – which could very well be a downtown if it met the same criteria.

    All of that being said, I still like raising people’s awareness of place by using the hot phrase. This is only because we have made too many placeless places by copying other places.


  2. Gil says:

    Nothing wrong in your reasoning. I lean to separating ‘place’ into 1) the built environment and 2) how people interact with it on a daily basis( or people habitat as I am more fond of saying ). Scale can be looked at the regional level, community level and neighborhood level in either case. Recognizing the symbiotic relationship between the two is important, as well as having the humility to admit we are never going to get it completely right unless we empower and engage those who must interact with the ‘built’ on a daily basis as the experts who best know how to improve upon it.


  3. basil berchekas jr says:

    i think you’re on base, but that’s just me…


  4. Jana Carp says:

    Absolutely, I agree with your points. See the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community study for some interesting conclusions on what people value in their places. And here’s another related idea: the importance of hospitality. What I have learned from Slow Cities (Cittaslow) is that people like places where they feel welcomed into a distinct quality of experience. So the amenities are important, but so is the general attitude of the people in the place. In other words, I think that the attractiveness of a place may be contingent not only on the third places established, but also the enjoyment of the residents as they are engaged in place-making activities AND their sense of hospitality to the public.


  5. Paul Hamilton says:

    As somebody who has been practicing placemaking locally for over 27 years, I do think you are on the right track, although I tend to say it differently when I lecture on this idea at MSU, put the concepts in a professional paper, or discuss it with colleagues.

    Here’s how I tend to think about this–when Dan Burden and I did some of the first community audits in Michigan (or those more recently, or when others do them, for that matter) we were frequently looking a micro-scale placemaking activities–can we improve the sight distance at this mid block crossing, can we make a safer intersection, can we add a fountain in this roundabout, can we place seats or benches for people to sit on on this block, can we make this key connection between neighborhood and schoolyard, do we need ADA improvements on this corner, should we add zebra stripes and stop bars at this intersection, etc. To my way of thinking, those are clearly micro-scale treatments and improvements.

    In contrast, when we did the regional land use vision as part of the “Regional Growth:: Choices for Our Future” project, we were clearly focusing on macro-scale changes which also specifically supported placemaking–regional policies and guides for where and how we grow, principles which should be embedded in every local comp plan and zoning ordinance to limit scattered low density development, improve livability, sustainability, walkability, preserve ag land and open space, encourage mixed use, establish priority growth areas, identify preservation areas and so forth– at a regional scale. Again to my way of thinking we were clearly placemaking in this process and working on maco-scale details in that effort.

    Now, with our HUD Phase II implmentation grant and doing design charrettes in the Michigan/Grand River BRT corridor– we are working at what I call the meso-scale level– the corridor, the sub-area, or some other intermediate regional spatial level of place-making activity. I used to have some interesting dialogue with one of my friends at the Grand Valley Metro Council about what comes next– after micro-and macro-scale –corridors or sub areas….I agreed with either, but argued for corridors, My friend over there argued for subareas and that’s how he proceeded. No surprise to me then that we are now spending a lot of HUD money doing the first and perhaps most important corridor re- design in the entire region–and for a ragged 1/2 mile on either side of the main line–.so I think we need to add meso-scale into the typology.

    I also note I have had some interesting discussions with some other colleagues nationally on what transpires between micro and meso–where some have argued for eco-zones, or neighborhoods, or similar constructs. I’m not sure sure whether I prefer either at this point –again probably both–but I think it is a useful discussion to have and I thinh having that discussion would be very helpful to many of us if we could define a more clear placemaking typology.

    If you get where I am coming from on this whole discussion–after nearly 32 years in this business, and really talking about and engaging local governments here on placemaking for over 27, I think we need to work placemaking activities at all of these applicable levels–macro, meso, micro, and probably other intermediates we can work through together in order to be successful in truly making great places.

    I think better defining the typology gets us to better defining what tools and techniques to use with each level, and to (perhaps) a much larger and important set of questions about characteristics of each level, about places, about our profession and probably some interesting questions on engagement methods and ethics– if we follow those discussions to their logical conlusions.

    Of course I’d probably be remiss if, as the land use/trasnportation guy, I didn’t also mention “the system level,” again someplace in between meso and macro, but what we as regional transportation professionals freqently construct out of our models and networks. So I think more detail is better than less and maybe critical to fully flushing out the entire typology.

    Someplace out there is probably an academic type that has been doing even further refinements working on these ideas, but I am a long way out of grad school 🙂 and I think these are discussions that we should be having as groups of professionals, and with our local elected officials and citizens and stakeholders.

    In any case, I’m glad you initiated this discussion, and look forward to having it some more with you– –and the community– in the coming months as we move forward on the Michigan/Grand River corridor design charrettes……..Remember to save those April 30 to May 7 dates for the first one!
    Paul Hamilton


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