Placemaking: Seeking our place to belong

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Pause for a moment and consider your community or neighborhood. Do you thrive there? Are you attached to it? Do you belong?

Those are questions I’ve contemplated since returning from the National Rural Assembly, where I took part in placemaking discussions.

While talks there focused on creative planning for rural spaces, I was offered a more urban perspective this week at a Cedar Rapids forum, hosted by the Employee Resource Group Consortium. The event, a diversity forum, featured Katherine Loflin, an internationally known placemaking expert. And, since we’ve been interviewing city council candidates, I’ve been able to add some hyperlocal thoughts to the placemaking mix too.

Placemaking involves personal attachment to a place, and strategic leveraging of those attachments. For example, increasing or driving attachment to build shared wealth.

Placemaking - Students at the University of Iowa pass through a grafitti filled railroad tunnel along the Iowa River in this file photo.
Students at the University of Iowa pass through a grafitti filled railroad tunnel along the Iowa River in this file photo.

When researchers looked at what precipitates such attachment, they found three key things across all geographies — social offerings, aesthetics and openness/welcomeness. The discovery prompted local leaders to see how their place stacked up and make changes.

Listening to these assessments of locales near and far, my mind kept a passage from Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography playing in a loop:

“I knew well that no house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

Wright was discussing his approach to architecture, and how he wanted what he built to merge with and enhance the existing fabric, as if it had always been there and as if something would be missing without it.

To me, this thought process is the very essence of what we should strive for while building vibrant communities.

We achieve it by continuously providing a broad range of authentic experiences. We get there by checking and double-checking that there is always one more open seat at the table. We make vibrant communities when we work together toward a goal of working together.

We must acknowledge our fabric is only as strong as its threads, and that lifting up one segment of our population ultimately lifts us all. We must map solutions that go beyond coordinated community calendars, or consultant-inspired marketing campaigns.

Vibrant communities are honest, and honest communities are open about how and when development will replace who and what already exists. They tell the hard truths about gentrification, and refuse to leave any piece of themselves behind in the name of progress.

Honest communities confront their weaknesses — empty storefronts, violence, pot holes, traffic jams, poverty, locked playgrounds or whatever else — and put another leaf in the table so everyone has room to work on a solution.

An honest community isn’t beholden to any special interest group because it has already acknowledged that all groups are special — and vital to its continued survival and future expansion. Projects, not people, are prioritized.

Vibrancy and honesty don’t mandate walking in lock step, but require a shared destination. As research has already shown, the shared end goal is social offerings, aesthetics and openness, otherwise known as a place to belong.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on October 10, 2015.