Governance, on every scale, is not set up to create great places. Indeed, the current culture and structure of government and civic infrastructure may actually be the greatest obstacle (more than money, ideas, talent, infrastructure, etc.) to successful Placemaking. As ingrained as government, and its relationship to communities, might seem, we are finding that these obstacles are ones that all parties are poised to overcome.

When we ask: “What if a central focus of governance became the building of successful places?” there is general comfort and energy to make that happen, to work together in new ways. How would that shift the effectiveness of government’s ability to work with itself and with the communities it is meant to serve?

Taking this idea even further, what if government’s focus was not just to deliver better places, or even measure the impacts of those services, but to build capacity for communities to preserve and create that shared wealth?

Governance, whether formal or informal, strong or weak, top-down or bottom up, has great potential to redefine and refocuses itself around Place. Inherently bound by place, and tied to the success of the places it governs, government is still largely missing a coherent focus on enhancing its places.

Currently, no department or community organization is in charge of creating good places. Even when everyone is doing their job masterfully, great places generally fall outside of everyone’s mission and goals. In fact, the desired outcomes of siloed departments like mobility, economic development, safety, cultural development, tourism, etc. are inevitably in conflict and competition, frequently undermining the public realm that they are all charged with supporting.

Yet, each faction of government is responsible for important elements of Placemaking, and would often best accomplish its independent departmental goals through a shared focus on place outcomes. What if government was structured to facilitate the capacity of a community to drive and sustain its own shared value?

Through our work on public spaces around the world, we are discovering that a focus on Placemaking is not only a logical one for most governmental agencies and community-focused organizations, but one that is often a rather natural transition.

When a government organizes itself around creating successful public spaces and generating Place Capital, it is often able to accomplish a broad range of existing goals more efficiently.

When performing at their best, communities organize to compete to contribute to the public realm and shared value. Indeed, the most loved places were invariably created through this culture.

It is only when public spaces are well managed that they work. Central to PPS’s experience has been our discovery through experience that management is 80-90% of the success of a space, and that spaces need to be designed in a way that supports management—not the other way around. Through the Placemaking process, governments can set places up to self-manage, and even self-govern, by creating a culture of engagement in the community that supports a given space.

Current PPS Efforts to Explore and Support Place Governance

In Adelaide, Australia, PPS has been working to train staff and civic leaders in Placemaking and support strategic planning for the city to move towards a place-led governance model. They have seeded this transformation through an aggressive Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper program called Splash Adelaide, which is having a very visible impact on the public realm and peoples’ perception of how it can be shaped. They are now piloting “Place Capital” metrics and “place audits” to track success and support. The long-term goal is to shift place governance capacity to the district level.

Peter Smith’s presentation on Adelaide’s shift to a “place-led” Place Governance strategy for our Detroit Placemaking Leadership Council Meeting


The Splash Adelaide program was directly inspired by the New York City Public Plaza Program which, as well as being an example of highly visible transformation of space to support social activity, was a model centered on partnering with local community-based management capacity to plan, maintain and program the city’s new plaza spaces. Many of these first spaces indeed grew out of community-initiated Placemaking and self-governance in partnership with our NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign, intended to demonstrate and foster this process.

The concept of low-cost improvements that can be made in a matter of weeks or months changes the way that cities approach community development. It requires removing bureaucratic obstacles to quickly add value to a place and clearly demonstrate future potential. Working together on short-term changes can help build bridges between city agencies as well as to, and between, citizens, benefiting long-term implementation and maintenance as well.

Even when the expertise, capacity and networks for successful public space exist, we find that groups have rarely focused on Placemaking, and when asked to do so, are able (with basic tools, education, and facilitation) to quickly plan and implement very effectively. In light of this impact in our Placemaking projects, we have increasingly focused on providing the tools, resources, capacity-building and strategic planning for stronger Placemaking and Place Governance.

At a city level, we have focused on shifting the culture and capacity of governance through various approaches to Placemaking campaigns and academies in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, San Antonio, Vancouver, Regina, Mississauga, Stockholm, Newcastle, Australia, Bellingham, and Pimpri-Chinchwad, India. In Michigan, the campaign to focus governance through Placemaking that began in many towns and cities has caught on like wildfire, and has grown to be a state-wide effort.

At a national level, we’ve also had ongoing programs to support the introduction of Placemaking and Place-based capacity building through programs with several federal agencies including: a partnership with the Good Neighbor Program of the General Services Administration to improve federal public spaces, running the Context Sensitive Solutions online resource center for the Federal Highway-Administration, Leading a “Livability Solutions” Smart Growth technical assistance program for the Environmental Protection Agency, and now coordinating the National Endowment for the Arts’ Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design.

Internationally, we are looking to influence the governance of cities and nations though our partnership with UN Habitat. We are doing this through trainings and projects and a joint joint conference series, called the Future of Places, that will culminate in a written document to encourage the adoption of Placemaking principles at the Habitat III global gathering in 2016.

Place Governance to Support Public Spaces

As we have seen, Placemaking identifies and draws out local leadership, partners and resources on all levels of community and government. The Placemaking approach builds on the ability of place-based institutions to create great community places that bring people together and reflect community values and needs. This is a traditional, organic human skill that often goes underutilized by top-heavy technocratic bureaucracies today. In fact, in cities where Placemaking has taken hold, local government is often not directly involved in implementation, but relies on community development organizations, business improvement districts, and neighborhood partnerships to take the lead in making community change happen.

The fractured, siloed structure of contemporary government, with its myriad departments and bureaucratic processes, often directly impedes the creation of successful public spaces. Transportation departments view their mission as moving traffic; parks departments are there to create and manage open green space; community development agencies are focused on development of projects, not the spaces in between them or the organic opportunities that arise from social interactions within them.

If the ultimate goal of governance, urban institutions, and development is to make places, communities, and regions more prosperous, civilized, and attractive for all people, then government processes need to change to reflect that goal. The challenge is to include rather than to exclude, to share responsibility and investment, and to encourage new modes of integration and regulation based on public good—not purely private value, but also shared value in the public realm, or Place Capital.

The future of successful cities is not led by infrastructure and government, but by places and the broader collective civic governance needed to drive their success. Cities are not going to compete with each other by developing and or designing better physical infrastructure, but by creating the places, and governance of those place, that attract everyone to help them further develop. It is the cities that everyone can help develop, not that ones that are already developed, that will most thrive in the long term.

Government needs to evolve not to be about developing us, but developing our capacity to develop ourselves. The future of development is in how we are all organized to compete to contribute to our shared places.