MIT Research Reveals the Power of Community Engagement

Cambridge, MA (October 23, 2013) – New research confirms the value of engaging the full community when planning and planting urban trees. According to the study, when creating valued public spaces, the “making” has become as important as the “place” in the “placemaking” process. Engaging in the deliberative and communal processes of shaping public spaces, citizens connect with each other, forge relationships, build social capital, and engage with a diverse cast of individuals, institutions and organizations.

Trees on Philly StreetThe research explores the evolution of the urban planning and design of public places toward a process called “placemaking,” which approaches transforming communities by creating and revitalizing open, public spaces around the needs and desires of the community.

Results reveal that placemaking is relevant and powerful in enhancing quality of life and supporting collaborations that connect people and support local action. The research was conducted by a team of city planning and urban design experts in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Susan Silberberg, lead researcher on the MIT team explained, “Placemaking puts power back in the hands of the people. The most successful placemaking initiatives transcend the ‘place’ to forefront the ‘making,’ and the benefits for community can be substantial and long-lasting.”

The research, which is outlined in a new whitepaper called Places in the Making, “reveals an astonishing range of placemaking projects, methods and instigators that are taking place across the United States. All have a common emphasis on creating positive change for people and communities through the transformation of a physical place.”

Key findings include:

  • Process is equal to the outcome: The “making” of public places builds social capital and enhances community capacity for action and leadership.
  • Placemaking creates a virtuous cycle: The relationship of places and their communities is not linear, but cyclical and mutually influential.
  • Public places are never “finished”: The iterative and interactive process inherent in the placemaking cycle creates multiple entry points for a wide variety of actors and actions.
  • Temporary initiatives and tactical methods can be remarkably effective: Placemakers are adopting tactical methods that are low-cost, flexible, temporary and sometimes unsanctioned over permanent and costly bricks-and-mortar projects.
  • Placemaking is open-source: The democratic ethos of the movement and the “trickle-up” nature of tactical placemaking demonstrate the growing influence of an Internet-influenced model where positive change can happen in real time and everyone is empowered to be a maker.
  • Public/Private partnerships elevate what’s possible: The growing prevalence of public/private partnerships in the practice of placemaking reflects new types of cross-disciplinary collaborations that mirror the complexity of communities and the issues faced.

Researchers conclude that the process of placemaking has created a new reality for communities: we have gone from consumers of places to makers of placers and this has blurred the lines between layperson and professional—creating a community of makers that feeds the creation of social capital, builds strong communities engaged in democratic processes, and creates great public places.

View and download Places in the Making.

Sources: “Places in the Making: New MIT Research on Placemaking Reveals the Power of Community Engagement in Design of Public Spaces” (news release) and “Places in the Making: MIT Report Highlights the ‘Virtuous Cycle of Placemaking’”