Placemaking in action in NYS


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The Daylighting the Saw Mill River is just one example of how placemaking is alive across the State.  Picture Courtesy:

 (August 2, 2012)  Too often in upstate New York we focus solely on when history has not been kind to many of our communities.  This becomes even more evident when we compare our fortunes to New York City, in the midst of what may go down in history as one of the great renaissances in the premier global center.

For those of us who have grown up in post-industrial upstate New York, it is difficult to not get wrapped up in the “what could be, what was, what are we missing” game.  But ever more increasingly in upstate communities, the consensus has shifted.  Rather than focusing on the deficits, more and more communities are engaged in building visions centered around community assets, aspirations, and desires.  The new outlook involves identifying small or large physical transformations that can improve the best places in the community, or capitalize on the places of opportunity.  This approach is often referred to as placemaking and as Kaid Benfield, NRDC’s Director of Sustainable Communities, exclaimed in a recent blog, it has been a missing piece of the smart growth effort.

A longtime leader in placemaking has been ESF Coalition partner Project for Public Spaces.  Founded out of the learnings of William H. Whyte– the professional “people watcher”, whose work in the study of human behavior in urban settings changed the way we look at public places — Project for Public Spaces works across the world creating streets, parks, markets and much more.  Their focus is on four key elements that make great places: accessibility, activity, comfort and sociability.  Recent work along Buffalo’s waterfront, which emphasized the model of “lighter, cheaper, quicker”, has jump-starting a long-stalled waterfront vision.

The Connective Corridor in action

But great places don’t just happen by bringing in the experts.  It comes from the grassroots — the people who know the community best. At ESF, we know state-level progress depends on a local citizenry committed to improving their cities, towns or villages.  We would be remiss to think that the state-level smart growth victories weren’t correlated with the resurgence of local placemaking efforts.

Need a few ideas on how to ignite the placemaking work in your community?  Take a look at what has happened in Central New York, where as a result of inspired local involvements, real placemaking improvements have occurred.  Physical transformations have included the Connective Corridor, a signature strip with new urban landscapes, bike paths, imaginative lighting, public and interactive art, signage, connecting the University Hill (Syracuse University) with downtown Syracuse and the Onondaga Creekwalk project,a unique multi-use trail abutting the creek through the heart of the city.

The progress in Central New York is in part due to efforts in placemaking education and research by local groups like the Onondaga Citizens League (OCL).  Over the past year, OCL has offered the Urban Design & City Image, a series of five free workshops inviting residents from the county to come out to learn more about the principles of urban design and how they are implemented in their region.  The series, free to the general public, sparked so much interest that organizers had to cap the number of participants.  The series of lectures included brief histories of American cities and some of the great urban designers and planners, as well as a lecture on Syracuse’s development along the Erie Canal as a salt making center.  A late April session featured visioning sessions where the participants broke off into groups to identify the places worth making or preserving within the city, such as gateways, nodes, neighborhoods, landmarks, etc.

Participants in Onondaga Citizens League's Urban Design & City Image series mapping Syracuse

These sessions along with a recently released report from the 2011 Community Image Study — an effort to quantify the economic and social impacts of the physical environment, with the hope to convince the community to redirect energy and resources into making a more physically “beautiful” place — have ignited small and large transformations that makes the region more livable and economically desirable.

Central New York is not alone in their placemaking efforts. ESF Coalition partner Orange County Citizens Foundation in April held their fourth annual placemaking conference to promote the creative reuse of space, architectural detail, and greenery.  The conference is available to view anytime on Orange County Citizens Foundation TV.

In Yonkers — the historically industrial-based city, the fourth largest in New York State — community leaders and advocacy groups, including ESF Steering Committee member Scenic Hudson, realized they had a buried treasure right below their feet.  Since the 1920’s, The Saw Mill River had been tunneled and a section was covered by a parking lot.  Following strategic public investments, new development in downtown Yonkers along the river’s path, and years of advocacy and education,  the Daylighting the Saw Mill River project became a reality.  The project has uncovered 800 feet of the river and work continues on attractive walkways within a planned two-acre park.

The Yonkers project adds to other Mid-Hudson successes such as the Walkway over the Hudson which transformed a decommissioned rail bridge into a pedestrian walkway between Poughkeepsie and Highlands; and the Dia:Beacon, which has renewed a Nabisco factory into an art lover’s mecca.  And then of course, in Manhattan, there is the High Line — an elevated mile-long linear park built on an abandoned freight rail line — that has transformed Chelsea and created a fabulous new place in New York City.

While regional plans and economic development dollars may get us the tools to create the smart growth solutions for the future, none of those solutions are possible without engaged citizens embracing the power of place.  Albeit in different stages in different communities, across New York State it is clear that people are seeing the many assets in their communities and are working to make the best of them.


This piece has been contributed by David Hogenkamp, Project Manager, Empire State Future

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