Friday, May 7, 2010

Place-making for fun and profit

Earlier this week, I attended an economic development workshop here in Sault, Michigan. Michigan has a lot of catching up to do in terms of economic development. After decades of over-reliance on one industry, and a none-too-nimble industry sector at that, the state needs to figure out how to do things differently. Michigan State University’s Land Institute is traveling the state this summer to encourage regions to develop strategies to position themselves in the ‘new economy.’ There’s likely to be such an initiative underway in your area. Lend your support and point-of-view. Contact your local regional planning authority about how to get involved.

A large part of this initiative is to help communities and regions develop a strong, positive sense of place. Communities and regions with a strong, positive sense of place are better able to attract knowledge workers and knowledge workers are the new economic drivers. These are the people who choose where to live then figure out how to build themselves a job there, and in so doing build jobs for others. That’s a bit of an over-simplification but it does capture the main point of the initiative. The research regarding successful regions and communities bears this approach out.

The built environment figures heavily into this approach, but places cannot be manufactured, they have to develop organically based on a region and the communities’ existing features. One of our key features is the St. Marys River. But it is not enough for us to simply say, ‘Look how wonderful the St. Marys River is.’ We need to show how this fabulous resource provides opportunities for people to do things they want to do and cannot do elsewhere. And then we need to build on the natural features, adding amenities that let people do those things. Parkways along the water. Attractive access points to the river. Places people want to be to do things they want to do. We need to provide specific reasons to go down to the river.

What gives the river – or any place -- its strong, positive sense of place is how people interact with it. Making that connection is what place-making is about.

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