The Rapidian

Lessons in placemaking

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks shares some lessons they are learning on the front lines of placemaking
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In the coming months, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks will contribute to Place Matters with features and updates on various initiatives across the City that we believe are creating a sense of place. Core to our mission is the concept that parks, trees and open space provide unique, tangible opportunities for people to contribute to the success of our civic spaces. Here are lessons we’re learning all the time on the front lines of placemaking and a featured project we plan to share through Place Matters.

“Sometimes you have to throw your hat over the fence and go get it.” 

There will be a thousand people that will give reasons something won’t work. It’s nearly impossible to have all the data, information, buy-in and partners needed to feel completely comfortable with any decision. So there comes a time to commit and then work through the positive and negative consequences of that action. Placemaking takes some initial risk, followed by a good process that helps complete the task or project.

When completed, Pleasant Park will be one of the first new neighborhood parks in nearly two decades in our city. Each step of converting this old parking lot to a vibrant urban park has required a thoughtful process. But it also takes a willingness to embrace uncertainty while having  confidence that the people and groups assembled have the abilities, assets and resources needed to pull it off.

“People own what they help create.”

Building consensus and engaging people in decision making and implementation is not always the easiest or cost effective strategy on the front end. However, it pays huge dividends over the life of project. Placemaking is messy. There is a place for big, bold and iconic placemaking in city building. But most of what we do is at neighborhood levels with people that want to make a difference in their own community. More often than not, a participatory process produces beloved places that people care deeply about year in and year out.

We are currently working with the City and community groups around Wilcox Park to implement a project with the $50,000 they won as part of the MyGRCityPoints campaign. You would think it would be easy to spend $50,000 on a park, but it becomes difficult when most of the projects that need to be done are worth well over five times that amount of money and everything appears as a priority. It's important to take a step back and look at the big picture. Engaging neighborhood residents as active decision makers for the future of the park is critical to achieving a great outcome.

“Ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins.” -JB Jackson

To develop a sense of place, there needs to be a sense of time. Good placemaking connects people to their history and allows for the opportunity to see a place change over time. Coming face to face with the ruins of our park system and urban forest provides the opportunity for people to work on what's next.

Engaging volunteers takes time and effort. Many of our tree planting efforts to restore canopy after devastating losses to the Emerald Ash Borer require so much work that you sometimes wonder if it’s worth it. But of course it is, when you realize that each volunteer will be connected in a unique way to the trees they are planting. As long as those people live in the area, they will always bike, walk or ride down that street or through that park, and see their legacy. Watching those trees grow year after year helps create that sense of place beyond just a moment in time. One can truly see the forest for the trees.

Over the coming months we plan to profile many of these projects in more detail and keep you informed of the opportunities to get involved in creating great places.

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