One: Place Matters

The spaces we encounter in our daily lives—the streets, buildings, parks and stores—influence our health, happiness and productivity. They make us feel welcome or unwelcome, energized or tired, protected from the elements or exposed to them. They help determine if we get enough exercise, eat fresh food, and participate in community life. How we design and use them helps determine how they affect us.

We are all involved in placemaking—the process of shaping these streets, buildings, and public spaces. It involves policymaking, planning, design, and development. It also involves everyone that lives and works in a place and finds creative ways to use a place for leisure, cultural expression and to meet basic needs. Once a place is built, it is continuously shaped by its users. A public space can be the field for pick-up sports games one day, the setting for a farmer’s market the next, and a music stage the next. Just as owners of industrial and commercial buildings respond to economic changes through retrofits to accommodate new industries, residents use streets and public spaces in a variety of ways to reflect cultural traditions. Tenants of commercial buildings change over time to reflect the tastes of a neighborhood’s population. Each person experiences the same place differently. In many cases this reflects our diverse tastes, incomes, cultures and physical abilities.

Some elements of place are appealing across communities and have quantifiable benefits. Tree lined streets improve mood, reduce asthma risk, and enhance air quality while cooling homes on hot days, and reducing energy bills. Walking along a street with long stretches of blank walls has been shown to bring people down; adding color, art and even a small amount of greenspace makes this walk much more enjoyable. Views of nature and opportunities for informal interactions with neighbors have been shown to improve mental health. Shorter blocks have been shown to increase walking, which reduces diabetes risk and improves cardiovascular health; when coupled with local parks and basic services, these positive impacts increase. Places such as restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs can provide important spaces to extend cultural traditions, cultivate a local cuisine, develop an arts and music scene, and generate new ideas, although they may be less universally welcoming.

Why Discuss Placemaking Now?

Photo: Downtown PetalumaDowntown Petaluma: From vacant buildings to thriving center of community, guided by city council action to identify existing assets, catalyst projects and public places

Photo: Downtown Petaluma

Regional planning has traditionally focused primarily on two dimensions: the amount of job and housing growth in a community and the density and location of this growth. Placemaking addresses a third dimension—peoples' experience of neighborhoods, main streets, and downtowns. This third dimension responds to a message articulated by Bay Area residents during past planning efforts: how our communities grow is just as important as how much they grow. Integrating placemaking into regional planning allows us to consider the short and long-term impact of our choices as policymakers and residents on the health and vitality of our communities. It also provides an opportunity to better understand the diverse perspectives that make up our region and imagine the possibilities of our shared spaces—in our neighborhoods, our cities, and our region.

Placemaking Opportunities

Taking advantage of opportunities to create and sustain thriving places—whether they arise during day to day life or through major public investments—requires conscious action by community members, elected officials, and staff. These opportunities range from street design standards and the use of public land to residents' use of neighborhood streets and participation in planning processes.

Streets, Parks, Plazas, and Public Lands

Public streets, parks and plazas are ripe for placemaking. The public right of way between private property lines typically makes up a quarter of a city's land and is controlled primarily by local jurisdictions. The right of way can be a beautiful, welcoming environment for all forms of travel. It can provide places to continue cultural traditions, safe routes for children to reach schools, and comfortable settings for elders to walk. It can offer small pocket parks and plazas that serve as neighborhood gathering places while catching stormwater and recharging aquifers. The right of way can also be an unattractive, unwelcoming place that puts elderly and disabled pedestrians at risk, detracts from private investment and contributes to poor air quality and urban heat islands.

Photo: Doyle Hollis
		Park, Emeryville

Doyle Hollis Park, Emeryville:
Making the most of a public investment: gathering space, active transportation, and stormwater treatment

Publicly owned land beyond the right of way also presents a major placemaking opportunity. In a region with little available land, this is an especially valuable resource that can be used to meet community needs for open space, affordable housing, community centers, performance spaces, clinics and other services. Public land can also be used for private or public-private development projects intended to attract additional investment and provide a revenue source. Both public and private redevelopment projects can be designed in a way that responds to the unique needs of a community and creates collective ownership through meaningful participation.


Most people spend the majority of our time inside buildings; the design and upkeep of public and private buildings alike is critical to a community's quality of life. The vitality and safety of main streets is influenced by the buildings along its edge. Entrances and windows bring life and activity to the street while long buildings with blank walls typically make an area less attractive to visitors and businesses. The kinds of activities inside buildings help determine if a neighborhood feels welcoming to the entire community and meets its unique needs; in a neighborhood with a high senior population, clinics and pharmacies within walking distance of homes help create a complete community. The height and style of buildings can respond to the historic identity of the area or respond to the aspirations of the community for its future, while also providing shade on hot days and a sense of comfortable enclosure.


Placemaking can also be integrated into infrastructure investments and improvements. Design standards for stormwater and other basic utilities can integrate trees and public spaces. Street lights and trash bins can be decorated with features highlighting a community's history and culture, and can make streets more welcoming in the evening. Taking a holistic approach to local Capital Improvement Plans can ensure that placemaking is enhanced through infrastructure investments.

Photo: Lincoln Park, Oakland

Lincoln Park, Oakland: A place that meets a dense community's needs -providing children's play areas, sport courts, a cultural and senior center, and outdoor seating

Arts and Cultural Programming

Shared spaces such as parks, streets, and centrally located public buildings can provide exciting, low-cost stages for cultural events and open air galleries for public art. Arts and culture add life to public spaces and provide opportunities for community members to share and better understand each other's perspectives. Free performance and display space is critical to nurturing local talent, and weekend and evening events can increase foot traffic in downtowns and business districts. Over the long-term, the continuing presence of art and culture adds meaning to the physical forms of places and engages more visitors who experience the place in new ways.

Communities can capitalize on the placemaking opportunities discussed above by carefully considering the full range of potential benefits of each public investment, shared space and planning process. In the Bay Area, the most successful approaches to achieving this goal bring together a variety of voices and allow shared spaces to serve a variety of social, economic, and environmental functions. The next section presents examples from across the region of vibrant shared spaces that support health, culture, and economic development.

Photo: Public Art, Oakland Photo: City Hall, Larkspur

Top: Public Art, Oakland
Bottom: City Hall, Larkspur