City planning tends to be a long range, expensive approach to transforming cities, with a greater focus on the creation of planning documents versus the implementation of projects. While there’s no argument that regional and transportation planning has led to a new wave of urban living throughout the country, on a localized level, placemaking offers neighborhood leaders a greater opportunity to engage the public, envision tangible projects, and work together to enhance their surroundings.
When The Media Arts Center of San Diego expanded their operations on El Cajon Boulevard in 2012, they launched an initiative called Take Back the Alley to transform their back parking lot into a gathering place. This catalytic placemaking initiative continued forward on an annual basis with greater support from the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association as well as local and corporate volunteers to expand into the alley to support business activity and residential issues.
Alleyways in underserved neighborhoods have become prime locations for dumping, tagging, drug dealing, sexual activity, assault, and loitering. To address this chronic issue, local residents, business owners, artists, and community organizations were encouraged by the efforts of Take Back the Alley and have come together to beautify and activate alleyways in neighborhoods around San Diego.
Over the years, these grassroots efforts have supported the enhancements to alleys in the way of a café adjacent to an alley, the expansion of a gym into an alley, a surf shop patio, large scale notable murals, and enhanced landscaping.
Still, moving beyond the boundaries of private property and into the public realm proved to be difficult, a grey area that was unpermitable when it came to such treatments that beautify and “encroach” on public space. According to the City of San Diego, the use of alleys are limited to garbage pick-up and access for fire trucks. This short-sighted perspective on the use of public space has limited many other grass root initiatives that support community building throughout San Diego.
In response, a collaborative of community leaders agreed that a permit that enables and encourages placemaking will overcome the hurdles and set-backs of small scales projects that focus on building and enhancing public spaces. The City of San Diego’s Economic Development Department staff agreed that this type of permit was a worthy effort in supporting neighborhood revitalization and in April 2018, a placemaking permit received unanimous support by the City Council.
Re-establishing communities in a manner that honors their history and natural landscape, and creatively engages people in revisiting public spaces is at the heart of placemaking. Along with engaging locals in the opportunity to transform their community, placemaking projects can play a direct role in stimulating residents to express their many talents, work together to achieve tangible, implementable projects, and nurture the community at large.
With a new placemaking permit that offers community groups a relatively quick and affordable approach to positively transforming their communities, it is the hope that neighborhood groups will come together, brainstorm ways of achieving placemaking in their community, share resources, build and activate their neighborhoods.