Placemaking: The Process Behind Creating an Authentic Destination

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When placemaking is done right, you’ll know it. A new development’s “newness” is not what will stand out, but instead, its character will reflect what already exists and the project will feel like an authentic extension of the original neighborhood. This process—and it is a process, not a result—incorporates the needs of the community, embraces the ambiance of the neighborhood and creates a framework for flexibility and change. Once implemented, you have all the ingredients for a successful development that can grow and evolve along with the neighborhood around it.

Well-executed placemaking relies on the engagement and support of the neighborhood, so naturally, it’s important to understand what the community values. While this can be done many ways, at The Abbey Group, we’ve found particular success in hearing from the community through open houses, community meetings and conversations with community leaders. These forums have been invaluable. For example, in the planning process for Exchange South End, the 1.6 million-sq.-ft. urban life science and technology campus planned for Boston’s South End neighborhood, our development team met with the community more than 30 times prior to filing a plan with the City of Boston. We have made a deliberate effort to involve the neighbors so that the proposed plan is something that embraces the fabric of the existing neighborhood. Through this iterative process we have learned what the community desires, helping to create a long-term plan that works for all parties involved.

Incorporating a neighborhood’s distinctive character into a development is also critical to giving the project new life and authenticity. For instance, Boston’s South End neighborhood is known for its arts and culture, anchored by the SoWa Art & Design District and featuring contemporary galleries, unique design showrooms and some of the best restaurants in the city. In the strategic planning for Exchange South End, we worked closely with Graffito SP, a Boston-based firm with extensive experience working hands-on with local restaurateurs, artists and retailers, to ensure that the development embraces these unique South End attributes. This strategic approach will extend the fabric of the existing neighborhood to Exchange South End and the underutilized Albany Street corridor. The plan includes dedicated space for small local retailers and neighborhood restaurants, a large cultural space, as well as a plaza and sloping lawn for art and entertainment that will benefit both the surrounding community and the development’s new tenants who are looking for “live/work/play” experiences.

Designing the site to be flexible and experimental also makes it more feasible that the space will be used by diverse people in diverse ways. The proposal for Exchange South End does this in a few ways—by creating Albany Green, an 18-hour programmed park that gives neighbors and visitors an opportunity to enjoy the park throughout the day, by connecting workspace with green space and by providing a gathering spot for civic happenings. It’s hard to predict the human experience at any given place or time, so a development that is designed to evolve and be responsive to the changing wants and needs of a neighborhood is critical. If done right, the site will be attractive to those who work on the site, as well as a destination spot for the surrounding neighbors and community at large.

Across the country, millennials and baby boomers alike are moving back to the urban core. To create highly desirable projects that not only resonate, but also improve a city’s overall vibrancy and connectedness, welcome neighborhood authenticity and weave connections to surrounding areas, it’s crucial to embrace the placemaking process. Through engaging community members, elevating the heart and soul of neighborhoods and incorporating flexible design, developers can create projects that will have a lasting impact and will benefittenants, neighbors and cities as a whole.

Audrey Epstein Reny serves as managing partner at The Abbey Group. With over 25 years of experience, she is involved in overall strategic planning for new development projects, management of the firm’s existing property portfolio, retail and commercial leasing, public and community relations and marketing strategy development and implementation.

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