Vibrant neighborhoods

MPC collaborates with local communities, businesses and government agencies to transform public spaces across our region.
Photo by John Greenfield

Placemaking: Community Visions for Public Spaces

Philip Winn

“What we see MPC doing so well [as a convener] is that, at its best in the Placemaking process, everyone has a seat at the table—including governments, businesses, citizens and community groups.”

—Philip Winn, Senior Associate at Project for Public Spaces

On Chicago’s North Side in bustling Andersonville, a coveted Clark Street parking spot is converted during the summer months into an inviting deck with planters and seating, where shoppers and passersby can sit and stay awhile. Underneath the 47th Street CTA Green Line station in Chicago’s south side Bronzeville neighborhood, the faces and bright colors of a community mural overlook a garden. In the south suburban community of Blue Island, a growing effort to turn the waterfront aof the Cal-Sag Channel into a public center of activity is taking shape.

What do these places have in common? All are part of a powerful movement called Placemaking that brings people together to create spaces that improve their communities.

In recent years, MPC has been collaborating with local communities and government agencies to transform public spaces across our region through Placemaking. Starting in 2007, MPC built this new expertise in partnership with the New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), which has been one of the nation’s leading forces for Placemaking for nearly 40 years.

“What we see MPC doing so well [as a convener] is that, at its best in the Placemaking process, everyone has a seat at the table—including governments, businesses, citizens and community groups,” says Philip Winn, senior associate at PPS. “All are given the opportunity to contribute to and collaborate to improve public spaces. It can be a model for how we make decisions together,” he says.

Chicago’s People Spots

People spots, like this one in Bronzeville, turn parking spots into popular neighborhood gathering places.

Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Dept. of Transportation is converting some of the city’s concrete—including parking spots, streets, plazas and alleys—into “people spaces,” with benches, landscaping and programming designed to attract pedestrians and encourage an active streetscape. Dubbed the “Make Way for People” campaign, it’s an enlightened approach to providing more space for pedestrians to relax—which, in turn, improves foot traffic to support local businesses.

MPC helped lay the groundwork for this initiative by producing The Guide to Neighborhood Placemaking in Chicago, as well as organizing events and workshops for city officials and staff to learn about the art and science of Placemaking. MPC also advocated strongly for these public way improvements as co-chair of the City of Chicago’s Pedestrian Advisory Council, which helped create the City’s first-ever Pedestrian Plan.

In the Andersonville community, two People Spots—spearheaded by Andersonville Development Corporation (ADC)—have become beloved by local residents and merchants, not all of whom were on board from the beginning. “The People Spots have been really popular,” Brian Bonanno, sustainability programs manager for ADC told Streetsblog Chicago. “There have been some people who are not happy about losing parking spaces, but the positive feedback outweighs that.”

Bronzeville’s Green Line garden

Bronzeville garden

Community input transformed the dead area under the 47th Street CTA Green Line station into a welcoming space with murals and a garden.

In Bronzeville, Jimmy Guzman, program coordinator for the Quad Communities Development Corporation (QCDC), says that not too long ago, the CTA Green Line station at 47th Street was characterized by what he calls “negative activity.” It was anything but a community space where local residents, community groups and businesses felt welcome. In an audit of riders that QCDC conducted with MPC, “most people complained of the negative loitering and not feeling comfortable getting off the train,” he says. “There was also nothing pretty about the area—no landscaping, no planters, anything like that.”

QCDC invited MPC to engage community residents and merchants in a Placemaking initiative at the 47th Street Station. One of their goals, says Guzman, was “to communicate the identity of the community.” Indeed, their ideas led to local artists’ work featured on the face of the station and at nearby businesses, and a mural and garden beautifying the space under the 'L.' Meanwhile, the community successfully advocated for the bus stops on both sides of the street to be moved a block away to deter negative loitering.

QCDC and partners in the community hope to engage in another Placemaking project that would focus on two empty lots on 47th Street.

Abby Crisostomo

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's Sidestream Elevated Pool Aeration Station serves as a functional yet visually attractive component of Blue Island's waterfront.

Blue Island’s waterfront vision

One defining feature of the Blue Island community in Chicago’s southeast suburbs has long been the Cal-Sag Channel, an industrial waterway that has been—and continues to be—used to transport goods. Now, many in the community envision enhancing the Channel as a waterfront location that could feature a range of activities and bring people in the community together.

“The waterfront offers a good opportunity for the city to reorganize its approach around place,” says Jason Berry, deputy director of planning & building for Blue Island. “It can be an economic asset, and people in the community can be involved in its development.”

Working with MPC, Blue Island is taking a Placemaking approach to its waterfront–finding out what people in the community think, how they would use the area and what activities to hold there. Meanwhile, community residents, Berry says, already have a strong sense of how Placemaking works, in part because MPC has engaged them on Placemaking projects at schools and parks. “In the south suburbs, we need to look at the assets that are there, but not utilized,” Berry adds. “Placemaking helps us make connections to local culture and history—while encouraging economic development.”

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