Let me start off by saying that placemaking is a very useful and beneficial approach to enhancing one’s community and creating pride in place. That being said, there is also an inherent risk that placemaking efforts across the nation can become too similar, redundant, and standardized. If that were to be the case, then as planners, we have done our respective communities a great disservice. Frankly, there is little if any difference between installing, enhancing, and creating duplicate placemaking efforts in multiple communities and requests by nationally known retail/restaurant chains to build standardized units across the geographic map. All we would be doing is visually plagiarizing what has been done elsewhere.
Hence, the first rule of placemaking must be to plan and design your efforts a way that is both context sensitive to and enhances the character of the local community. Don’t be a copycat, folks, be insightful and innovative!
I will grant that some very basic placemaking efforts such as bike racks, streetscaping, and public art are bound to be similar. But, that does not mean these smaller-scale efforts must be the sole focus or that they cannot be designed to reflect the locality. Auto racing artwork makes sense in Indy, it does not in Spokane. Bike racks shaped like football helmets or cheeseheads makes sense in Green Bay, but not in Rapid City. And streetscaping with desert fauna is perfect in Tucson, but would fail (and be well out of character) in Bangor.
Every community has its own individual characteristics, history, charm, and identity. It is simply a matter of identifying each of those and then implementing a strategy that enhances and articulates them. Don’t try to replicate New Orleans in Waterloo or Savannah in Billings. Here in Greater Lansing, there is an awful tendency to name new developments after places elsewhere that are perceived as desirable. That is entirely the wrong way to go about building local pride. Meanwhile, there is a plethora of great things about Mid-Michigan that could and should be employed into placemaking efforts. For example, there are rivers/streams with lovely names like Red Cedar, Looking Glass, Maple, and Sycamore; there are dozens of varieties of trees, birds, and native plants found in this area; and there are unique geological landforms, in particular the Mason Esker. Emphasize these local amenities, not Malibu, the Sierras, or other like places – they sound (and look) stupid here.