Located in the heart of Phoenix near Arizona State University’s downtown campus, Civic Space is a public park that provides the community with a vibrant amenity and relief from extreme summer temperatures. Using a combination of shade trees and undulating shade structures, the design will shade 70 percent of the site at full maturity. (AECOM)

At ULI Arizona’s Trends Day in January, panelists talked about how revitalized public spaces—starting with parks and libraries but also including alleys, sidewalks, and roads—are helping make neighborhoods walkable and desirable, drawing from examples in Detroit, Phoenix, Memphis, and Seoul.

“Trend alert: invest outside of the walls you’re building to see huge investments and returns,” said George Roberts, director of public spaces for Quicken Loans Community Fund in Detroit. “Investing in your neighborhood, in parks, streets, alleys, libraries, and places to hang out” was a proven strategy for urban vibrancy, and can become “the game-changer for asset value and the real estate market.

“One of the most important trends in the amenities arms race is not an LCD screen programmed by artists, a rooftop dog park, or an infinity pool,” said Roberts. “Investors are trying to find neighborhoods in the path of growth” and developers are focused on public-realm amenities that attract people through a creative sense of community and place.

Downtown Detroit is drawing global attention “because we invested in parks, plazas, streetscapes, and public gathering places needed to attract new workers and people,” he said, including more than 1,700 employees at Quicken Loans and Bedrock, which owns many downtown parcels. “Detroit has seen $1 billion in investments near Campus Martius,” with enhancements such as new park infrastructure and landscapes, a beer garden, maker shops, and a “winter living room” bar and food tent with couches and a fireplace. 

“We’re working with BIDs [business improvement districts],” said Roberts. “If you don’t have one, start one. If you do, get active and use BIDs to find new ways” to create and activate public places, such as the pedestrian plaza with tables, artwork, and landscaping at Detroit’s Woodward and Jefferson avenues. “Streets and sidewalks are the greatest available public spaces in most cities,” he said.

Food trucks and other activations keep Detroit’s Campus Martius vibrant throughout the year.

“Placemaking should begin with a program for the design of public spaces,” said Roberts, as moderator of a panel called “Placemaking: Create a Place, Not a Design” that included Christine Mackay, director of community and economic development for the city of Phoenix; Juanita Hardy, creative placemaking consultant and former ULI senior fellow; and David Glover, principal at Gensler.

Years ago, “the city of Phoenix was a dead zone,” said Mackay, but since 2016 many projects “have begun to create outdoor space and a more connected and inviting” city with public investments of over $4 billion around new light rail. The city entered into a public/private partnership to redevelop the old Park Central Mall with Plaza Companies and Halualoa to make public space for a theater and artists around a light-rail station. “The bones are there, the old Park Central signs are there, and a farmers market draws people.”

Hardy noted that a ULI member survey indicated that 91 percent thought art and culture added value. Innovative placemaking was supported by “bringing art and culture into the design process from the beginning and throughout the process,” she said. Crosstown Concourse in Memphis was an example of “checking off the 10 best practices in using art and culture to add value, with clear returns.” The $250 million project, a public/private partnership, included artists as part of the team to reinvent the former Sears distribution center into an art-filled, mixed-use office, retail, and charter school building. Opened in October 2018, spaces were 95 percent leased, she noted. The Bethlehem Steel Stacks art and culture complex in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, produced a creative placemaking dividend of nearly 1 million visitors and $48 million annually.

“Great placemaking is a co-creative process,” with architects, landscape architects, urban planners, artists, and others, said Glover. Mixed-use placemaking with retail requires interior and exterior considerations, he said. To create a relationship between tenants and a building’s surrounding open space, “look to celebrate local traditions, such as Christmas tree lighting and summer festivals, and weave them into the public realm. If you do it the right way, you have a community that supports the place and buys from the retail stores.”

In Seoul, South Korea, the reinvention of a shopping center into a public library “has become the new town center,” said Glover. “The success of this project is based on understanding that everyone is doing everything all at once.” It is a public library, an event space, and offers shopping. He noted that placemaking was an antidote to the global epidemic of loneliness: “We yearn to be outdoors, with friends, to be together as a community, and it’s important that we create places to do that.”

“Resources like libraries are more relevant than ever,” added Roberts. “They have places to sit and work, research materials, and cost $400 less per month than WeWork.

“These projects can happen at all different scales,” said Roberts. Consider what can be done quickly—add tables and chairs, music, artwork—and then make bigger investments later. Hardy said that pop-ups allow for trying something until a final solution is created. In San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, a pop-up site with a bar and food stalls now has a mixed-use building. Glover suggested incubating talent through placemaking: select 10 food trucks for a site, and the public picks a winner who is given free rent.

Mackay said that cities can support developers by “rethinking city codes” to see how placemaking innovations could work, such as cantilevering a park over a public roadway. Phoenix involves the fire department, public works, and others on an adaptive use team. “Our old buildings are never going to meet codes, so we set up a team to look at how they could be redeveloped, as opposed to throwing up roadblocks.” 

If you are making people happier, healthier, and more connected, said Roberts, “you’ve made a huge investment in the community.” Open and activated public places “are what people want and add real value.”