Transportation IS Placemaking (Are you Hiring Quarterbacks or Wide Receivers?)

One guy asked for a 50' inch flat screen TV, and got his wish!

One guy asked for a 50' inch flat screen TV, and got his wish!


Transportation IS Placemaking (Subtitled:  Are you hiring quarterbacks or wide receivers?)

From the way transportation infrastructure projects get run, you'd think multi-modal transportation decisions have nothing to do with placemaking.  The choice of street for your streetcar, the location of the lane for your bike lane -- all of these decisions create and alter places, and therefore...

Transportation IS Placemaking.  

Unfortunately, if you think about how these projects (streetcar, bike lines, light rail etc) are organized, the transportation and transit infrastructure alternatives are described and analyzed separately.    The lead consultant is almost always an engineering or transportation infrastructure firm, and they are not placemakers.  Hell, they are mostly not planners either. The smarter engineering firms add a planning firm to their team and then stick them in a corner to plan, sort of like that salad dressing that comes in a separate pouch with your salad.

We'll just pour the urban design on the top of our transportation choices

We'll just pour the urban design on the top of our transportation choices

What's worse is that planning is not placemaking.  You can get the "urban design" right but if the placemaking is wrong, you're still toast.  There are a whole lot of well-designed places that are sterile or go unused.  Did they get the programming right?  Does the place work for the user, and not just the person who looks at it? 

However, the siloed nature of the planning team member in transportation projects hides a larger problem.  The hidden larger problem is that the interdisciplinary, place-based, market-appropriate and people-centric process known as placemaking -- see my own definition of placemaking here -- is usually not discussed at all.  The economic development ramifications of transportation choices are often ignored as well. 

I'm over here thinking about placemaking and economic development.  I wonder what the transportation guys are up to?

I'm over here thinking about placemaking and economic development.  I wonder what the transportation guys are up to?

Most of the discussion in the transportation analysis is about engineering feasibility, traffic ramifications, and mobility outcomes.  Can we get people where they want to go as fast as we want them to get there?  The transportation concerns are well-represented.

But what about the places? 

  • Who's representing the place that is created or altered when you put a light rail line on my street?
  • Who's analyzing the effects on retail of putting streetcar on one side of the block versus the other?
  • Who's assessing the potential damage (or possible improvement) to the vibrancy of the place?
  • Who's doing a specific analysis of each line or lane, each stop or station, to understand and then shape the placemaking outcomes?  

These are not planning or transportation questions. 

All these reports, and no analysis of placemaking or economic development??

All these reports, and no analysis of placemaking or economic development??

Transit-oriented placemaking (I just coined this term, you heard it here first!) is an interdisciplinary activity that cannot be divorced from market realities, community desires or potential economic development effects.   On the contrary, those issues should be front and center in the placemaking analysis - and therefore the transportation analysis -- not siloed sideshows left for the appendix of the final report.  

Transit-oriented placemaking should not be the province of just engineering firms or planning firms or passionate non-profits.  (Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are planners or passionate non-profit folks).  There are economic ramifications to these transit infrastructure (and therefore placemaking) decisions, and it's not just the ramifications for development.  How many struggling retail spaces do you know of near transit? A lot of retail struggles near transit because the transportation consultants neglected to think of themselves as placemakers and not just transportation providers.

I get off at this stop and I don't feel like shopping.

I get off at this stop and I don't feel like shopping.

Transit-oriented placemaking is not just whether the real estate development looks nice next to the train stop.  Build a well-landscaped plaza next to transit and it doesn't mean they'll come.  And if they come they might not stay. 

HUD Plaza in DC:  Proximity to transit does not equal great placemaking

HUD Plaza in DC:  Proximity to transit does not equal great placemaking

In my opinion the lead of the transit-oriented placemaking analysis should not be a planning or engineering firm but should be an interdisciplinary firm that fully understands markets, economic development, programming and people as well as planning principles (Does anyone here speak New Urbanism?). There definitely needs to be planning expertise and urban design capacity on the team, but that doesn't mean that expertise has to be the lead.

Planners and engineers should be catching the ball, not throwing it.

For transit-oriented placemaking you need a interdisciplinary Quarterback to call and run the play, not a star wide receiver who should be catching, but not throwing, the ball. 

Transportation IS placemaking.  But placemaking is not planning.  Be careful who you're hiring to analyze, plan and implement your multi-modal transportation projects. 

Are you hiring quarterbacks or wide receivers?

-- Calvin

Posted on December 13, 2013 and filed under Most Read.