Developing Places: One of the Many Hats for an Economic Developer

By July 6, 2017Blog

By Nicholas Samuel

Director of Research


One of the key tasks of an economic developer is to understand and coordinate the “moving parts” of their local economy. This task involves connecting business and service providers, connecting entrepreneurs with mentors and funding opportunities, and ensuring that educators work in conjunction with employers. It is the part of the job that most seasoned economic developers are well acquainted with. Yet, there is a piece of the job of economic development that that is less focused on making sure specific actors are working together, and more focused on creating places that people want to live and work in. This kind of strategy for economic development relies on the ability to creating places that are both attractive and unique and that engender a vibrant community.

Placemaking refers to a planning and development philosophy that uses architecture and principles of landscape and urban design to create public spaces that attract pedestrians, small shops, and mixed-use developments. This model is promoted by The Project for Public Spaces, whose take on the concept stems from the ideas of Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte and is vigorously focused on the role of public participation in the development process. Similarly, other planners have highlighted the role of creative placemaking, which places an emphasis on the role of the creative sector and creative individuals in helping to redevelop and revitalize places. The National Endowment for the Arts even released a study on the topic in 2010 (see here) which made an explicit case for the role of art and artists in making places attractive.  

At the heart of the approach is the understanding that we are attracted to places because of value that we receive as we experience them. The places in which we reside and interact with are imbued with meaning. This is, in the tradition of humanistic geography, the difference between the concepts of space and place. Yi-Fu Tuan, in his seminal Space & Place: The Perspective of Experience (1977), conceives of spaces as locations without connection to the social world, whereas places are filled with the meanings we bring and read into them. Yet, they are not disconnected concepts as our understanding of space (and spaces) is related to the places we know and experience. Placemaking approach to redevelopment attempt to forge a stronger and more meaningful bond to public space by solidifying their existence as places to those who interact with them. Thus, placemaking projects are often focused on the amenities and design elements that will allow pedestrians to linger in these places and stop on their way from point A to point B.

The role of the economic developer in these kinds of projects can be to encourage private sector support, lead efforts for collaboration, and to connect local businesses and entrepreneurs that may be occupying these new developments to business support resources. Another important role for the economic developer is to help to create or facilitate a vision for the place that the broader community can get behind. By envisioning how a place can be transformed, perhaps through something as simple as the creation of a public market or through beautification of civic spaces, community leaders can find it easier to get behind vague plans to improve local quality of place. This tactic for economic development is built on the foundational idea that sustainable economies are dependent on the places in which they occur. In the end, the best site to be dealing with those moving parts of a local economy is on solid ground.  


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