Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Placemaking is Hard Work…and Luck

Dateline: 12:20 pm February 12, 2007 Filed under:

Placemaking is hard work, as I was reminded in an article called “Placemaking for the Creative Class” that appears in the February 2007 issue of Landscape Architecture magazine. James Richards makes a very good point that there is just so much that goes into it. Yes, as the article discusses, we need a compact urban grid, green space, “third places” like coffee shops, etc., and good public transportation. Mr. Richards is right to point out that placemaking is not programmatic. He interviews people who want all the right amenities, but also want just the right amount of grit and decay. And then you can attract the creative class. See how hard this is to do!?

Allow me to illustrate. Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis is one such perfect urban place in many people’s minds. It is gritty, genuine, delicious. It is also utterly impossible for even the most talented and well-meaning planner to conjure up, which is exactly why it is such a special place. Built in the 1950s, it was at first a covered over section of alley, eventually built out, walled off and heated, with a grill and breakfast counter and 13 stools. Al’s urban surroundings are very important. It is located in a dense mixed-use district called Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota campus. The area has a good urban fabric. Buildings are built right up to the sidewalks, and are rich in variety, age and use. In fact, two of Al’s four walls are not actually their own – they belong to neighboring buildings. Not exactly the kind of place in you’d find in a separate use suburban greenfield commercial strip development, and truly part of its endearing charm.

First of all, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an important and very relevant piece of legislation, would never allow a new building to be constructed quite like that. Places like Al’s have to be in older, renovated (or not-so renovated) buildings. Second, even most new urbanists don’t plan for an alley to be blocked off by a thirteen-stool breakfast counter. What makes Al’s so special actually comes down to business acumen and opportunity. Al’s is and has always been run by dedicated owners that allow for that good urban funkiness people love so dearly. More importantly, they also know how to cook fantastic food and run a business based on those thirteen precious stools.

A couple years ago I interviewed Henry Beer of Communication Arts in Boulder, Colorado, for an article in Urban Land magazine. He spoke of the “messy vitality” that make cities so attractive, exactly as Mr. Richards writes. As for placemaking, he said “anyone that thinks community can be engendered by front porches is f#!*ing insane!” How eloquent! He’s right. Just as front porches don’t do the trick without a whole host of other things including high density and narrow streets, they also require people to actually use them and thus, create the community. This is a very important point - messy vitality requires not just good planning but people to bring it to life.

Placemaking takes time and sometimes just plain dumb luck. No planner envisioned it all, first laying out the grid of streets and creating a zoning code for Dinkytown, then deciding precisely that an alley was to be converted to become the location of a breakfast counter and a legendary, delicious business.

An important point needs to be made here, in defense of planners and designers everywhere. Al’s needed to be allowed for it to exist. The urban fabric, density, sidewalk width, and surrounding type of uses are all decisions made by planners, landscape architects, city councils, etc. This urban fabric is a very major piece of the puzzle, and absolutely needs to be designed and implemented. Then they went away and let the real magic happen.

I have researched several master-planned communities in the past year, including Daniel Island in Charleston, South Carolina. The design of Daniel Island was influenced by Mayor Joe Riley, who insisted on a high-quality urban environment. Land planners Cooper Robertson & Partners and Design Works created a network of open space, sidewalks, trails and places to meet to encourage community interaction. The developer set up an association, but it was residents that actually formed the book clubs and hiking clubs that create community. Daniel Island is a good example that planners, developers, landscape architects, and public officials must provide for good places exist, but people must breathe life into them.  

Planners can provide the canvas and sometimes even the paint, but the market has to be allowed room to breathe and create the urban art. So what do cities need to do to attract the so called creative class that, like me, needs a Wi-Fi connection and easy access to a major airport? Peel away the layers and it is good, visionary urban planning, although it can be sometimes decades before the neighborhood matures. It is also a healthy dose of market forces to understand a basic human need like breakfast, and voila, a great urban place is born! In other words, a lot of hard work and then a stroke of luck. It all seems so simple, right? Cities trying to attract that magical “creative class” have their work cut out for them. They can provide a good foundation through sound urban planning, but great places don’t happen overnight.

Al’s Breakfast is one literally small example of a wonderful urban place. I have eaten at Al’s on average of one morning per week for that past several years. I am indeed lucky. A piece of Al’s goes with me wherever I go (likely stuck in an artery) and I am all the richer (luckily not larger) for having spent a portion of my life in a wonderful, gritty, genuine urban place like Al’s. There are many reasons why it is so wonderful, and good planning is but one. The rest, as they say, is history!


  1. Placemaking is Hard Work…and Luck…

    Trackback by University Update — February 12, 2007 @ 1:11 pm

  2. […] Luckmaking in Place “Placemaking takes time and sometimes just plain dumb luck. No planner envisioned it all, first laying out the grid of streets and creating a zoning code for Dinkytown, then deciding precisely that an alley was to be converted to become the location of a breakfast counter and a legendary, delicious business.” – Sam Newberg […]

    Pingback by Working Pathways » Luckmaking in Place — February 12, 2007 @ 10:27 pm

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