What Makes a Great Place?

The American Planning Association recently released their choices for the best American streets, neighborhoods and public spaces of 2009. People love lists — but is this one presenting anything new?

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As part of their Great Places in America program, the American Planning Association recently released their choices for the best American streets, neighborhoods and public spaces of 2009. They’re not necessarily new, and may not even be the result of professional planning practices. But what these places have in common is the potential to serve as examples to other cities and towns of how their own streets and neighborhoods should look and feel. They’re also valuable case studies in how to accomplish such revitalization.

So, what makes a great place? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the APA thinks it’s the ability to provide for the pedestrian and bring a community together. It’s also about creating a sense of local identity. South Main Street in Ann Arbor, Mich. makes the list of Great Streets because of its diverse range of locally-owned businesses and restaurants housed in architecturally interesting, mixed-use buildings. It’s an appealing environment that encourages walking rather than driving; you won’t find many surface parking lots here. It’s all about creating a space for the surrounding community to socialize, and not in a forced way. Ann Arbor residents now enjoy sidewalk seating at cafes, dozens of market days and street fairs per year and easy access to public transportation.

A street in Ann Arbor.

There’s not much about South Main Street that can’t be replicated in other towns and communities. And maybe that’s what the APA is getting at; Ann Arbor and other communities on the list are guided by design standards that can result in livable urban environments anywhere. But, as the analysis of each street, neighborhood and urban space on the lists shows, it does take will, from both residents and political figures, to make these places so successful. In the case of Ann Arbor, it required the creation of the Downtown Development Authority to plan and support streetscape improvements as well as investigate transportation alternatives, all funded through tax increment financing. But this is only a single model. Whether it be through opportunity zones, tax abatements or rehabilitation tax credits, any community can find a way to begin improving its physical and social environments if it really wants to.

Great Places in America is a good way for the APA, a strongly professional organization, to reach out beyond its ranks, especially to the public. People love lists, and if they see their town or neighborhood praised for its sense of identity and community, their commitment to those places can only increase. More than that, though, the lists serve as a means to raise public awareness of what good streets, neighborhoods and public spaces should look and how they should be experienced. The APA’s criteria might seem redundant to those in the profession and maybe even to those who already live in these communities. But there are just as many, if not more, people, towns and cities who need good planning more than ever.

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Tags: urban planningbuilt environmenttax increment financing

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