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Placemaking in Architecture: Definition and Best Practices

March 7th, 2024 | 13 min. read

Placemaking in Architecture: Definition and Best Practices

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While buildings serve a functional purpose for their occupants, their impact extends beyond their walls. When combined with thoughtful urban planning, architecture can create destinations, contribute to community identity, and foster connections between people and the places they share. This process is known as placemaking. 

Placemaking is one of our favorite topics—something we consider on every project. In recent years, we’ve worked with developers and urban planners in Iowa City, Coralville, and Des Moines to develop district architectural design guidelines and to design projects that activate urban areas with various uses. 

This article will define placemaking and discuss five ways architecture can promote walkable, vibrant, and unique urban environments. 

What is Placemaking? 

According to the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking is the process of strengthening connections between people and the places they share. It seeks to maximize the value of the public realm, celebrate its history, and support its ongoing development. 

The concept began in the 1960s with urbanists like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte. In the post-war years, many American cities underwent destructive development practices that tore apart existing neighborhoods to make way for sprawling roads and highways.  

Jacobs, Whyte, and others responded to America’s growing car dependence by advocating for human-centered environments—walkable, interconnected neighborhoods with vibrant street life. 

Although placemaking began as an urban planning concept, it has extended to architecture. Buildings enclose and define public spaces, and their heights, materials, and forms all contribute to a sense of place. Placemaking is where architecture and urban planning meet. 

A good example of placemaking is in downtown Iowa City. Similar height buildings border the Pedestrian Mall, a walkable area with shops and restaurants at ground level. People congregate in the public area, and on warmer days, it’s buzzing with activity: children on the playground, colleagues meeting for coffee, and college students having chance interactions on the way to class.

Overview of the Pedestrian mall in Iowa City

The Iowa City Pedestrian Mall, an example of placemaking. 

A combination of elements—including mixed-use buildings, landscaping, hardscape features, seating, outdoor dining, a playground, and public art—create a unique and lively destination. 

Five Placemaking Practices in Architecture 

Placemaking is a collaborative effort, involving urban planners, landscape architects, and community participants. Architects also play a role, with individual buildings shaping space and supporting the larger goal of crafting a unique destination. 

Buildings affect how people interact with the urban environment, and depending on the approach, they can either promote or hinder a sense of place. A design process that includes workshops and community engagement can lead to buildings that better reflect the community’s identity.  

This engagement should be coupled with architectural practices that support walkable, human-scaled environments. Below, we’ll discuss these practices in greater detail.  

1. Include a Mix of Uses 

Vibrant public life occurs when people of different backgrounds interact within the same area. Traditional urban planning practices tended to zone areas by concise uses, separating office from residential and residential from industrial. While office areas may have been hives of activity during the day, they became ghost towns after five.  

A better approach is to mix various, compatible uses—like office, residential, and retail—within the same neighborhood or district. With this approach, the area remains active at different times and attracts a more diverse range of visitors. This approach also promotes walkability, allowing residents to address multiple needs within a compact area. 

Different tenant types can even co-exist within the same building. Projects like Plaza Towers and Park@201 in downtown Iowa City combine retail, office, and residential uses into a single building. A mixed-use approach to architecture can introduce new tenant types to a previously single-use area while increasing density. 

2. Design to the Human Scale 

Placemaking means designing for people, not cars. In an urban environment, a best practice is to carefully consider the relationship between the building and the street edge and how the space accommodates pedestrians.  

This zone is a prime opportunity for human engagement, providing ample room for walking, sitting, and interacting with landscape and hardscape elements. It can also help enclose public spaces—creating outdoor living rooms—while inviting pedestrians into ground-level shops and eateries.  

Similarly, a building’s height should feel pedestrian-friendly, with the height reflecting the width of the street. Shorter heights feel less imposing and allow daylight to penetrate ground levels. Often, urban dwellers cite a height of four to six stories as being ideal for walk-up traffic. Going higher can lead to a dependence on elevators.  

When designing taller structures, it helps to break up the massing. Buildings lacking divisions can feel monolithic and overwhelming to pedestrians. 

Balconies are one way to carve into a façade and break down a building’s scale. They can help break a building into segments and mimic the proportions of row buildings common in older urban neighborhoods. Balconies can also help activate an area by giving residents a way to interact with or observe the street life below.

Market House, a mixed-use building in Iowa City

Balconies can break down the scale of taller structures. 

Other ways to minimize scale include building setbacks, horizontal divisions or shadow lines between stories, overhangs, entry points, recessed windows, and materials that create texture in the façade. In short, designers should consider how the perception of the building from the street will impact and contribute to the greater urban experience. 

3. Invite Passersby 

Human-scaled buildings should also include elements that encourage passersby to linger and interact with the architecture. 

One approach is creating tall, transparent ground levels with ample daylighting. In most mixed-use buildings, ground levels contain shops, restaurants, and retail environments that require activity to remain vital. Non-reflective glazing allows a glimpse beyond the exterior façade to attract pedestrians.  

Park@201 in Iowa City uses this tactic. While one of the tallest buildings in downtown, its transparent first level feels friendly to those at street level. It also allows passersby to see the activities within the retail environment, inviting customers.  

A similar approach was taken at Voxman School of Music in Iowa City. A curtain wall lines the staircase, the building’s prime circulation pathway. The transparency along the staircase creates a connection between the street and the building’s interior. Rather than a separate entity, the building is an extension of the city.

Voxman School of Music in Iowa City

Glazing along the staircase creates a connection to the street. 

Another strategy is to focus on the building’s primary entry point. Since this area is where most visitors first engage with the building, we recommend developers focus project dollars on making a statement, with durable materials and refined detailing.  

Similarly, developers may consider elements like arcades or overhangs, which protect pedestrians from inclement weather and encourage them to interact or sit back and observe.   

Placemaking involves finding ways to address different needs. Whether it’s a large public plaza, a rooftop terrace, or a small seating area, urban buildings and their surrounding site area should include features for public enjoyment as much as possible. 

4. Respond to the Local Context 

Placemaking is also about enhancing and celebrating an area’s character. Buildings shouldn’t feel like they can exist anywhere. They should respond to a location’s unique history and the surrounding context to craft a clear community identity.   

Through a sustainability lens, the best approach is to renovate or adapt existing building stock. This practice not only preserves a community’s architectural heritage but also reduces waste and carbon emissions. When building new, material choices should be sympathetic to existing buildings and respond to surrounding conditions. 

For the Market District in Des Moines, we created architectural design guidelines to reinforce previously completed planning efforts. We described the desired image and character of new construction to support the vision for the district and dove into building forms, specific architectural strategies, and a potential exterior material palette.  

Industrial facilities once dominated the Market District in the early 20th century, with structures like Market One remaining today. To ensure new development would harmonize with these existing structures, we recommended materials like brick, Corten Steel, concrete, terra cotta, and architectural metal panels. While alluding to the area’s prior industrial identity, this material palette is durable, simple, and suitable for the emerging riverfront district.

Market One in Des Moines next to a material palette for the surrounding area

Suggested materials respond to existing buildings, like Market One. 

Placemaking means creating urban environments with cohesive identities and memorable destinations for visitors. While development can occur gradually and organically, it should learn from the area’s history and maintain a dialogue with existing structures. 

5. Consider Ecology, History, and Culture 

Lastly, placemaking considers an area’s ecology, history, and culture. Buildings and their sites should help residents deepen their connection to their community.   

Placemaking is a central component of the Living Building Challenge (LBC), the most rigorous approach to sustainable design. When the Stanley Center for Peace and Security decided to undertake the LBC, we hosted a biophilic workshop to explore the history and ecology of Muscatine. The workshop informed many design decisions, including the use of native plantings and the interior material palette. 

While the building’s exterior features pollinator-friendly prairie plantings, the interior references Muscatine’s industrial history. Oak wood veneers pay homage to the area’s early logging industry, and a pearl button backsplash celebrates the industry that put Muscatine on the map.

Exterior of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security with native plantings

Native plantings at the Stanley Center ground the project in its location. 

We went through a similar process with our Iowa City studio renovation. Early in the project, we consulted community stakeholders, including a conservationist and members of the Downtown Association. 

These discussions led to design features that reference the community, including conference rooms named after Iowa City neighborhoods and acoustic wall treatments inspired by each neighborhood’s identity. We also used local materials throughout the studio, including wood harvested from dead, dying, or diseased ash trees. 

These design choices ground these projects within their location. While placemaking often refers to a building’s exterior, it can occur at any project level. The goal is to design for the site and community—not create something that can exist anywhere.  

Discover the Best Practices for Mixed-Use Development 

Placemaking strengthens a community, helping residents develop a deeper connection to public spaces. While urban planning and design are the greatest drivers of placemaking as a concept, architecture plays a critical part in defining public spaces and engaging the community.  

Buildings shape the urban environment by creating destinations and enclosures. By prioritizing human-scaled living, encouraging pedestrian interaction, and responding to existing buildings, architects can support vibrant, interconnected urban environments. In short, taking the extra steps to consider the context and give something back to the public realm can help elevate architecture.  

Buildings can also introduce new tenant types and improve connectivity to amenities. Mixed-use buildings are one of the most effective ways to fulfill these goals. To learn more about mixed-use development, read our tips for planning this project type.