When shaping the look and feel of their jurisdictions, city planning directors often wrestle with the conflicting interests of developers and preservationists. To empower planners in historic and scenic cities and towns to better balance these disparate viewpoints and priorities, preservation and planning experts Ronald Lee Fleming, FAICP, and Jeffrey Soule, FAICP, developed the Place Making Institute (PMI). The program was inspired by the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which was established by Jaquelin Robertson, former dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, Adele Chatfield-Taylor, former director of the Design Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and former Charleston mayor Joseph P. Riley.
The PMI fills a critical gap in urban development. Focusing on historic and scenic locales, it serves as a resource for community-based planning and design, with programming for education, tools for engaging public officials, and related resources for non-profit organizations. The concept encourages planning directors from communities with great assets—historic character, scenic beauty, desirable geographic settings, and outstanding architectural ensembles—to gain new insights from preservation experts and each other, strengthening their capacity for strategic leadership.
For its inaugural session, the PMI convened in June 2019 at Bellevue House in Newport, Rhode Island, with representatives from four cities—Newport, Rhode Island; Oxford, Mississippi; New Harmony, Indiana; and Cumberland, Rhode Island—who presented information about challenges facing their communities (pictured in photo below, by Mick Hales). Representatives from Newport shared their concerns over the city’s lack of vision and incomplete design standards. Regarding Oxford, the participants spoke to conflicts that have arisen on matters related to student housing and transportation. For New Harmony, representatives shared how the collapse of the town’s historic preservation organization has heightened tensions with the University of Southern Indiana, a formidable owner of real estate. As planners from Cumberland noted, initiatives are actively underway to improve the quality of life by protecting trees, improving lighting, adding sidewalks, and other cosmetic measures. During the course of the meeting, participants talked about their issues with their peers and external experts then walked away with actionable recommendations.
The June 2019 meeting also served as a launching point to frame future PMI gatherings. These sessions might explore topics such as measuring and refining place-making, integrating natural and man-made elements that enhance each community’s uniqueness, building a political base, increasing planning skills and resources in select communities, responding to shrinking local government resources, or similar topics. The 2020 PMI program shifted to an online format due to the COVID pandemic.
The impact of the PMI stretches beyond the cities invited to participate in the in-person discussion. The outcomes of these sessions are captured and shared, providing other communities with access to the ideas and insights offered by the participants.
To foster a culture of research and knowledge-sharing, the PMI also sponsors research fellowships. The selected fellows are invited to access the institute’s resources, including the 5,000 publications in its library, to address current battles on community identity and character.
Many communities of culture and character will benefit from the insights and leadership of the PMI. In future issues of our monthly newsletter, Scenic America will take a look at the communities across the country on which the program will concentrate its efforts in the future.
For more information about the PMI, visit www.placemakinginstitute.org.