Getting Started

Before a community can effectively access resources to better itself, it must first determine its vision for the future. Whether that means having a vibrant downtown, healthy and walkable neighborhoods, active green spaces, historic character, a thriving business community or all of the above, a community must choose its goals. Only then can a community go about aligning resources to meet its placemaking needs. 

Find people who care
Who are your Local Champions?

All successful communities start with a small and determined group of people who genuinely want to better their community. This is, by far, the most important ingredient. All the principles of placemaking can be taught. Energy and enthusiasm for one’s community cannot.

Boyne City's Story

In Boyne City, 5  people, appointed by no one but themselves, took on the mantle of leadership in revitalizing their downtown. These 5 people did research on different methodologies to revitalize downtowns. They discovered a program created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, called Main Street, which bases its approach on historic preservation. Three of them paid out of their own pocket to attend the National Main Streets Conference in New Orleans. They were convinced this would be the way to revive their downtown.

At roughly the same time, the state launched the Michigan Main Street program, a coordinating partner of the National Trust and charged with helping communities implement the Main Street approach. This group led the application process for Boyne City and found themselves as one of the first 4 communities chosen to participate in the program.

The Boyne City Main Street/DDA, as it is known now, has seen tremendous success in revitalizing their downtown into a vibrant hub. The 5 individuals have grown to a volunteer base that has donated more than 21,000 hours. Their efforts have translated into 20 net new or expanded businesses, more than $12.5 million in private and public investment, creating more than 100 net new jobs and restoring 14 historic facades. Their downtown has transformed itself from a faded industrial center to a jewel in the crown of the northern Michigan.

And it all started with 5 people who wanted to help their community.

Create a Vision
How do you see your future?

Start with an open community meeting. Go out of your way to ensure there will be a large and diverse cross section of the community. Go door-to-door and recruit people to come. Use fliers, social media, hit the coffee klatch scene and spread the word. Putting “Light Refreshments” on the flier always helps.

Residents, business owners, property owners, and schools all have a stake in having a successful community. Reach out to them. It turns out you can’t just have a meeting and expect people to come out. You have to work at it. If it’s a larger community, have more than one.

Ask “What do we want to be in 10–15 years?” Be as specific as possible. Allowing the community to participate in this visioning process creates valuable buy-in from the very people a community will need in order to be successful at implementing the vision.

The Grand Vision is an ambitious, citizen-led vision for the future of land use, transportation, economic development and environmental stewardship across six counties in northwest Lower Michigan.

More than 15,000 citizens got involved and voiced their opinions about this vision. Twelve thousand citizens voted for what they wanted for the future for their communities. Of those voters, nearly 75% asked that growth occur in existing developed areas.

Over three years a series of public workshops, unparalleled collaboration between government, nonprofits and the private sector, shaped The Grand Vision. The “vision” is now being implemented, as six counties, six issue-area networks and a CORE team all work to incorporate The Grand Vision principles into plans, developments, investments, and practices.

The Grand Vision originated when a proposed bridge/bypass around downtown Traverse City was approved and funded. Following a public debate about the proposal, the Hartman-Hammond Bridge concept was tabled, with those funds re-appropriated by U.S. Congress to be used for a long-term planning process. Several public and private organizations stepped forward to fund and lead the process – one that eventually expanded to include the six counties The Grand Vision currently serves: Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau and Wexford.

Today The Grand Vision is being realized across the region. Governmental bodies are collaborating, business leaders are seeing the benefits of a focused vision for the future, community members are reaping the rewards, projects are completed and others under way, and several diverse interests are coming together within issue networks that include Food & Farming, Energy, Growth & Investment, Housing, Natural Resources and Transportation. – Via


Work Backward
Find your starting point

Once you know what the community wants to be, in terms of placemaking, you can work backward. What things would need to happen in order to get there? Before long, themes or groups will emerge. Identify the groups and people who want to work in each area. Keep working backward to get more and more detail. Assign specific people, specific tasks on a specific timeline.

Work plans are at the heart of every successful community. They are detailed plans of who is going to do what by when and how much it is going to cost. In the case of the Clare Main Street program, their work plans cover 16 pages of detailed activity and dozens of volunteers. Likewise, Iron Mountain’s work plans are 37 pages and don’t leave a single detail on any of their 12 projects to chance. As the old saying goes, “aim small, miss small,” meaning the less you leave to chance, the greater the odds of success.

Find resources to fit the plan, don’t plan to fit the resources.

One of the biggest mistakes communities and organizations make is when they only chase money. Nonprofits and businesses call it “mission creep.” It means you’ve altered what you do for money, be it for grants or customers. In the short run, it works out a lot. In the long run, it usually leads the organization away from its core purpose and tends to lose its biggest supporters because it no longer does what it was intended to do.

Instead, the community should decide for itself what it wants to be. Having a vision for what you want to be makes it easier to find funding, whether at the local, state or federal levels or through foundations. Think of it like a business plan. If a community can show what it wants, how it wants to achieve it and what it needs to get there, it’s easier to get buy-in from others to help achieve that vision.

In Boyne City, their comprehensive Main Street program put forth a vision of a vibrant, walkable downtown that valued their historic heritage. That vision, and work plans to back it up, translated into numerous projects undertaken at the grassroots level. These grassroots efforts included everything from festivals and events designed to flood the streets with people to rehabbing their historic facades to helping their existing businesses thrive and recruiting new ones to the area. Their efforts have helped to leverage more than $6 million in infrastructure and facade improvement grants from four different state agencies. They are a community that has a plan and executes it. Funding followed.

Take Inventory
Know your Assets

All communities have assets when it comes to placemaking. Traditional downtowns with historic buildings, a river running through town, and/or dense neighborhoods are all examples of existing physical assets communities already have for placemaking. Main Street or Downtown development organizations, tax increment financing districts, and form-based codes are all examples of organizational or financing assets that can used in placemaking. A community or neighborhood doesn’t start at the bottom. They all have something. Find what that something – or somethings – is or are and start there. The first unofficial step in placemaking is taking care of those placemaking assets you already have.

Start small, build to bigger
Small steps can grow to big success

There’s a natural tendency to want to tackle the biggest projects first. If this is the first time your community has attempted to do placemaking, start small. Start with projects that are relatively easy and don’t break the bank. Placemaking isn’t achieved in one project. Or two. Or three.

Place is achieved when multiple areas – physical, social, psychological and economic – are all present and taken care of on a continual basis. Main Street provides an operational framework for achieving and maintaining placemaking in downtowns and traditional neighborhood commercial districts.

Measure, assess, repeat
Measure and assess the results.  Then repeat.

Nothing breeds success like success. Measuring the effectiveness of your placemaking efforts through verifiable statistical data will help tell the story that placemaking is working. As the smaller projects get bigger, so will the successes.

Placemaking Resources

We've gathered all our research, information and programs and put them all in our Resources section. So whether you want to learn more about what placemaking is, or you're trying to find programs to help make it happen in your community, you can find what you need there. Additional blogs and podcasts that might be helpful resources as you get started, can be found under placemaking resources.