placemaking strategies

Top 5 Creative Placemaking Strategies for Driving Municipal Growth

Published on: August 27, 2019

Creative placemaking could be the one differentiating factor that attracts people to your city as opposed to the suburb next door. Placemaking is a multifaceted approach to urban development that combines consistent branding, exciting amenities, and community collaboration to transform underutilized spaces into centers of economic and cultural activity. 

The philosophy behind this approach is simple: cities should be designed to cater to people’s needs rather than to just accommodate vehicular traffic or drive economic development. Though they’re clearly not the main focus of the movement, those elements come as a result of successful placemaking efforts. Improved livability is the ultimate goal.

Placemaking strategies are designed to celebrate the local features, community assets, and inherent potential of a location. These strategies amplify the unique character of your city. They help to produce a consistent brand identity that can be marketed and used to attract visitors and businesses alike. As such, they’re likely to drive the municipal growth your city has been waiting for. 

5 High-Impact Creative Placemaking Strategies

The following placemaking strategies can help develop your city’s unique identity and make your home more attractive to residents, visitors, and businesses in your area. Keep in mind that these strategies are meant to be adapted—not copied verbatim. Every city is entirely unique. No two placemaking efforts will look the same in the end, and that’s exactly the point.

1. Create prominent gateways

placemaking strategies

If you want your city to stand apart from its surroundings, a strategic first step might be implementing prominent gateway signage at major entry points. Cupertino, CA is currently employing this strategy to rebrand their city. Cupertino’s current signage reflects a sleepy small-town past but doesn’t quite fit their current identity as the home of the largest tech company in the world. 

The new gateway signs are designed to announce to visitors that they’re entering a growing city with ever-growing state-of-the-art amenities. This visual rebranding inspires new residents and businesses to take part in that growth.   

2. Differentiate between districts

While placemaking strategies can be applied to entire cities, they’re most often employed to revive individual neighborhoods. The philosophy encourages urban developers to get down to the micro-level and see “streets as places” in order to create unique sectors with individualized flair. The city of Mountain View, CA is using this strategy to revitalize the North Bayshore district—a neighborhood that currently houses several major tech companies. 

placemaking strategies

This master-planned development will support residential, recreational, cultural, entertainment, retail, and transit uses to build on its existing and bustling high-tech company presence. After placemaking efforts are complete, North Bayshore will be differentiated as a live-and-work paradise. City planners predict this development will attract thousands of new residents to Mountain View. 

3. Triangulate your amenities

The most important goal of placemaking is improved livability, which is primarily achieved through the triangulation of amenities. Updated zoning laws can now make it possible to include residential developments closer to event centers, shopping malls, and public spaces—making individual neighborhoods more self-sufficient and desirable for residents. 

One Mission Bay is a perfect example of this strategy in action. The sparkling multi-use development is located directly across from Oracle Park, a major MLB stadium, and borders the Mission Creek channel, Mission Creek park, and Lyft headquarters. When you combine these amenities with the retail and entertainment businesses planned for the neighborhood, it’s no surprise that One Mission Bay is projected to be one of the most attractive neighborhoods in San Francisco. 

4. Employ branded wayfinding signs 

What’s the point of having outstanding amenities if visitors don’t know they are there? Strategic urban wayfinding signage is an absolute requirement for facilitating growth around new developments and revived neighborhoods. Wayfinding signage elements also serve as valuable brand touchpoints that consistently communicate the new identity. 

When downtown San Leandro launched their new wayfinding signage program, the area already had cultural history and unique local businesses—but the area was largely overlooked by passersby on the nearby I-880 and I-580 thoroughfares. A new wayfinding signage program helped direct vehicular and pedestrian traffic into downtown and announced the neighborhood as a cultural hub. The program was crucial for increasing visibility and inspiring economic growth in San Leandro’s now-thriving downtown area.  

5. Collaborate with local stakeholders 

Many cities are tempted to engage in creative placemaking through a top-down approach. But widespread community participation is necessary for placemaking strategies to succeed. 

Need a good location? Develop the area around one of your city’s existing arts centers. Need public artwork? Commission local artists and artisans to create works inspired by their home. Need funding? Solicit donations from local businesses and investors. Need ideas? Launch a grassroots effort to gather feedback about what residents want, need, and expect from your city. 

And don’t forget to recognize the donors and community members who participate in every step of this process. Creative placemaking succeeds when entire communities come together to celebrate and amplify what makes their city unique. The more collaborative your process, the more likely you are to achieve growth. 

Taking an Incremental Approach to Placemaking

If your city were to have unlimited funds and development time, it might be easy to engage in all five of these strategies and completely overhaul your municipality. Some urban developments are designed with this kind of high-spend, short-schedule plan, but true creative placemaking is a process that takes years to develop. After all, every community member could be considered a stakeholder in this project. Collaboration, approval, and implementation take time. 

Considering this, a slow-and-steady, incremental approach to placemaking is your best option. Allocate spend toward smaller projects first and judge public reaction. Try implementing a new city wayfinding system or introducing a fresh visual brand, and then move on to bigger projects. Whatever you do to increase the livability of your city will go a long way toward pleasing your residents and encouraging higher visitor numbers. Even modest placemaking strategies can compound over time to drive the lasting growth you’ve been hoping for. 


GNU Group is a wayfinding design and implementation firm based in Walnut Creek, California. We have over three decades of experience advising municipalities on the subjects of branding, wayfinding, and urban signage design. We’re passionate about creating places that are more livable and desirable. To discover how branded signage design can help facilitate the success of other creative placemaking strategies, connect with our team.