Jennifer WebbToday’s guest post is from Dr. Jennifer D. Webb, President of the Junior League of Duluth, who puts the work that Junior Leagues have done over many years in creating playgrounds and gardens into a larger urban planning context. Jennifer teaches Art History in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Minnesota Duluth. In addition to courses on Ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque art and architecture, Jennifer also teaches “City as a Work of Art,” a course that explores the diachronic history of Urban Planning.

Being a Catalyst for Lasting Community Change is harder than you think. Lasting change requires community buy-in because transformation requires deep roots and wide support. One way to build support for community change is for communities to participate in “placemaking.”

Playgrounds and gardens that have been built by Junior Leagues are more than just places to plant food or for children to gather. They have helped to foster community pride through placemaking; they have encouraged neighbors to come together and provide a place in which to communally invest. Some of the most successful gardens and playgrounds have supplanted underutilized urban lots to become part of a wider urban transformation. They are good “places”!

A good “place” according to urban planning scholars is less about the physical fabric of the space —although that matters—and much more about the way people use and feel about it. Urban planning scholars see placemaking as a core principle in urban design, which puts the community at the heart of the design process.

Placemaking, on any scale, considers not only the physical design of a space but also its function. The very best spaces are the ones that are embedded in the community in terms of history and meaning, are integrated into the urban fabric, are easy to navigate and are “animated.” This last objective explains why gardens and playgrounds can play such a transformative role in local communities. While well-designed community gardens always include places to grow plants, they also grow community, offering opportunities to congregate and to engage in related and unrelated activities.

Community gardens throughout our history have been places that not only sustain a population but also bring that population together. During both World Wars, Victory Gardens helped provide supplementary nutrition during rationing and, perhaps more importantly, connected neighborhood residents to each other and to those serving overseas.

In the twenty-first century community gardens offer spaces for community gathering but also offer ways to reconnect people to the growing, preparation and love of food. In food deserts, community gardens provide affordable, healthy vegetables as well as offer casual spaces of shared learning.

Even small initiatives, can impact the overall health of the community by bringing more people out onto the street to participate in what the noted urban activist Jane Jacobs described as a street ballet. Participants, bring eyes to the street, making the community as a whole safer. In addition, participants experience a sense of belonging to a neighborhood and its fabric of familiar strangers. Playgrounds help to weave the community fabric together because of the casual relationships nurtured there. Parents bring their children to play, snacks are shared; and strangers are strangers no longer. The people make the place.

Over the years, Junior Leagues have built playgrounds and planted community gardens. While these initiatives might look straight-forward on paper, in reality, Junior Leagues were engaged in placemaking. Each garden or playground becomes more than just a space to plant or play. They become places for community gathering, for celebration and for regeneration; they are the spaces that give a community an identity; they are spaces that foster memory-making and pride. In being the catalysts for community placemaking initiatives, Junior Leagues around the world are instrumental to making lasting community change.

For more information on placemaking, see Ronald Lee Fleming’s book The art of placemaking: interpreting community through public art and urban design. The reference to street ballet is from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.