Main Spotlight: Intentional Placemaking and Open Streets Initiatives - How to Boost a Community During Uncertain Times

  
August 25, 2021 | Main Spotlight: Intentional Placemaking and Open Streets Initiatives—How to Boost a Community During Uncertain Times | By: Jenny Sue Stubbs (@mywetumpka), Former Director of Main Street Wetumpka and Author of My Wetumpka
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Inspired by a Helen Keller quote, the "Together, We Can" mural was painted by local art students and featured on HGTV's Home Town Takeover. Photo courtesy Jenny Sue Stubbs

Decades of deterioration made the historic business district in Wetumpka, Alabama, a pass-through for motorists, creating a dangerous and unappealing landscape for residents and visitors. But when the town became a designated Main Street community in 2016, the organization immediately latched on to intentional placemaking as a way to foster a much-needed pedestrian-friendly environment to help its small businesses. This strategy had many unexpected benefits, including playing a pivotal role in both surviving the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and in helping to better position the town to be featured on HGTV’s Home Town Takeover.


The Intersection of Placemaking and Open Streets


Placemaking is the process of creating places that focus on transforming public spaces to strengthen the connections between people and the community around them. This practice often involves beautifying a space, making it more usable, and implementing cultural and social aspects to help improve the quality of life for those who use it.

Where Open Streets initiatives align with placemaking is when the method specifically utilizes roads, alleys, and parking lots to encourage walking, biking, community events, and slower automobile traffic in the process. With our current moment’s need to maintain healthy social distances, this dynamic proves more important now than ever.


Small Means can Lead to Big Change


Every downtown has its own identity. Described as the “City of Natural Beauty” for its abundance of rivers, green hills, and woodland wildlife, Wetumpka is also known for its quirky history including a five-mile-wide impact crater created 85 million years ago as well as the unique river snails—the endangerment of which caused the local power company to allow more water through their dam to mimic the natural habitat of the snail, leading to enough flowing water to bring kayaking, fishing, and other water activities to the area. We took these notable aspects of our identity and made them an integral part of our placemaking activities.

Although our organization’s budget was modest, it was evident we had to begin somewhere. The perfect opportunity came just months after our designation, when Main Street America teamed up with ioby.com for the Cultivating Place Challenge. We immediately began working on ideas for placemaking to submit to this Challenge and soon after, the Tulotoma Snail Trail cultivating place project was created!

The Tulotoma Snail Trail was designed to be the primary placemaking piece in a series of downtown art installments detailing the unique history of downtown Wetumpka and giving shape to our ever-evolving identity. This project aimed to help revitalize our historic business district by generating foot traffic and bringing attention to our beauty and one-of-a-kind personality, helping to improve the quality of life for our community.

The plans for our cultivation project were robust and included incorporating public art, greenscapes, signage, a stone walkway, and seating. When our Snail Trail was one of the 15 Challenge projects chosen to move forward, we made the most of this opportunity by starting small and improving the façade of a local downtown museum. Although we started small, each new installment led to bolstered hope and emboldened support for our cause, eventually leading to authentic events and experiences created through our Main Street stratagem.


Making it Work for the Community


We knew we wanted to make permanent change—even through temporary demonstrations at times—to bring about innovative services and opportunities to the public. The projects have not only led to improved spaces, a stronger small business community, greater cohesion among residents, and an authentic identity, but they have also brought about many unexpected benefits and outcomes.

In 2017, a destructive EF-2 tornado turned out to be a rallying point for our community, and our Snail Trail helped the community heal. During the pandemic, COVID-19 gave us the opportunity to customize events through the Open Streets initiative. Most recently, this culmination of a largely transformed landscape (and people working together) arguably increased our chances to become the featured small town on HGTV’s Home Town Takeover.

Instead of allowing the setbacks to become the primary focus of our narrative, we turned them into ways our community could come together and introduce new ideas and perspectives.

One of my favorite unexpected outcomes of our Open Streets initiative? After a difficult journey to turn a derelict eyesore of an alleyway in the heart of downtown into a cultivated place on our Snail Trail, the HGTV Home Town Takeover production crew was able to utilize this open space during filming for safely-distanced meals and other ancillary parts of production. It brought me such joy to look out my office window and see the space being used in ways I’d never even dreamed on my most hopeful of days.


Additional Unexpected Outcomes and Realized Benefits


Utilizing intentional placemaking and Open Streets has led to anticipated favorable outcomes involving public health and safety, community building, economic impact, and environment as outlined by Main Street America. But in our Main Street, they have also led to the following unexpected outcomes:

Public Health and Safety
  • Public, usable space in the heart of downtown with plenty of social distancing opportunities
  • Reduced automobile traffic and physically safer places to walk and bike
  • Expanded participation in physical activity
  • Enhanced amenities for pedestrians

Community Building
  • Finished space for the community during interim of building after tornado
  • Expanded opportunities for social gathering
  • Sense of social cohesion and ownership of public space
  • Public trust built from community engagement

Economic Impact
  • Increased visitation and spending in the district
  • New opportunities for small businesses, nonprofits, artists, and makers to connect with potential customers (i.e., curbside delivery and pick-up, expanded spaces for more customers, etc.)
  • Retention of current residents and attraction of new visitors

Environment
  • Greenscapes
  • Community pride leading to less litter and cleaner spaces


Placemaking in Uncertain Times


A little creativity in cultivating place can go a long way. Soon after becoming Main Street Wetumpka’s founding executive director, I attended a workshop and learned one of the most important philosophies I’d employ during my tenure: Control what you can control and try not to focus on what you cannot. Because when it comes to the blending of private and public spaces in America’s historic districts, it’s important to use your time and resources on tactics that will make the most valuable and sustainable change. By implementing tactics like Open Streets placemaking practices, communities can continue to develop and progress despite uncertain times.




About the Author


Jenny grew up in Wetumpka as an eighth generation resident and, after graduating from the University of Alabama, has enjoyed over 20 years in the magazine publishing industry. As the founding and long-time director of Main Street Wetumpka, she led the town's revitalization efforts, including through the creation of the Tulotoma Snail Trail, an award-winning cultivating place project and, most recently, represented the organization on HGTV's Home Town Takeover. Since 2011, she has owned Yellow House Publishing and continues to work as a freelance writer and editor. She also owns Frios Gourmet Popsicles in downtown Wetumpka with her husband Troy. They have four children, champion many community causes and love to travel as a family.
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