Making Gloversville the ‘place’ to be
The Fulton County Center for Regional Growth hosted the Placemaking 101 Conference on April 18 and 19 featuring national speakers and discussion on topics such as the impact of art in economic development, finding funding sources for downtown projects, reaching out to the creative economy and creative uses for empty retail space.
There were 74 people registered to attend the two-day conference, with about two-thirds coming from the city or Fulton County. Rates for local residents and workers were discounted to encourage community participation.
Downtown Development Specialist Jennifer Jennings said the intent of the conference was for residents and officials locally and across the state to learn more about the economic development strategies being implemented in the city to foster downtown revitalization while generating new ideas.
“The impact is going to be that there are more community members who are excited, engaged and ready to make change. There are going to be a lot of ideas that are community generated that I can help facilitate to make a positive change,” Jennings said. “It’s building relationships.”
Jennings was hired by the Fulton County Center for Regional Growth at the start of 2017 in part to work with existing businesses to generate growth and to assist with grant applications, along with attracting new businesses to the area.
To spark interest downtown, Jennings worked to develop community events during her first year on the job, implementing strategies from placemaking. Now in the second year of her three-year contract, Jennings is focusing on outreach and communication to increase involvement downtown by building event attendance, volunteerism and sponsorship.
Placemaking is a form of economic development that focuses on a community’s existing assets, showing the potential for growth through small, low cost projects that can gradually reshape and revitalize an area when combined with other projects.
A core objective of placemaking is fostering relationships between existing community members that will help maintain the area once revitalization occurs while attracting prospective residents and business owners. The philosophy puts equal emphasis on the place and the people there.
Speaker Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative kicked off the conference on April 18 with a discussion on the concepts behind placemaking, potential projects and the impact that placemaking efforts can have.
“Really small interventions and little changes add up to make a big difference in a community,” Lydon said. “I hope you’re inspired to take away at least one tangible idea from today and tomorrow that you can actually use to improve your front yard, your block, your street and your community.”
Lydon explained that placemaking doesn’t rely on the slow and expensive principles of traditional city planning, rather it focuses on low cost actions that can be implemented by individuals and groups in the community.
Lydon’s firm utilizes tactical urbanism to operationalize placemaking through short-term, low cost, scalable interventions that community members can participate in constructing to catalyze long term change using the materials that are already on hand without the need for a master plan.
Small projects that carve out space for people to safely get together is one strategy that Lydon and placemakers employ to change the atmosphere of an area. According to Lydon, people are attracted to the sociability of places, yet most areas contain more streets than spaces for people.
“Streets are places. Actually, streets comprise the most amount of space in most communities” Lydon said. “This is the most valuable space that you have in your city in a lot of ways and we underprice it and we don’t have enough diversity with it.”
Projects that reclaim streetspace for public use can help draw people to an area that was previously inhabited by parked or moving cars.
Lydon argued that projects that convert just a few parking spaces into parks or emphasize pedestrians over motorists can calm traffic making an area more comfortable and inviting. These gradual changes have a cumulative effect over time bringing in more people, businesses, investment and improvements.
Some of Lydon’s suggestions have already been implemented in the city on a small scale, like the parklet that sits in a parking space in front of the Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market on North Main Street.
The colorful, wooden parklet features seating to draw passersby to sit, relax and socialize. According to Lydon, people attract more people and adding parks from the large to the very small produces social benefits.
In cities with swaths of unoccupied buildings, Lydon advocated methods to reactivate the space, again to bring people to the area and remind them of the space’s best features.
Jennings’ recently launched Artist in Residence Program seeks to do just that by activating unused storefronts with artwork demonstrating the future vision for the city while documenting the changes as they take place.
Under the ARP, an artist will be selected each year to creatively document the downtown area for a 12 month period through their artwork. The first piece by the 2018 Artist in Residence, Nicolina Schonfarber, was installed in the display window of the Carriage House at 39 N. Main St. at the end of last month.
Schonfarber’s piece, “Re-Imagine Gloversville,” is a window mural that includes ideas and images from residents that were collected in a community art project during last year’s Bacon Jam. Jennings pointed to the art installation as an inexpensive way to impact the look and feel of a street, noting that the project cost about $600.
Even smaller projects can add up according to Lydon, who suggests that cities start with projects that cost $100 to $200 to pilot an idea short term to see what the impact will be and how residents respond. Simple materials like temporary paint, rented plants, traffic cones, hay bales and wooden crates can be used.
“It allows people to physically experience a different reality today,” Lydon said. “And showcase a more positive future that signals to a lot of people in that place that things are changing in a positive direction.”
Lydon’s own firm often introduces “bump-outs” using objects and painted crosswalks at busy intersections that allow pedestrians to safely step off the curb further into the crosswalk beyond where cars are parked on the road for increased visibility, causing motorists to slow down as well.
City officials attempted to pilot hay bale bump-outs on N. Main Street around the intersection with Church Street as a low cost, weeklong experiment leading up to the conference. The triangular crosswalk along the intersection was due to be painted with a bright, temporary paint by the Department of Public Works to further improve visibility, but the ground was too cold for the painting to be done.
The hay bales were removed within 48 hours after confused residents complained on social media about their sudden appearance over the rainy weekend. Lydon included a picture of the city’s bump-outs in his presentation, complimenting the effort.
According to Lydon, projects that cause concern or negative reactions among residents can be valuable by showing what works and what doesn’t and by starting a conversation within the community. Jennings echoed Lydon’s remarks noting that the well intentioned project led four locals to sign up to be downtown volunteers.
Spending a few hundred dollars on a test project is preferable to spending thousands on a major project that doesn’t pan out Lydon added. Temporary prototypes allow people to see and experience a project, allowing any necessary changes to be made before a permanent version is constructed.
When his own firm works on a project, Lydon said they try to announce what will happen, the reason behind it and how long it will be up ahead of time. He also suggested putting up signs to accompany any project with the same information saying that communication often neutralizes people’s concerns.
More than anything, placemaking is about bringing people to an area. Community driven projects are needed to ensure that changes to a city are wanted and will be maintained over time Lydon said. Projects using resident volunteers help build relationships and the ever important social fabric.
“Placemaking is people driven, at the end of the day it is about us as we live together in our communities,” Lydon said. “This is about bringing people together.”
“One person can make a positive lasting change in a community,” Jennings said. “But the change can’t be dependent upon one person.”
More information about the Placemaking 101 Conference, downtown events, revitalization initiatives and volunteer opportunities can be found at downtowngloversville.org.