While Dunwoody is known for such landmark locations as Dunwoody Village, city leaders are working on better ways to stand out through “placemaking,” a community planning buzzword that encourages creating places where people want to go and interact.
Public art, walkability as well as more trails and green space are being discussed as ways to help Dunwoody create places that set the city apart from neighboring cities competing for the same businesses, economic development and people.
“Parks and green space, even Project Renaissance … all of that I see as part of placemaking and creating a unique Dunwoody,” Economic Development Director Michael Starling said.
“[B]ut there is the opportunity for us to become more unique,” he said. “How do we uncover and discover our uniqueness and share that with the world?”
Placemaking is a concept that has been around for years. The word itself is a fairly new addition to the planning lexicon. For placemaking to work, the places also must be activated to attract people to them, through events or even public art.
“Placemaking is a hard concept to wrap your head around,” said Katie Bishop Williams, executive director of the Dunwoody Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s such a buzzword right now that if you ask 10 different people what it means, you’ll get 10 different answers.”
For Williams, the idea of placemaking means seeking multiple sources of involvement to help develop a place where people want to go, using parks, culture, restaurants, shops, and “all those things that make up a destination,” she said.
But placemaking is much more than just creating a place to shop, or building a park or building a trail. “It’s giving people a way to engage and be part of the community,” she said.
As smaller cities in metro Atlanta compete with each other to attract new business, a sustainable workforce and also to keep current residents happy with their quality of life, their officials and community leaders are striving for ways to make their cities stand out from the rest.
Parks and trails are popular and can’t be built fast enough. Dunwoody is currently working on connecting its own trail system with neighboring cities and hopes to create a network within the busy commercial and retail Perimeter Center district marked by office towers and plenty of concrete.
The Atlanta BeltLine stands as one of the brighter beacons of placemaking in the region. Finding that recipe for success — without an abandoned railroad readily on hand — is what Dunwoody and other cities are hoping to achieve. But the Atlanta BeltLine was a decade in the making and required a massive grassroots effort to get city officials to buy into it and fund it.
Getting that kind of community involvement, engagement and passion into a project is what city leaders are now trying to do in Dunwoody. Earlier this year, officials from the city, CVB and Dunwoody Perimeter Chamber hosted a series of public meetings on how to shape Dunwoody into the future. Last month, the same groups sponsored three breakfast meetings to talk about placemaking.
“This has to happen on its own,” Starling said. “Government needs to understand what residents really want.”
Dunwoody Village is an example of placemaking before city leaders knew what placemaking was. A boulevard through a retail district with sidewalks to encourage walkability created an area that came to be known as the city’s “downtown.”
But placemaking has mostly failed at Dunwoody Village. Although the Dunwoody Homeowners Fourth of July Parade brings thousands of people to the Village each year, most of the year people just drive to one or two stores and then leave.
“One of the problems we have, especially in Dunwoody Village … is that we have so much surface parking,” said DHA President Robert Wittenstein. “There is no green space or gathering spots, and that makes it difficult to make it a place where people want to hang out.”
The Dunwoody Nature Center, on the other hand, works well as a placemaking concept, said Stephanie Freeman, president and CEO of the Dunwoody Perimeter Chamber. Through art and nature, people come from throughout metro Atlanta to visit the park and participate in its many activities, she said.
The City Council recently approved spending nearly $86,000 for an Arts and Culture Master Plan that will serve as a policy guide for the next two decades to outline ways the city can offer residents and visitors quality arts and cultural experiences.
A panelist at one of last month’s breakfast meetings was Marian Liou of Brookhaven, founder of We Love Buhi. We Love BuHi began as an Instagram account and is now a nonprofit with the mission of preserving and promoting Buford Highway’s cultural diversity.
In September, We Love BuHi teamed up with Living Walls Atlanta for The BuHi Walk, a 10-day public art conference that included artists painting large murals representing the immigrant experience on the sides of buildings. The public murals are an example of placemaking.
“She talked about placemaking as a frame to bring the community together … and that it is also a frame to the outside world,” Starling said. “You create opportunities for people to share.”
Placemaking includes everything from urban design to public art, Starling said.
“We know we’re not going to be a Little Five Points or a Candler Park, but how can we create avenues for people to create this?” he asked. “We have to make sure we are competing and keeping up with what’s happening.”