The term "placemaking" is a hot one in urban planning circles, and while there is much debate over exactly what it means, one thing most can agree on is that it puts a big emphasis on using art to help give a public setting a sense of identity. 

Some public officials, developers, architects and artists have been quick to jump into the placemaking movement as a relatively cheap and effective way to imbue their public spaces with a sense of identity, and are swearing by its ability to attract people, customers and dollars. 

One definition of placemaking comes from St. Paul-based art consultant Forecast Public Art, which defines it as a term "used to describe the design and development of common spaces, shared environments and civic places created for communities."

The use of art and artists in placemaking, they say, is considered a "best practice" by urban planners, landscape architects and city builders.

So far, the biggest adopters of the use of public art in placemaking efforts have been local governments such as St. Louis Park, St. Paul and Ramsey County, to name a few.

In St. Louis Park, for instance, the city has implemented a policy of "promoting and celebrating the creation of public art throughout the community" with several art projects, including the "Dream Elevator," a 44-foot cylindrical work at 36th Street and Wooddale Avenue that takes its inspiration from the city's historic Nordic Ware grain elevator to the east. 

St. Paul's artist in residence

The city of St. Paul, meanwhile, has a full-time artist in residence to advise city planners on how to integrate art into public works projects while artists are commissioned to "shape the form and experience of parks and open spaces, from the overall landscape to important structures, sculptures and amenities."

And Ramsey County is investing about $1.25 million (including $1 million in Federal Transit Administration funds) for public art at the renovated Union Depot.

Philadelphia artist Ray King was given a $200,000 commission to create a dichroic glass art installation suspended from the ceiling in the depot's Great Hall atrium that will create a cloud-like wave floating above the space. 

Melinda Childs, director of Forecast Public Art's artist services program, told a gathering of urban design enthusiasts at a Wednesday meeting of the Sensible Land Use Coalition that her nonprofit group provides the know-how to cities and others that want to use art to define their parks and streets as inviting places.

What placemaking does, she says, is to take what is already unique about a public space or a development project and bring those characteristics to the surface in a way that defines it and makes it stand out in the eye of the beholder. 

"It's not the tail wagging the dog of a development, it is the dog," she said. "It's not an art project that's tacked on to the end of a development. It's about how art can be integrated throughout the planning process."

Agreeing with that assessment was Minneapolis-based developer Stuart Ackerberg, who said he used that placemaking philosophy while planning his MoZaic retail-office mixed use development in Uptown, which prominently features a public art plaza.

"There really wasn't a passive, quiet public gathering space in Uptown," he said. "We also had this incredible amenity, the Midtown Greenway, but you couldn't access it in the core of Uptown."

So, he said, the solution was to create a public art park that is privately owned and operated, serving both the needs of the community with a new ramp connecting to the Greenway bike trail and as a magnet to attract bicyclists, pedestrians and tenants for the building. 

"We've done that with 18 art pieces that were created by 12 different artists," he said. 

Don Jacobson is a freelancer in St. Paul.