How do we create excellent urban places? While there is no single recipe for successful placemaking, the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence’s (RBA) in-depth evaluation of transformative urban American projects and consultation with mayors, architects, landscape architects, urban planners and designers, developers, community leaders, and other urban experts over the decades has revealed five common characteristics of those that stand the test of time, as our 2017 medalists illustrate:

Truly transformative projects are rarely the product of one single person or entity but rather the outcome of long term, cooperative relationships.

  1. The vital role of visionary leadership.

Aspirational leadership and ambition are essential to catalyzing projects, generating enthusiasm, and engaging the support necessary to move ahead. While projects are often inspired by the vision of a single individual or organization, leadership often evolves and becomes increasingly collaborative. Some projects are initiated by a visionary mayor or charismatic civic leader or developer. Others emerge organically over time from the community through creation of a collective vision.

Chicago Riverwalk (2017 Silver Medalist) realizes part of Daniel Burham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago as well as the City’s vision to use the rivers to connect and enhance the communities along the banks (Photo: Christian Phillips Photography).
  1. The value of collaborative partnerships.

Addressing complex urban challenges requires substantial resources. Truly transformative projects are rarely the product of one single person or entity but rather the outcome of long term, cooperative relationships among people, organizations, and communities that work together over time and leverage necessary experience, skills, and funding. Today, most significant urban development projects involve complex public-private partnerships that facilitate access to local, state, and federal funding and programs and leverage private capital and financing.

La Kretz Innovation Campus + Arts District Park (2017 Silver Medalist) is the product of a public-private partnership between the City of Los Angeles, research universities, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to promote innovation in cleantech and position the city as a leader (Photo: Benny Chan/Fotoworks).
  1. The benefits of engaging and empowering communities.

Places that enhance interaction and increase access to opportunities and services improve quality of life for everyone. Likewise, involvement in the creation of place—through advocacy, participatory planning and community workshops, and the development of ongoing programming—contributes to a collective sense of ownership, stewardship, and community empowerment and pride. This is especially critical in places that have experienced or are going through significant change, such as loss caused by a catastrophic storm, economic and demographic shifts, or the collapse of a major industry.

Incorporating community gathering space and improving access to Boston Public Schools services in the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building (2017 Silver Medalist) helps bring centralized public functions out into the community (Photo: Anton Grassl).
  1. The importance of anchoring projects in their unique cultures and places.

Context is critical. Development that is informed by an understanding of the distinctive historical, cultural, and physical characteristics and that also reflects local aspirations and values of place is more likely to be embraced by the community and to be successful in the long run. In an increasingly competitive and homogenous world, quality of place matters in attracting and retaining residents and businesses. Those that that are unique and reflect and embody local characteristics are more likely to stand out and endure.

SteelStacks Arts & Cultural Campus (2017 Gold Medalist) preserves and repurposes striking, large-scale remnants of Bethlehem’s industrial history while providing a spectacular venue for contemporary art and performances (Photo: Halkin-Mason Photography).
  1. The return on investment of design excellence.

Successful placemaking is a process that requires assembling, integrating, and responding to a variety of information. Good design responds to unique environmental, social, and physical needs and requirements, as well as the aspirations and expectations of place. It can be achieved with the help of design competitions that seek fresh talent and innovative ideas, the engagement of firms with deep expertise and knowledge, the careful preservation and adaptation of architectural heritage, and the introduction of new techniques and technologies that contribute to resilience and long-term sustainability.

In the coming weeks, we’ll share stories about RBA winners that employed these strategies to tackle big urban challenges and affect transformative change in their communities. In the meantime, you can learn more about the 2017 RBA medalists and lessons learned from the last award cycle by checking out our publication Investing in Urban Infrastructure: The 2017 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence.

And help spread the word by sharing the 2019 Call for Entries with your colleagues and friends and join our conversation on Twitter (@RudyBrunerAward) using the hashtags #urbanexcellence and #RudyBrunerAward. Know a place that might be a good RBA candidate? Propose a Project with one click here, too!

Coming Up…

Deadline: December 12, 2018

  • Learning from Practice: The Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence

2018 ACSP 58th Annual Conference session in Buffalo, NY

October 26, 2018

ArchitectureBoston Expo 2018 session in Boston, MA

Wednesday, November 28, 11:00 am to 12:30 pm