Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peats Sake: Creative Placemaking & Urban Wetlands

By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

As a community planner, artist and an environmentalist, I am continually intrigued by the theory of sustainable development and in finding ways to effectively balance the three legs of the “sustainability stool”: the economy, society, and the environment. Wetlands, I believe, are an integral part of any sustainable development effort. When I think of wetlands, however, I often catch myself thinking only of the wetlands found in rural America – the ones that you see in beautiful pictures of wetlands in the wilderness being enjoyed by ducks, moose or outdoor enthusiasts. Rarely do I imagine or think of them as being a part of the fabric of urban places. But as I have dug deeper into the subject of “green” infrastructure in relation to wetland restoration, I increasingly come up with examples of urban places which have incorporated the natural functions of nature, specifically wetlands, to resolve structural, social and economic issues which they are facing due to crumbling “structural” infrastructure systems and a stagnating economy. Throughout my research, I am constantly reminded of the research I did for my master’s capstone on the creative economy and its role in sustainability planning and development – and the concept of “creative placemaking.”

Good urban design is an important component of Creative Placemaking. Urban design has been described as “the art of creating and shaping cities and towns.” It is derived from planning and transportation policy, architectural design, economics, engineering and landscape design. Interdisciplinary by nature, it “draws together the many strands of place-making, environmental stewardship, social equity and economic viability into the creation of places with distinct beauty and identity.”[i] Green infrastructure has developed into a significant component of urban design and offers opportunities for all members of the community, regardless of socioeconomic status, to enjoy the benefits of nature – physically, aesthetically, and financially.[ii]

Quality of life is integrally connected to “quality of place.” As Corson Ellis, an entrepreneur in Portland, Maine, says in an interview for the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, “If you’re in a beautiful, beautiful place, you’re a more motivated and happy person.” [1](Ellis, 2012)  Creative Placemaking is a new technique for creating that “quality of place” which attempts to balance the need for a healthy economy, society and environment. It is a socially inclusive community planning strategy which leverages the arts and the environment to help shape and revitalize the physical (built and natural), social, and economic character of neighborhoods, cities, and towns.

Entrepreneurship is at the heart of Creative Placemaking which emphasizes an asset-based approach to planning. It draws on the ideas and inspirations of people in the local community to enliven public spaces, enhance business vitality and improve public health and safety. Creativity in this context is not seen as occurring in some sort of separate silo or vacuum. It happens harmoniously within the context of the arts, the economy and the environment (both natural and built). It recognizes the creative ability of everyone and the benefits of a healthy community and social capital. It is inherently a grassroots effort to create vibrant, resilient, and sustainable communities.

Some really inspiring and exciting examples of creative placemaking and green urban design that incorporate all three legs of the sustainability stool include:

Any good gardener knows that if they want to produce beautiful flowers or healthy food crops, they need to begin with healthy soil. Sustainability planning and development is no different. We need to begin with healthy, equitable neighborhoods if we expect to grow beautiful, prosperous communities. The role of the creative economy in sustainability planning and development, therefore, is to value and proliferate public goods (such as public art, community gardens, and transit), to catalyze social interaction, equity and communication, and to foster our creativity and ingenuity in developing solutions to some of today’s most dire problems such as climate change and habitat loss. It is an effective strategy to accomplish our sustainable development goals of balancing the needs of society, the economy and nature. Urban wetlands and green infrastructure are integral components for a creative placemaking strategy capable of sustainable development success.

[1] Ellis, C. (2012). Chairman, Kepware Technologies. (W. Kammerer, Interviewer)

[i] Urban Design. (2013). The Art of Creating and Shaping Cities and Towns. Retrieved from Urban Design

[ii] Benfield, K. (2010). Distressed city neighborhoods need green investment for community, environment.

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