Attracting Residents and Visitors to Downtown: Why Placemaking Matters

The Gaslight District in Cambridge Ontario, has been so successful, it serves as a "clinic," demonstrating effective strategies for urban placemaking.

Patrick Simmons
July 25, 2023

What does the term ‘placemaking’ mean, and why is it so important? To answer that question, we first have to talk about the critical significance of downtown cores and their revitalization—areas where the most impactful placemaking often happens.

The more active and lively a downtown core becomes, the more attractive it becomes to residents and visitors. The more a city can encourage suburban and city-dwellers to intermingle, the more individuals from outside a city’s core gain exposure to societal issues; issues that can be more effectively addressed through collective efforts. This is seen in municipal election results and community support for programs that address often overlooked issues.

Opportunities in a Downtown Core

Beyond homelessness or unhoused individuals, there are several other challenges that can be confronted by embracing downtown living:

  1. Transportation and Accessibility: Public transportation networks and walkability available in downtown cores reduce reliance on private vehicles, promoting sustainable modes of transportation. By living downtown, individuals can contribute to mitigating traffic congestion, reducing carbon emissions, and supporting more accessible communities.
  2. Cultural and Social Integration: Downtown cores are typically rich in cultural diversity and offer a variety of social opportunities. By residing in these vibrant urban centres, individuals can engage in multicultural experiences, promote inclusivity, and actively participate in community-building initiatives that celebrate diversity.
  3. Economic Revitalization: Downtown areas often experience economic revitalization through the establishment of businesses, restaurants, and cultural institutions. Choosing to live downtown supports local economies, encourages entrepreneurship, and creates employment opportunities, contributing to the overall prosperity of the community.
  4. Environmental Sustainability: Urban living in downtown areas promotes efficient land use and encourages sustainable development practices. By concentrating populations in denser areas, there is a potential to preserve natural habitats, protect green spaces, and reduce urban sprawl, thus safeguarding the environment.
  5. Civic Engagement and Advocacy: Downtown residents are more likely to engage in local governance, participate in community events, and advocate for policies that align with the needs and aspirations of urban communities. By living downtown, individuals can actively contribute to shaping the future of their cities and influencing decision-making processes.

Overall, residing in downtown cores provides an opportunity to address these issues by fostering a sense of community and empowering individuals to actively participate in creating positive change within their urban environments.

‘Placemaking’ Defined

Now, where does placemaking enter the conversation? When we talk about placemaking, we’re talking about a community-centred approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Think of parks or green spaces where people can gather and collaborate. Or, pedestrian plazas that can house public events, arts and culture throughout the warmer months of the year.

Placemaking improves urban vitality from an economic standpoint, but more importantly, it pushes us to nurture environments that improve people’s health, happiness and well-being through a strengthened sense of connection.

Placemaking in Action

Projects like HIP Development’s Gaslight District exemplify this movement towards revitalizing downtown cores and creating vibrant urban spaces, going beyond conventional central business districts or high-rise developments, and focusing on the diverse needs of the community.

The success of such projects lies in the preconditions that are established, creating favourable conditions for the integration of different elements and stakeholders. The Gaslight District has been so successful, it serves as a "clinic," demonstrating effective strategies for urban placemaking. As it becomes a potential exemplar across North America, it highlights the importance of setting the right conditions to enable successful downtown revitalization and community-building efforts.

From the outset, HIP President Scott Higgins wanted the Gaslight District to serve as a ‘piazza’ for Cambridge—a place for locals and visitors to come together to enjoy food and drink, art exhibits, and live music performances. Each decision about the district was made to embrace the wider community in its scope, keeping this sense of placemaking at the top of the priority list.

Photo credit:

There are many MSS project partners who are deserving of recognition for their creative placemaking contributions to the region, some of whom include:

By emphasizing placemaking and designing spaces that facilitate rich and fulfilling lives, visionary developers like HIP are contributing in hugely meaningful ways to creating thriving urban centers. This is the kind of aspirational architectural project we are thrilled to support.

You can find out what’s happening in The Gaslight District by visiting their website.

This project involves the contribution of two architectural firms. Martin Simmons Sweers is responsible for the design of the site plan, existing heritage structures, the adjacent 96 Grand Avenue project, as well as providing design input on the parking podium facades. ABA Architects is responsible for the design of the residential towers and associated parking podiums.

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Patrick Simmons