Downtown urban planners
set sights on Huntsville

single-meta-cal May 31, 2019

Animate, Amplify, Activate.  At first glance, this combination of words might sound like the beginning of a catchphrase for the latest trendy superhero – a slogan to engage superpowers and motivate an entourage of sidekicks. That is, if the superhero was, say, a downtown urban planner.

Recently, more than 100 of these Downtown urban planner superheroes, hailing from over 30 states plus a representative from Canada,  gathered at the newly opened AC Marriott in Downtown Huntsville for the inaugural Place Branding and Placemaking Summit. The chatter was all the newest ways to animate, amplify, and…you guessed it, activate downtown spaces.

Urban creators and communicators who attended the Placemaking Summit are tasked with telling the unique story of their respective communities and with creating programming that compels residents to spend time in downtown cores and make new connections. Essentially, their mission is to strengthen the foundation of a vibrant city.

Downtown – where the action is

The event, created by the International Downtown Association (IDA), is part of a suite of professional development meetings aimed at strengthening the nation’s urban centers, neighborhoods, and the people on the ground responsible for these vital economic development epicenters.

“You have people of all ages using downtown districts, and you have people aging in place who still want to live in the downtown core,” said Director of Professional Development for IDA, Carolyn Dellutri. “We have young, up and coming students and kids and families, so you have to make it work for everyone and be very inclusive.”

Over the course of three days consisting of tours, master talks and interactive panels, conference attendees shared case studies on animating spaces. That’s urban-planner speak for “bringing life and community to a space through interactive or communal additions.” For example, one conference activity included animating an empty section of Big Spring Park to create a temporary “pop up park.”

It’s an exciting time for downtown districts and communities, and it’s all about creating healthy, inclusive and vibrant places and that’s what you are doing in Huntsville.”

Attendees shared ideas of how to amplify (extend or leverage) unique community stories, character and assets such as Downtown Huntsville, Inc.’s Craft Beer or Coffee Trail. They also brainstormed the best ways to launch a new activity space, like Washington Street’s Micro Park in Downtown Huntsville.

Photo blogger Conrad Benner of shared ways to incorporate unique and quirky displays of art to create a sense of place, capture the character of an area and make a space stand out.

Kiara Boone of the Equal Justice Initiative spoke about the value of embracing the challenging and often problematic elements of a community’s history via a master talk on Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Alabama project is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaves black people, people terrorized by lynching and African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow laws.

Who’s who in urban placemaking

The complete roster of speakers was impressive, including over two dozen professionals – the best of the best at what they do – representing communities from Washington, D.C. to Miami, FL.

“IDA represents downtown champions who are the creators and connectors in downtown districts. They bring people together to solve problems and create community,” said Dellutri.

According to Chad Emerson, President & CEO of Downtown Huntsville, Inc. (DHI), bringing the Placemaking Summit to Huntsville was a major “coup.” In addition to the positive economic impact, Emerson pointed out that hosting the Placemaking Summit was an opportunity for Huntsville to shine, to show off, if you will.

“You might think a super large, mega downtown would host an event like this, but because of the City’s placemaking efforts downtown, IDA selected Huntsville out of all the cities in the country,” said Emerson, who has led the City of Huntsville’s downtown revitalization organization for nearly six years.

IDA Placemaking Summit attendees listen to a presentation at the AC Marriott

IDA Placemaking Summit attendees listen to a presentation at the AC Marriott in Downtown Huntsville.

Why all the focus on downtown?

Historically, downtowns are where people traditionally gather for major activities. They are where the seats of local government typically meet, like city councils or county commissions, and where the judicial courts typically reside. Downtowns are where people go to celebrate large events, gather for vigils, and take visitors to sight-see.

Downtowns are the emotional heartbeat of most cities.”

A strong downtown is, in essence, a megaphone that tells the world about the strength of a community, the character of a place – in one centralized, geographic area.

Dellutri recalled her first night in Huntsville, watching local media coverage of the Mazda-Toyota manufacturing plant currently under construction. She was impressed with how community leaders recognized how much quality of life offerings impact job and industry recruitment.

Huntsville leaders seemed to “get it,” she said. “A lot of times people relocate somewhere first because of the city and second, the job. Getting these quality of life elements teed up is critical,” Dellutri said.

As Andrew Breslau, a three-year IDA conference attendee, conference speaker and Senior Vice President of the Alliance for Downtown New York, explained, strong community gathering spaces provide the opportunity to foster individual happiness and health, leading to communal financial strength and longevity.

“Everything starts from people’s daily experience, and daily experience is defined by the community you live in, the sidewalk you walk on, the place you park your car, the store where you buy your groceries, the shop where you get your coffee drink however you like it,” Breslau said. “Nothing shapes you so directly as that web of intimate relationships you establish where you live.”

Huntsville – in the eyes of visitors

Emerson acknowledged that not all conference attendees knew what to expect from Huntsville, Alabama.

“People said, ‘I wasn’t really sure about going to Alabama or Huntsville,’ but since they have been here, several have already talked about their return trip.”

Breslau’s take?

“I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in the state, but this is my first time in Huntsville. I would say I’m charmed and delighted.”

For Dellutri, the City’s planning efforts and the people she encountered stood out most.

“I’ve done a lot of walking here in Huntsville, and I’m amazed at how you can tell there is a plan in place connecting everything and making it walkable and friendly. Everywhere I walked people sitting on benches would say hello. People are so friendly here.”

When asked if any particular location or placemaking initiative stood out, Breslau was quick to identify the former middle school turned entertainment complex, Campus No. 805, where the group held their opening reception.

“I’ve never seen anything like that. I was quite impressed.”

Ad for the IDA conference in Huntsville showing a mural at Campus No. 805

The Garage at Clinton Row, an adaptive reuse development that converted a storage facility into retail space, also stood out to Dellutri as a  great example of placemaking not seen in many other cities.

Reenergizing critical spaces, creating community, strengthening cities – all in a day’s work for these Urban Planning superheroes.

Perhaps Dellutri summarized it best when speaking on the importance of the event and her take on Huntsville’s downtown revitalization efforts:

“It’s an exciting time for downtown districts and communities, and it’s all about creating healthy, inclusive and vibrant places and that’s what you are doing in Huntsville.”

Photo courtesy of Maggie Matteson, Downtown Huntsville, Inc.