Placemaking revitalizes rural spaces

Rural economic development depends on attracting and keeping community members and creating an inviting place for them to call home.

Placemaking is a great way to bring vibrancy to rural communities, said Community Arts Extension Program Leader Melissa Bond with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, who also works with the university’s Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky. Bond spoke about placemaking at the Kansas Rural Prosperity Summit Oct. 17 in Wichita.

“There’s a big difference between our metropolitan centers and our rural communities and what [placemaking] looks like,” Bond said.

Bond said there are different types of placemaking. For example, it includes a community’s built environment such as roads and streets, and it encompasses creative efforts such as art, murals, local culture, destinations and festivals too.

CEDIK defines placemaking simply as “creating communities and places where people want to live, work and play.”

The organization facilitates grassroots work in communities throughout Kentucky and takes a wrap-around approach to community development, Bond said.

“We support and prioritize community-based decision making. We just come in and ask the questions—we’re not going to tell you the answers.” CEDIK helps town councils and other stakeholders identify their own community culture and the local places and events they want to celebrate to attract residents and keep them engaged.

Through the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service’s Community Arts Program, “just like you have Extension agents in your county in 4-H or agriculture, we have Extension agents doing community development through the arts. And it’s given us a really unique way to find out what can work in small rural communities by building that arts capacity,” Bond explained.

Rural America Placemaking Toolkit

Bond said the Project for Public Spaces was a leader in the original placemaking concept and has been looking at how to develop creative, vibrant spaces for decades. The organization says successful places are accessible, comfortable, sociable spaces with a good image and where people take visitors, meet up with one another and engage in activities.

However, placemaking resources are often geared toward larger cities and urban areas. Ideas for large-scale projects may not be relevant to rural communities with smaller populations and budgets.

The need for placemaking in rural communities led CEDIK to develop the Rural America Placemaking Toolkit ( in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development. The Project for Public Spaces’ work inspired the “digital toolkit for rural placemaking across the country.” Rural leaders and interested community members can use the toolkit to identify ideas and resources on a scale more appropriate for a small town.

Bond, the project director for the Rural America Placemaking Toolkit, said her team identified four major areas that lead to placemaking:

1. Creative community conversations;

2. Community and cultural assessments;

3. Public spaces and gathering places; and

4. Cross-sector partnerships.

The toolkit offers ideas and highlights successful projects that rural communities have implemented for each area and provides directories for technical and financial assistance.

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Bond said, “We focus on creative community conversations because to us, they’re the key springboard just to get people talking and to infuse creativity so you come out with some new ideas at the end.”

The Getting Started guide on the website is a great place to start those conversations. She encourages people to take the quiz-style assessments to get a snapshot of the community’s readiness for placemaking projects.

“We’re looking at snapshots that we assemble together to build a new path,” Bond said, noting that the 5-minute assessment in the toolkit also provides a “cheat sheet” for communicating goals effectively with other people in your community.

She said some of the questions that help gauge a community’s health include, “Can you name people in leadership under 40? Can you name four places people get together to gather? Does your city have flower baskets or benches?

“We’re not saying that those things alone will transform your community, but they’re indicators of the temperature of your community and the health.”

Putting the toolkit into practice

Bond shared how she and several other volunteers in her community applied placemaking principles over several years in their hometown of Williamsburg, Kentucky, a college town of 5,200 people located along Interstate Highway 75 near the Tennessee border.

Williamsburg was lacking gathering places downtown, and many of the places where residents once met were no longer there, she said. “We want interaction. That’s what we’ve really lost over the years.”

An art center opened in a public space that became available downtown, which became an “experimental incubator,” she said. What might happen if downtown had something open past 5 p.m. on a weekday or on a weekend? They began having informal music and coffee gatherings to see what might work.

An older building downtown was demolished, leaving a vacant space there. Some of the community members thought it should be turned into a parking lot, but instead they turned the space into a park, which continued the revitalization of downtown Williamsburg.

When community members decided to host a downtown festival, they used multipliers of three so the placemaking project wouldn’t get too big too quickly: a $3,000 grant, three sponsors, three bands from the region, three drink vendors, three food vendors, and three art elements. They leveraged resources from local businesses to get them involved too, Bond said.

The successful project showed the college students they didn’t always have to drive an hour away to find something to do, Bond said. They could just walk downtown and have fun.

Another downtown building is now a social hub with a coffee bar and ice cream shop.

Bond said they leveraged what they learned from the smaller grant project to get a larger grant and build a permanent stage, provide Wi-Fi for the park, and add more art installations.

This was all driven by a small group of volunteers, she said. “Try something small, and just see where it takes you.”

“What can you do this week for free, three months from now with $500, a year from now with $3,000?” To get to that point, she said simply getting started and moving is what helps a community build momentum.

The town’s farmers market moved from a more remote location to the downtown park, and barbecue competitions, music and other events are held almost every weekend, she said.

“Residents have power when they work together. If you can just get a couple of movers and shakers, the momentum will take off and things will happen,” Bond said.

Find more success stories, placemaking ideas and other tips at

Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or [email protected].