Is there such a thing as rural placemaking?

Placemaking principles are most commonly applied in urban areas, but rural townships are vital to a region’s identity. Emerging rural placemaking strategies can add increased vitality and economic development opportunities in those areas.

Placemaking – the process of creating quality places that people want to be in – is gaining a lot of momentum as an economic development strategy in Michigan. These strategies have a decidedly urban bent to them, including emphasis on mixed-use urban designs, streetscapes, public parks, higher density and walkability.

So where does this leave local leaders in rural townships who don’t have urban centers, commercial strips or even sidewalks? Is placemaking a relevant concept in those areas? No one suggests that rural townships should start planning for mixed-use dense urban form in the middle of farm and forest land, or that rural areas are unimportant as communities develop placemaking strategies.

Perhaps the easiest way to think about rural placemaking is in a regional context. Just the presence of rural areas with distinct identity surrounding more densely populated areas adds appeal and can be a population and economic development attractor. Think about Traverse City, Mich. and cherry farms; Holland, Mich. and tulips; or Mio, Mich. and the Au Sable River. A useful strategy for rural governments is to identify, protect, enhance and promote that unique identity in a regional context. This might start with an economic assets inventory. Some community Master Plans refer to this part of the inventory as identification and mapping of “special and unique areas.”

Another strategy is to identify unique publically-accessible places that can draw visitors and residents for notable experiences. One example of this approach is the Grass River Natural Area in Antrim County. This area of wetlands, streams and lakes was acquired by Antrim County in the 1970s and is managed by a non-profit organization. Over time, it became a preserve and educational destination. In 2011, the organization enhanced opportunities by opening a new education center on the site. It now serves not only as a place where youth and adults can learn about the environment, but is an important part of the area’s identity.

Many placemaking efforts focus on urban areas, but connectivity between those locations can be a valuable rural placemaking strategy. Communities of Boyne Falls, East Jordan, Ellsworth and Atwood in northwest Lower Michigan recognized the beauty and uniqueness of a county road, CR-48, that connects those communities between the heavily-travelled US-31 and US-131. Local leaders branded the route “The Breezeway,” added signage, and actively promote the route. Importantly, they also sponsor activities that capitalize on the agriculture, lakes, streams and hills along the roadway. These strategies enhance the sense that this rural part of Michigan is a place worth visiting.

The Northern Michigan Community Placemaking Guidebook” explains more about the Grass River and the Breezeway examples.

This article focuses on one aspect of rural placemaking – a community’s existing natural assets. Just how other elements of placemaking such as form-based zoning, mixed use and transportation applies in rural areas is an evolving concept. Michigan State University Extension and other organizations are continuing to develop new educational programs, research and publications to help communities develop effective local and regional placemaking strategies.