Last summer, a group of Encanto residents dared to envision a small corner of their neighborhood as a safer, more pleasant place. Their story helped shine a light on the challenges residents and community organizations have in permitting community-led improvement projects, or “placemaking.”

I wrote a report for Circulate San Diego, the transportation and sustainable growth advocacy organization where I work, this week. The report outlines four case studies of successful placemaking projects in San Diego, and the challenges communities faced to complete the projects. The paper also offers recommendations on how San Diego city leaders can embrace creative placemaking, based on best practices in other cities.

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San Diego prides itself on its diverse, unique neighborhoods and innovation. Residents across the city are willing to step up to reimagine their neighborhoods in creative ways that promote beauty, strengthen community relationships and address long-term issues such as public safety. This hands-on approach has created the practice of placemaking. The movement has captured the interest of many as a way to get people involved in visioning, implementation and activation of public spaces – in a much shorter time period than more traditional planning projects.

And the process, which empowers residents, is as much the product as any piece of art or improvement to a public space.

The movement is growing rapidly, in part because cities around the U.S. are looking for tools to redevelop communities in ways that not only increase economic development, but also build social capital among community residents.

In San Diego, the movement is grassroots-oriented, bubbling up through community projects like in Encanto. Examples of desired projects are relatively simple and include street paint, benches, furniture in vacant lots, alley project, , landscaping and community signs.

The first step the city can take is to create a process that allows for and encourages more of the projects communities want to see. Without a policy or established process, projects are treated as development projects (akin to constructing a new apartment building) requiring a range of permits at high cost, which is often cost prohibitive for community-led applicants. Further, the existing lack of transparency is not equitable, as residents who can navigate the political system are more likely to succeed than those without the same experience.

Other cities have led the way: Los Angeles, San Francisco and even National City have created model processes that put communities in the driver’s seat to pursue neighborhood placemaking projects.

It’s time for San Diego to adopt a modern process.

Circulate San Diego is working with community organizations and various city departments, starting the discussion about putting a better process in place for successful placemaking efforts in our neighborhoods. A new coalition called the Neighborhood Placemaking Collaborative has also begun crafting a permitting process and policy that will provide a pathway for a simpler and more transparent process for neighborhood placemaking projects.

While putting together the placemaking report, I came across many resident groups that said the challenges and high costs imposed by the city would deter them from attempting any future placemaking efforts. The city has the tools to facilitate more and easier placemaking, but it will require a concerted effort to make the process more user-friendly and equitable.

Kathleen Ferrier is the director of advocacy for Circulate San Diego. Ferrier’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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