I was on a call recently with a healthcare-related foundation, and the conversation turned to “placemaking”—an approach to designing and managing public spaces that capitalizes on local assets and potential to make them feel like a welcoming oasis, a home away from home. To what extent was our community—the healthcare design community—talking about placemaking in our work? The more I thought about it, I realized that many of its concepts are directly relevant to our industry and have been embedded in the work we do, while other concepts deserve a little more attention.
When healthcare design is done thoughtfully, the concepts of placemaking are innately incorporated into the design process, creating spaces that are unique and draw people in, facilitating communication and providing a distinct, positive environment. The users of these spaces may not be able to articulate why they feel good when they’re there; they just know that they do.  
Placemaking concepts are not new. They were first talked about in the 1960s and started to show up in the architecture and design lexicon in the 1970s. There are 11 principles that help to define the work, as listed by the nonprofit organization Project for Public Spaces. They are:
  • The community is the expert.
  • Create a place, not a design.
  • Look for partners.
  • You can see a lot by just observing.
  • Have a vision.
  • Start with the easy quick hits to learn from what works and what doesn’t.
  • Design to encourage personal interactions between strangers.
  • They always say it can’t be done.
  • Form supports function.
  • Money is not the issue.
  • You are never finished. 
So, what might we discover from incorporating pieces of these 11 steps into our design conversations?  
The community is the expert. Incorporating the feedback of patients, family, and staff who’ll be using the healthcare facility is already the status quo for our industry. But how often do we take a step back and look at the project through the lens of the facility’s secondary function in the community? As we engage in more conversations around population health, it’s clear that projects need to be places that go beyond healing and take an active role in managing and maintaining a community’s health. 
Look for partners. Because placemaking capitalizes on a community’s unique assets and individuality, it provides an opportunity to partner with others, like local artists, to bring individuality to a healthcare project. It’s a perfect way to set a project apart from other buildings and draw the community into a larger conversation about health.  
Start with the easy quick hits to learn from what works and what doesn’t. In placemaking, there is a concept that says, “start with the petunias.” The key is not to get bogged down with what you can’t do, but start with what you can do. Like large public spaces, healthcare projects are complex and ever-changing. Use that to your advantage and know that even incremental changes could lead to significant improvements.  
Design to encourage personal interactions between strangers. Chance conversations among patients and visitors often lead to new friendships and support networks around health issues, as well as sharing of knowledge and resources. Designing spaces that encourage these types of random interactions can improve outcomes and reduce a potential sense of isolation.
You are never finished. Given their size and complexity, healthcare projects often are their own ecosystems, in addition to being part of the larger community ecosystem. Setting up programs and partnerships that feed and support this, as well as encourage new opportunities, will, over time, help a building stay relevant as our healthcare system continues to evolve. 
The concepts of placemaking are a natural addition to the conversation as we explore the linkages between design and health and how the design of our environments can bring better opportunities to vulnerable or disinvested communities. Reaching out in your own communities to partner with other thought leaders and organizations, like those involved in the work of placemaking, could add new elements and opportunities you didn’t know existed.  
Debra Levin is president and CEO of The Center for Health Design. She can be reached at dlevin@healthdesign.org.