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Great Places in America: 15 exceptional streets, neighborhoods, and parks

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Urban gems with personality that exemplify planning excellence

Defining a "great place" suggests a hazy, "know-it-when-you-see-it" approach to categorization. But when it comes to urban planning and community building, there are a few characteristics—walkability, mixed-use buildings, public engagement, green space, community involvement, and cultural capital—that make it easier to identify streets, neighborhoods, and public spaces of note.

To kickoff Community Planning Month, the American Planning Association released their annual list of Great Places in America, celebrating different parts of the urban landscape that offer exemplary spaces for the community. In addition to this year’s notable places, selected from thousands of submissions by a committee of professional planners, a "People’s Choice" designee will be nominated based on public comments on APA’s Facebook page, Twitter or Instagram feed using hashtag #APAgreatplaces.

2016 Great Neighborhoods

Downtown Santa Ana (Santa Ana, California)

A rare bit of downtown density in a sea of suburban tract housing, downtown Santa Ana is on the National Register of Historic Places due to its well-preserved building stock, including 99 historic structures that date from 1870 to the post-earthquake reconstructions of 1934. The fourth densest city, it’s home artists, entrepreneurs, and creatives, and has been actively working to protect and redevelop its historic architecture since the ‘70s.

Midtown Atlanta (Atlanta, Georgia)

The modern story of this 1.2-square-mile grid of Atlanta begins with the Midtown Alliance, an organization that helped spearhead a transformative program to turn an area that had fallen on hard times into a cultural centerpiece of the New South. This district has become a mixed-use, new urbanist success story, with Blueprint Midtown, a massive rezoning effort, helping turn the area into a more walkable, lively neighborhood. It’s now an anchor arts district for Atlanta, as well as an innovation district boasting Georgia Tech, Emory and Savannah College of Art and Design.

Old Louisville (Louisville, Kentucky)

Home of the Southern Exposition of 1883, equivalent to the World Fair of the time, this district boasts the most Victorian mansions in the country, as well as a 17-acre Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park. While it oozes charm, the neighborhood went through a rough postwar period of decreased attention and investment. Over the last few decades, as interest in historic architecture has waxed, Old Louisville has bounced back, a pedestrian-friendly, diverse, and affordable area with Old World beauty.

Nob Hill (Albuquerque, New Mexico)

If the neon isn’t a dead giveaway, Nob Hill has an obsession with ‘50s-era roadside ephemera, due in part to its main drag, Central Avenue, forming a part of the legendary Route 66. The city has embraced its history, as well as historic architecture, creating a pleasant and walkable neighborhood, but hasn’t been stuck in the past as far as cars go, championing the development of a rapid transit line and an integrated development ordinance.

Downtown Warren (Warren, Rhode Island)

A tiny downtown neighborhood of 1,200 in a city in the smallest state in the union, Warren punches above its weight with a focus on the environment, including a standalone bike trail and transit links, a commitment to historical preservation, Jamiel's Park (a landfill turned active community hub), and Hope & Main, a food startup and incubator space for new restaurants in town. The city has pushed to renovation four older industrial buildings and turn them into business incubators.

2016 Great Public Spaces

Golden Heart Plaza (Fairbanks, Alaska)

The center of a system of parks that line the Chena River, this 30-year-old gathering place also served as a social center for Fairbanks. Located at the hub of the historic gold rush, the brick Plaza features a staircase that leads directly down to the river, a statue in the middle of the fountain known as "Unknown First Family," and a variety of seasonal activities that bring people together despite the city’s climate extremes.

Central Park Plaza (Valparaiso, Indiana)

This former parking lot was transformed into a flexible gathering space in the center of a revitalized, bustling Indiana downtown in 2011. City planners turned over one of Valparaiso’s excess lots into a public park, performance venue, and grand plaza complete with an amphitheater, splash pad, open-air William E. Urschel Pavilion (which converts to a beautifully lit ice rink) and even a statue of famed city resident Orville Redenbacher.

Findlay Market (Cincinnati, Ohio)

Ohio’s oldest and Cincinnati’s last remaining municipal market, this staple of the up-and-coming Over-the-Rhine neighborhood opened in 1855 and has remained in the same location since. The design of the landmark marker is all about human contact and social activities, is well connected to transit and the surrounding city, and serves as a nexus point for contributed redevelopment, including renovating of nearby historic buildings.

Guthrie Green (Tulsa, Oklahoma)

Looking out onto the foliage on the Guthrie Green, it’s difficult to imagine it was once a blighted former industrial site. A green lawn with a stage, tree-lined paths, and water features, the Guthrie Green offers year-round programming to activate this former brownfield and turn it into a prized community asset.

Fairmount Park (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

A unique and important story in the history of planning in the United States, this park represents the earliest municipal attempt to steer land use policy and mitigate pollution to create a city park. The massive public space, host to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, which helped develop much of the infrastructure throughout the park, now spans 2,054 acres, boasting a number of historic properties, works of public art, historic built structures, and gardens, such as the South Garden of the Water Works, created between 1829 and 1835, and one of the first formalized public gardens. It’s also a centerpiece of civic engagement, as numerous neighborhood groups and volunteer associations help maintain the grounds.

2016 Great Streets

Sherman Avenue (Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho)

The central circulator for this quirky mountain town in Idaho’s panhandle, Sherman Avenue is lined with local artwork, one-of-a-kind stores, and pubic parks. Linking the center of the city with lakefront parks and trails, the tree-lined street plays host to numerous community gatherings and special events throughout the year.

Main Street (Ketchum, Idaho)

This small Western town, which booms during ski season, exemplifies frontier individualism and eclecticism, hosting an annual Trailing of the Sheep festival and promoting homemade crafts and folk art. Ketchum also boats an incredible pedestrian infrastructure, including solar-powered street lights and street art, that encourage visitors and residents to explore.

South 24th Street (Omaha, Nebraska)

The former site of a company town the Union Stockyards, the multi-ethnic district in Omaha has become the city’s second downtown thanks to diverse community development. The local Latino community has enriched and invested in this historic district, creating restaurants, nightlife, and street art, including the Tree of Life gateways reflecting the numerous nationalities that make this district so vibrant.

Arthur Avenue (Bronx, New York)

The neighborhood and its main drag (just-under a half mile stretch of the street between 184th and 187th street) offers a centerpiece of Italian and Italian-American culture. Arthur Avenue’s centralized retail market, the first of its kind, was developed with the support of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1940 to provide a central gathering space for the 50,000-some pushcart vendors doing business along the thoroughfare. Today, many vendors in the market carry European products not found in most American grocery stores, and the Zagat Survey readers repeatedly gives Best Buy status to more shops on the strip than any other neighborhood in New York.

Main Street (Davidson, North Carolina)

A quaint college town atmosphere thrives in this part of the Piedmont, lined with brick sidewalks and small businesses. The street developed due to its proximity to Davidson College, but citizen commitment, including pushing to lower the speed limit and incorporate other design features to preserve the pedestrian- and bike-friendly infrastructure, has allowed it to maintain its charm. A design review board, local Historic District Designation, and other means have helped preserve the personality of the street, and champion businesses like the Soda Shop, which opened in 1951.