“I end, then, in praise of ‘small spaces’. The multiplier effect is tremendous. It is not just the number of people using them, but the larger number who pass by and enjoy them vicariously, or even the larger number who feel better about the city center for knowledge of them.”
— WILLIAM H. WHYTE
“People are deeply nourished by the process of creating wholeness.”
— CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER
Architects and planners must pay closer attention to local knowledge and preferences, and consider ways in which their efforts and designs can support the creation of authentic, meaningful places for people to use and enjoy. Beyond the limited goal of making “bold” and “innovative” aesthetic expressions, good design can help us achieve solutions to many of today’s major urban issues, from environmental destruction to economic decline to social alienation.
Architecture and planning fall far short of their potential for public leadership when professionals focus all of their talent on creating an iconic or artistic statement, without engaging local stakeholders in co-developing solutions.
We all have a right to the city. Placemaking is about ensuring inclusion and fostering shared community ownership. Large-scale projects and ongoing social/economic processes like gentrification not only negatively impact and displace residents, businesses, and communities, but they also irrevocably affect the physical and cultural landscape of places.
Inclusive placemaking that engages all users encourages more equitable and sustainable development. Great places benefit everyone by connecting existing residents and strengthening the existing character of a neighborhood, rather than replacing or erasing it. Great places reflect the unique character, values, and heritage of the people who use them. We will demonstrate place-led approaches to community development help to better support openness and inclusiveness in our communities.
Are our places encouraging health or sickness? The United States CDC describes healthy places as “those designed and built to improve the quality of life for all people who live, work, worship, learn and play within their borders—where every person is free to make choices amid a variety of healthy, available, accessible, and affordable options.” Lower income neighborhoods report poorer health outcomes, and often lack public space amenities that can have significant impacts on individual and community health. Issues like sprawl and poorly planned growth have resulted in unwalkable communities, poor air quality, and streets that are unsafe for walking or bicycling.
A commitment to inclusion means providing better access for all populations to well-maintained parks, safe recreational facilities, open green space, as well as supermarkets and other places to obtain healthy, fresh food. Placemakers put the needs of the community first, ensuring that the design and planning of our built environment and public spaces benefits the physical, mental, and social health of individuals and communities as a whole.
All politics is local. So is placemaking. Local residents are too often removed from the stewardship of their public spaces, with responsibility for management divided between government agencies with narrow objectives. Transportation agencies control traffic; planners allocate density; parks departments resist new uses that could lead to greater maintenance costs etc. While “turf” has often inhibited the real stewardship of places, new models of place governance are emerging that incentivize a place-led approach to community spaces.
In the process, these models are changing the culture of government and revitalizing the social contract to foster creativity, community ownership, and robust public benefits. We need to turn everything upside down to get things right side up.
Throughout most of human history, the street has functioned as one of our most important public spaces. Beyond its role in transporting people and goods, it was also a place for socializing, for trade, and for play. Attempts to accommodate vehicular traffic over the last century have obliterated the sense of place once found on many of our streets. Today’s communities are struggling to meet the demands of ever-increasing traffic volumes without harming the urban fabric that made them successful places to begin with.
But it doesn’t have to be this way: Streets can once again become thriving, livable environments for people, not just cars. Downtown streets can become cultural destinations, not just monotonous routes to and from the workplace. Neighborhood streets can become safe play zones for children, and commercial areas can become grand boulevards that welcome pedestrians, vendors, cyclists, and drivers alike.
Climate change is forcing communities everywhere to confront the stark reality that the places they cherish are imperiled. Placemaking can help curb greenhouse gases. Beyond cutting emissions, the placemaking movement, locally and globally, can support an environmental agenda that is inspiring and actionable on an individual level. Yes, we need technological solutions, encouraged by smart regulations and policy. At the same time we need to drive change and innovation through dynamic human environments—places—that produce not only environmental benefits, but broad social and economic returns as well.