Leading Urban Change with People Powered Public Spaces

‍The History, and New Directions, of the Placemaking Movement

June 2019
Ethan Kent
Register Now!
Thursday, May 28, 2020 (10:00 AM – 11:30 AM EST) 
Recent, and upcoming, placemaking conferences guiding regional networks, and the global movement.

This article is adapted from an article originally written for The Journal of Public Space Vol 4 No 1 (2019). Read article in Arabic.

Successful urban development is usually anchored around vital public spaces where people naturally want to gather: a crossroads or a main street, third place business, public market, waterfront wharf, library, rail station, campus, or civic square. These spaces become truly magnetic places as they provide purpose and meaning for broad groups of people they serve.

Public places are most dynamic — and most enduring — when they showcase and boost a community’s unique public life, economy, and culture. This is especially true when the people using them are involved in their creation, continual re-creation, management, and governance. This is the essence of placemaking.

Great public spaces happen through community-driven placemaking and place-led governance. These great places are the foundation of great communities, which in turn are the building blocks of a prosperous, equitable, and resilient society.

Planning Out Of Place

For many decades, the city-building professions have generally overlooked the role of public space as the fulcrum of great cities. Instead, they’ve trained their focus narrowly on buildings, businesses, roadways, monolithic infrastructure, and rigid zoning. From traffic engineers to economic development specialists, these professions have retreated into silos that can blind them to the overall needs of cities and their citizens. Each specific field perpetuates myopic, unsustainable goals that add up to far less than the sum of their parts.

While progressive practitioners within each discipline have become more sensitive in recent years to the importance of places, people, and public life in fostering strong communities, they still usually speak to their own crowd, ignoring and dismissing the capacity of other disciplines, sectors, and communities themselves to collaborate in the process of making a better community.

As public spaces and a sense of place have fallen between the cracks of professions, placemaking and place governance have emerged out of those cracks to offer an innovative and more successful way to achieve collective impact in community building.

The Roots of the Placemaking Movement

at Placemaking Week Europe in Valencia.Sharing the timeline of the placemaking movement at the launch of PlacemakingX

Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte were among the first to call out the wrongheaded ideas that still dominate how we shape our cities. In 1956 Whyte, then Managing Editor of Fortune Magazine encouraged Jacobs to write “Downtown is For People” in the magazine, one of the first major critiques outlining the failure of mega-scaled urban renewal and redevelopment projects. Two years later Whyte sounded the alarm about the consequences of suburban sprawl in the introduction to his anthology TheExploding Metropolis. Both of them continued to document the ill effects of top-down decision-making on the quality of life in American communities and articulated the importance of small-scale planning that enhances human interaction. Together, they laid a strong foundation for what became the placemaking movement.

In the early 1970s, William Whyte’s Street Life Project pioneered tools for observing and analyzing comfort and sociability in public spaces. Fred Kent joined the Street Life Project after previous work founding the Street Academy for Black and Latin Education in 1968 (with funding from Michael Bloomberg), organizing the first Earth Day in New York City in 1970, running Mayor John Lindsay’s Council on the Environment, and co-founding the activist group Transportation Alternatives.

The Founding of Project for Public Spaces

Finally, a place to sit at Rockefeller Center thanks to PPS | Image circa early-1980s

In 1975, Fred founded Project for Public Spaces (PPS) as a non-profit to popularize Whyte’s ideas and put his tools into practice around the country with a grant from the Rockefeller Family Foundation. For its first two decades, the group successfully focused on fixing dysfunctional public spaces and developing place management plans, reversing patterns of disinvestment and hostile architecture in American downtowns. Iconic early projects like Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park, and New Haven’s Chapel Street, helped set new standards for downtown public space design and management.

Building on the success of these approaches, PPS in the 1990s developed placemaking as a public space planning process to support communities getting it right from the start. PPS increasingly applied this process to projects like Detroit’s Campus Martius and broader downtown, Houston’s parks, and the transformation of New York City’s streets.

The development of a temporary beach, opening the week that Detroit declared bankruptcy, helped the city bounce back.

Through its study of what makes great places, the organization discovered that many of the best public spaces have a self-organized and self-managed quality, as people gathering there unconsciously contribute to everyone else’s experience. To achieve this level of interaction, of course, usually requires lots of carefully coordinated organizing and management behind the scenes — in other words, proactive placemaking.

The Pioneering of Placemaking

Around 1997 PPS started using “placemaking” to describe this new approach. Central to this phrase is that the planning of public spaces is not just about doing something for the people who will use it, but with, or by, those people. The primary principle involved is that “The Community is the Expert” on places in their own backyards. By 2003, PPS started thinking and talking about community-driven placemaking as a movement, which led to placemaking conferences in the Pacific Northwest to explore the possibilities. By 2006 the word was entering the language, and the idea of placemaking as a movement was starting to get traction globally.

Trying it “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper”

The placemaking process always emphasized starting with short-term, low-cost experiments with design, programming, and management. In 2010 PPS launched a campaign around mainstreaming this focus, calling it “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper.” The campaign highlighted a broad range of such projects from the do-it-yourself street reclamations to interim development, complete with a database and strategies from around the world.

Launching a Movement

With this grassroots foundation and interest it became time to launch placemaking as a global movement. To highlight and support the movement PPS debuted the Placemaking Leadership Council at a Placemaking Leadership Forum in Detroit in 2013. To help build the movement for placemaking and public space in global development, we also kicked-off our Future of Places program with UN-Habitat and the Ax:son Johnson Foundation of Sweden the same year. This “quiet movement” soon began to take root. In 2016 the placemaking movement truly went global with the first International Placemaking Week in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and participation in the UN’s Habitat 3 Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito, Ecuador.

Many global placemaking conferences (including people from over 100 countries) have informed, strengthen, and amplified the movement.

After “getting organized” in a series of international meetings and regional conferences, 2018 was the year that the placemaking movement started to self-organize, with global networks growing organically around regional leaders and locally defined sub-networks. The year kicked off with the first World Urban Forum (WUF9 in Kuala Lumpur) since the UN’s Habitat 3 conference made public space and placemaking principles central to the goals of the New Urban Agenda. Placemaking was featured in WUF9 as an organizing principle for facilitating the New Urban Agenda’s implementation.

The year continued with a number of dynamic Placemaking conferences across six continents:

The year culminated with Placemaking Latinoamerica in Mexico, and Placemaking Week Wuhan in China in partnership with UN-Habitat and the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP). The Wuhan conference welcomed placemaking experts from 41 countries and launched a Chinese placemaking network and a strong placemaking declaration, defining placemaking for the first time in a UN document.

Placemaking Week Wuhan launched a placemaking network for China with UN Habitat. Placemaking Week Nairobi has experimented with temporary street designed that are informing permanent changes.

Along with regional campaigns, placemaking continues to drive change on many scales, including city-wide campaigns in communities around the world, like Madrid, Spain; Brisbane, Australia; Monterrey, Mexico; Singapore; and Auckland, New Zealand.

The placemaking movement’s founder Fred Kent also marked an important milestone in 2018, with a long-planned transition from the organization he founded and led as president for 43 years. Early PPS hires Stephen Davies and Kathy Madden, who are now recognized as co-founders, also stepped down. This leadership team left PPS in strong shape, securing a multi-million dollar grant from the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Foundation for PPS’s role in a partnership they developed with the Brookings Institution and National Main Street, plus generous support for the transition and a beautiful new office space, with former long-time PPSer Phil Myrick taking over as CEO. They also published a second edition of How to Turn a Place Around, the book that inspired the placemaking movement almost 20 years earlier.

The founders now work to support the broader placemaking movement — and the network of placemaking organizations that are leading the movement — through the creation of The Placemaking Fund and its programs The Social Life Project, and PlacemakingX, a network to accelerate placemaking for global impact.

What’s next for the placemaking movement?

With increasing capacity, interest, and support, the Project for Public Spaces and the many leaders and organizations making up the placemaking movement continue to grow stronger than ever. Just as it takes a place to create a community and a community to create a place, it takes a placemaking movement to support placemaking organizations, and many placemaking organizations to support a movement.

2019 placemaking conferences cover many regions.

There is leadership and collaboration now from every corner of the globe. In 2019, locally organized placemaking conferences will occur on all six inhabited continents including Stockholm, Melbourne, London, Valencia, Lima, Perth, Kuala Lumpur, Halifax, Auckland, and a PPS Placemaking Week in Chattanooga, TN, USA. Each conference is part of regional and city-wide networks and campaigns for systemic change and on-the-ground impact. We look forward to further growing support for leaders and organizations around the world to keep building the potential, inclusiveness, and capacity of placemaking.

Placemaking Week Europe included a panel of regional network leaders.The launch of PlacemakingX

Theories, practices, and patterns of urbanization have been shifting greatly, from a focus on the housing unit, to the building and block, and most recently to the street and the public space. It is time now to reinvent the shaping of cities from the place up. The movement is demonstrating how to turn the shaping of cities upside-down to start with places, and in the process, invent crucial new scalable place-led models for governing, financing, and designing our cities. As leadership towards this goal emerges globally PlacemakingX will work together to highlight, connect, and support these people, their ideas, and their projects. It is now these leaders that are poised to further define, defend, and grow the cause of public spaces and placemaking.