Placemaking for Communities
Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. Our pioneering Placemaking approach helps citizens transform their public spaces into vital places that highlight local assets, spur rejuvenation and serve common needs.
PPS was founded in 1975 to apply and expand on the work of William (Holly) Whyte, the author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Since then, we have completed projects in over 3000 communities in 43 countries and all 50 US states. Partnering with public and private organizations, federal, state and municipal agencies, business improvement districts, neighborhood associations and other civic groups, we improve communities by fostering successful public spaces.
Having been brought into to apply Placemaking in a broad range of contexts around the world, an increasing focus of our work is in training and capacity building, often helping to build local Placemaking organizations. PPS trains more than 10,000 people every year and reaches countless more through our websites and publications. PPS is the internationally recognized center for resources, tools and inspiration about Placemaking.
Through research, conferences, and strategic partnerships, PPS promotes Placemaking through a series of transformative agendas to address some of the most pressing issues of our time. Our Building Community Through Transportation agenda runs a biannual ProWalk/ProBike conference through our National Center for Bicycling & Walking (NCBW) which is a resident program of PPS. Our leadership on Public Markets has included a regular international conference series as well.
Internationally, we are looking to influence the governance of developing cities and nations though our partnership with UN Habitat. We are doing this through trainings and projects and a joint conference series, called the Future of Places, that will culminate in a written document to encourage the adoption of Placemaking principles at the Habitat III UN global gathering in 2016.
Through the development of a Placemaking Leadership Council (including over 500 members) PPS is working to support a broad network to drive the further evolution of Placemaking and build its potential impact as a movement.
In its broadest application, Placemaking is a catalyst for building healthy, sustainable and economically viable cities of the future.
PPS is structured around seven agendas that have the potential to transform cities by breaking down what Placemaking means and how it can happen. These agendas form a lens through which we can view the greater mission of PPS.
If the ultimate goal of governance is to make communities more prosperous, civilized, and attractive for all people, then government processes need to change to reflect that goal. The challenge is to include rather than to exclude, to share responsibility, and to encourage new modes of integration and regulation based on the public good—not private interests.
Unfortunately, the fractured, siloed structure of contemporary government, with its myriad departments and opaque bureaucratic processes, often directly impedes the creation of successful public spaces. Working together on short-term, low-cost improvements can help build bridges between city agencies as well as to citizens, benefiting long-term implementation and maintenance as well. Through the Placemaking process, governments can set places up to self-manage, and even self-govern, by creating a culture of engagement in the community that supports a given space.
Place Capital can be defined in many ways. Ultimately, Place Capital is the manifestation of our placemaking work. It is the shared wealth (human, social, cultural, civic, etc.) that great places generate spontaneously, or that builds up in successful placemaking efforts. The best public spaces, both in our communities and around the world, can leverage Place Capital by creating lasting attachment, supporting economic and cultural resilience, fostering openness and innovation. Where Place Capital is strong people gladly contribute to the public realm, often changing their behavior in ways that ultimately support the value the place gives to others.
Often, we look to the “usual suspects” as the sources of Place Capital: main streets, downtowns, major parks, urban squares, paths/trails, etc. and they are a critical source. But we must not overlook the “unusual suspects”, the unintended places that occur spontaneously, sometimes as the result of a temporary change or a “lighter, cheaper, quicker” experiment.
Today, people, especially young talent, are seeking communities and cities with Place Capital, where they can in turn contribute to creating sustainable and economically thriving places. Yet we are still learning about Place Capital, the ways to build it and the resources it creates. We must continue this path of discovery to better understand, measure, and cultivate Place Capital as attention increasingly focuses on placemaking.
The United States is suffering from an inactivity epidemic, leading to the increasing prevalence of a host of chronic diseases, from Type 2 diabetes to heart disease. More than two-thirds of adults are considered overweight or obese, while one-third of children and adolescents, or 23 million kids and teenagers, qualify as overweight or obese.
A strong evidence base now proves that the way we have designed our communities, streets, and places—encouraging driving over walking or biking, passive play over active recreation, and ready access to unhealthy foods—has contributed to these troubling trends. Public health challenges in low-resource and low-income communities are often compounded by the presence of wide, fast roads that worsen air quality, endanger those who must cross them, and limit social connections. In order to foster healthier people, we need to have communities and places that encourage and facilitate healthy lifestyles.
In recent years, a growing Healthy Communities movement has helped to direct resources to this effort and to train public health professionals and organizations in how to participate in healthy community design. Given the synergies between the goals of Healthy Communities and Placemaking, we have an important opportunity to build on initial successes and to ensure that each of our disciplines is doing more to create vibrant, healthy communities and places.
Since the early part of the 20th Century, professional planners, designers, and engineers have gotten into the habit of looking at and shaping cities through the lens of single goals or professional disciplines. Individual elements, such as streets, parks, office parks, or schools are no longer thought of in integrated ways to maximize the value of the community as a whole. Nowhere has this specialization and single-mindedness of planning become more evident than in the transportation field.
In the meantime, the American public transportation system went from being the best in the world in 1900 to being overtaken by many European countries by the mid 20th Century. By the 1950s, when massive public investment starting flowing into highways, most of the nation’s transit systems were privately, not publicly owned, and therefore planned independently from communities. Although government interest in funding transit has re-emerged (first at the federal level in the 1960s, and later at the community/city level in the 80s and 90s) planning for transit still remained separate from community building processes.
Increasingly, both community groups and the transportation industry are recognizing the failure of this system. This has given rise to the concept of community based transportation planning. In short, community based transportation planning acknowledges that you can’t build a great community or solve nagging societal problems by planning and designing your transportation, land use, public facilities (e.g. schools), recreation and other elements each in a vacuum.
In his humorous exhibit “The Blank Wall” at the Urban Center in New York City in 1983 and in his books, articles and underlying research, William H. Whyte clearly demonstrated the negative impact of blank building facades on urban life.
Christopher Alexander (Pattern Language), Jane Jacobs (Death and Life of Great American Cities) and others have written extensively about the importance of interactive storefronts and ground floor uses to the social and economic health of a street. However, buildings all over the world, including many public institutions, are still being built with blank ground floor facades.
At the same time, and somewhat under the radar screen of the development and design communities, is a series of innovative efforts that are redefining the nature and function of individual institutions within cities. But these efforts have yet to have a major impact on the way public institutions are designed. For example libraries, schools, post offices and museums are being conceived as very different places than they were in the past. Many of them have cafes, gift shops, training facilities and computer centers all of which have the potential to bring diverse clientele, new income streams and other benefits to both the institution and to the city. The problem is that these uses require much better ground floor access and exposure to the street. In the future, public institutions can become real destinations and places within cities if a new architecture of place is developed.
In the second half of the 20th Century, the economic focus of our communities shifted from “Mom and Pop” stores on Main Street to a Walmart off of a highway exit. This has resulted not only in the physical decline of our downtowns and disinvestment in our neighborhoods, but a loss of local entrepreneurial opportunities as well. We may have more shopping options, but are they the options we want? The growth of virtual and tangible marketplaces, from Etsy.com to farmers markets and pop-up retail, shows us that a vibrant, alternative economy already exists.
In order to have a stronger impact, one that can challenge the status quo, these entrepreneurs need access to the kinds of great, human-scaled places that foster opportunity—and those places, many deteriorated and vacant after decades of neglect, need them. By connecting local entrepreneurs with opportunities to help revive our communities’ shared places, from parks and parking lots to downtown corridors, we can rebuild strong local economies.
We know from experience that what we call “multi-use destinations” (for lack of a better term) are what make cities truly great. Whether Piazza Navona in Rome, Balboa Park in San Diego or Granville Island in Vancouver, these places are more than what we have come to know as a square, a park or a plaza. They are multi-dimensional destinations that offer a variety of experiences for a variety of people. They create strong economic synergy. And the best are self-managed and self-programmed. They delight or challenge all of our senses, going beyond purely visual gratification, taking us out of ourselves to connect us to a physical place that reverberates beyond its boundaries and to a larger human community as well.