Over the past few decades, Placemaking has grown leaps and bounds: as a practice, as a process, as a subject of public discourse. Now, with the practice building momentum as a major subject of study and debate within the world of academia, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn is preparing to launch the nation’s first Masters program in Placemaking and public space management, a 40 credit, four-semester course composed of 26 required courses and 14 electives “that cover the spectrum of the disciplines that are involved in the process of urban Placemaking and management.” The program includes four areas of focus: community-based development and design; parks and open-space; green infrastructure and transportation; complete streets and main streets management.
PPS’s Matt Bradley spoke recently with the three Pratt professors who have endeavored to create this program: John Shapiro, Stuart Pertz, and David Burney. John is Chair of Pratt’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, and was previously a principal of Phillips Price Shapiro Associates, Inc. Stuart has worked as a planner, architect, urban designer, facilities strategist, management consultant, and community planning advocate. David is currently serving as the Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Design and Construction. All three are professors in Pratt’s Programs for Sustainable Planning & Development – of which the new program would be a part. The other programs address city planning, preservation, environmental sustainability, and real estate. Below is an edited transcript of those conversations.
Matt: Why did you develop this program?
Stuart: There are plenty of programs in architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, that purport to deal with Placemaking, but the difference here is that making a place is the center of what we will teach. Placemaking, to quote Fred Kent, is very much like turning city planning upside down. Instead of looking at the big picture and finding out where the roads should go, how the topography requires basic disposition of land uses, or how activities require land use separation, we think first about who the people are, and what they need at the local level.
John: It’s been too long that Placemaking has not been intrinsic to the way people plan, design, regulate, and manage the public realm of the city. As I become older, and maybe wiser, the places I remember are all places of experience, where people and place and architecture all came together in a rich way. I think that’s ultimately true of everybody—except people on tour busses.
David: In the past 10-15 years there’s been a real paradigm shift in thinking about planning and urban design, from what used to be a principal focus on buildings to more of a focus on the spaces between buildings. Rather than allowing these places to be formed as a sort of afterthought of building design, Placemaking approaches public space from a people perspective. So the idea is that the program incorporates a whole variety of professional and technical skills—including community building, economics, sustainable design, management, urban design and landscape —because Placemakers need to understand the role that each of these disciplines plays in creating, designing, and then maintaining successful public spaces.
For example, my agency works with the NYC Department of Transportation on their public space program. Both the DOT and DDC project managers are sometimes architects, sometimes engineers, whatever— they’ve had to learn Placemaking on the fly. They just have to pick it up as they go along. There is a real pedagogic need here to be able to produce graduates who understand the whole process, who can become Placemakers and make successful public spaces.
Matt: What were the main challenges you encountered while developing the program?
Stuart: When you try to train someone to do Placemaking, that first list of required courses runs somewhere between 375 and 406 credits, which takes about a millennium to complete. So one difficulty has been to narrow down the courses and to try to make sure that what’s covered is as much as is necessary, but within some kind of reasonable academic framework.
John: I would say the main challenge was that every other program professor and chair thought that Placemaking was within their purview, and didn’t understand that it was not subsidiary of an existing discipline. People would say, “Well, isn’t this landscape architecture? I do this as a landscape architect.” Or, “Oh, this is what architecture is about.” “This is planning. Isn’t that obvious?” So it was definitely the six blind men with the elephant, if you know the parable: one feels the tail and says it’s a rope; the other one feels the leg and says it’s a tree; another one feels the trunk….They each are correct; yet totally wrong. So it was paradoxical for everyone: they all were excited about the idea of Placemaking, but all thought that, at the end of the day, shouldn’t it belong to one discipline…theirs?
Another problem that we encountered is that in order to introduce an area of study in today’s world, you have to show its usefulness for employment. People know that when you get an architecture degree, you’re an architect. When you get a planning degree, you’re a planner. When you get a landscape design degree, you’re a landscape architect. But what is someone who gets a Placemaking degree? We had to demonstrate that there actually are jobs out there that are relevant to people who are Placemakers, but aren’t necessarily planners, architects, landscape designers, urban designers.
Matt: What types of work could graduates of this program be employed to do? How will graduates’ employment opportunities be different from those graduating with traditional planning or design degrees?
David: Well I’m going to hire them all! [laughs]
I think that, if you’ve got a traditional planning degree, fine, it’s a place to start. But if you have all the 40 credits that you get through the Master’s in Urban Placemaking and Management, you’re much better equipped to get successful outcomes, and not have to learn everything as you go along. In every city in the world now—it really is a paradigm shift—people are thinking about the public domain, about successful public spaces, about walkable cities. There’s an enormous potential for graduates to get involved in that process, and to go to these cities with the expertise to make successful public spaces.
Stuart: This all grew out of the growing number of jobs for people who run marketplaces, main streets programs, et cetera. We found that many people get those jobs because they’re standing there, not because they have any unique skills. Over time, they develop skills, but what we see in the future is that the people who view the world this way will begin to be part of planning teams and architectural teams that look at the world slightly differently. Imagine an architectural office with someone who really understands how to manage a place, really understands what event-making means to a space adjacent to a building. That kind of sensitivity can change architecture significantly, and it would ultimately change it from the inside.
Matt: Where do you see the Placemaking curriculum heading in the coming years?
David: We don’t even know precisely who our students will be, right? We’re assuming they’re probably people who have a professional or graduate degree, and who may be working, but we don’t necessarily know their disciplinary background. We’ll get feedback as we get our target students in. Also, everyone will be approaching the curriculum with a different perspective – that’s definitely part of what will make it exciting. Somebody mentioned to me at a conference recently, “Well, you forgot about public space and mental health.” And I thought, “Well, yeah, we did forget about that…What is that again?” That is certainly something I know nothing about, but should probably consider. So now we’re in discussion with Dr. Mindy Fullilove, the author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It, who is an expert in this topic.
Stuart: My view is that Placemaking is much broader than the main street and the plaza and the marketplace and the waterfront. I think we need to begin to think about places as humble as hospital emergency rooms and waiting rooms, and the need for Placemaking in refugee camps and favelas… communal needs for spaces at every scale of building and urbanization. We need to see Place as an essential support for a healthy society and not an architectural leftover.
And we understand those places more by why they’re used than how they’re shaped. One of my City Planning students at Pratt decided to look at “interstitial” or “vestigial” spaces – not the spaces and places that are planned and identifiable, but ones that happen on the side, or in the corner (that are left over.) And when asked who used them, she identified the teenagers who go under the overpass to hide, the prostitutes who stand around the corner, the smokers along the doorway, all people with need for Place, away, that’s private, but each different. And we discussed that it wasn’t the place (or non-place) itself but the need that defined it, and discovered that there are broad questions about personal and communal need; for security, for privacy, for identity, and significantly, for a sense of ownership, that you can understand more when you look at these non-place places and their users, than when you look at intentional place and space.
John: One of the benefits of the new program is that it will help Placemakers to define for ourselves what we mean by “Placemaking”, rather than others define it for us. For example, many radical formalists in architecture use the word Placemaking to mean memorable architecture. They are completely reversing what we all think Placemaking is, and making it object-based. Unless we make quite clear that it’s user-based and community-based, and more about problem solving ultimately than about design, per se, we’re at risk of really losing control of the concept. The precedent is what happened to the word “sustainability” – which is now altogether too ubiquitous; or worse the word “greening”—which now is more about green guilt and greenwash than about repositioning. With things like the Atlantic magazine having an article about Placemaking, Placemaking is entering pop culture right now. If you read the book The Tipping Point, it won’t be long before you hear Brad Pitt and Barbara Streisand talking about Placemaking [laughs]. So we’ve got to move.
We at Pratt want to see more Placemaking and related programs out there. But I hope we won’t get to the point where we talk about standardization and accreditation. These programs should not necessarily teach the same areas of focus, with the same number of credits. We need to be in contact with Placemaking, the movement and the field, and not let it become a mono-discipline like the others. It is inherently about people, place, and problem solving – in that order of sequence.