In our new Leadership Spotlight series, we’ll be chatting with members of the Placemaking Leadership Council about what they’re working on, and what they’re learning from their experiences on the ground in communities in dozens of countries around the world.
Marisa Novara is the Program Director for the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Placemaking Chicago initiative, which recently implemented two Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper interventions at an historic rail hub through the fifth annual Placemaking Contest, “Activate Union Station”. The station, a major hub of regional and intercity rail traffic, is traversed by more than 120,000 people on the average weekday, making it the third-busiest rail station in the US. Below, Marisa looks back on her own path to the Placemaking practice, and advocates for LQC projects to help coax big governmental agencies (like, say, Amtrak) into taking a more place-centered approach to managing public spaces.
Let’s start off by talking about how you got into Placemaking in the first place.
I did a second master’s program in Milan for a year, from 2009-10. Prior to that, I don’t think I had a real understanding of Placemaking, as a thing. I had been doing a lot of affordable housing development, and was very much steeped in community development; but we didn’t really talk about ‘What are the places that draw people together and create a sense of community?’
My first semester in Milan, we spent the whole time studying a specific area in the city. My group came to the conclusion that one of the biggest issues there was that it didn’t feel like a place. It’s an amazing area, but there’s no sense of destination. We thought, what it really needs is to create a sense, when you walk out of the subway, that you’ve arrived, and that there’s a sense of the history and of what’s around the corner and what’s two blocks away. Our professor suggested we look into Jan Gehl’s work, and we incorporated a bunch of his principles: a pedestrian street, wayfinding, etc. Before you know, it we had basically created a Placemaking project without even knowing what that was.
Then the second semester we studied a whole different neighborhood, and we brought some of the same principles to that. And I realized when I got back and was talking to the folks at MPC abut the position I’m in now, ‘You know, this is what I’ve been talking about for the past year!’ I didn’t realize that there would ever be an opportunity to do it as a job. That was pretty exciting to discover.
And now that you’re working on the ground, in Chicago, what are some of the challenges that you faced in working in and around Union Station for this year’s Placemaking Contest? It’s a challenging site, because you’re working with several big, bureaucratic agencies, doing a lot of coordination and acting as an intermediary.
It was certainly uncharted territory for us—and, in many ways, for Amtrak, too. This was not something that they would typically do, so there was a lot of work involved with getting folks within the company get on board. In a situation like that, I think it really helps to do something in a short time period, something that is not massive in scale. That can be really inexpensive, and simple, and I think we saw that in the winning projects. In our guidelines for the contest, we said over and over again, ‘This is not about creating some architecturally staggering installation that people look at. What we want is something that people use, and interact with.’ The trainYARD installation, for instance, was a bunch of synthetic grass and items that didn’t require an orientation or training manual to use. That’s what made it interactive and fun for people.
I think that, when you’re working with an entity like Amtrak, that is the way you start: with something that’s manageable enough that people feel like they can take it on. Like, “OK, we’ll try this for ten days. And it’s only on this site and that site, it’s not everywhere all the time, and it’s not for six months.” We had some people questioning the short timetable when we launched. But there were a lot of moving parts, and a lot of folks were involved who’d never done something like this before. We needed to bite off something manageable and something that could be a victory for people, to help them get to the point down the line where they can embrace something bigger and more permanent in the station.
Zooming out a bit, are you seeing the spaces where you’re working addressing larger issues within the community, and building social capital?
Absolutely. As someone who’s worked for many years on a community based level, what was so cool about last year’s “Space in Between” Placemaking Contest was getting to see 46 dfifferent examples of how the transformation of vacant, unused lots plays out in different communities across the region.
One of the honorable mentions, the Avers Community Garden, started out as three vacant, adjoining lots at the corner of a street on the west side. Two women from the block were tired of seeing drug dealers hanging out there, and the lots had been vacant for years, so they just started doing things with it. Over the years, what started out as a ‘Hey, let’s just clean up these lots and get the junk out’ project turned into ‘Hey. let’s plant some stuff, and get some gardening supplies donated.’ They did all of this with kids from the block; it’s a one-block street, it dead ends at a railroad track, so it’s a pretty tight-knit community. Then they got a fence donated, and then they got a stage donated…
Over the years, they built this up into something that has really changed how they feel about their own block. It’s changed how people around them feel about this space. It’s become a space where people don’t gather for negative activity anymore. That’s been a huge change for them. Now, when you come up to your block every day, you aren’t presented with negativity as they had been for so many years. That’s an incredible position to be in: to say, “I have the power and I’m not waiting for someone else to develop this land, I’m not waiting for the market to miraculously recover to a point where some big project will be feasible here. That all may happen, but in the meantime there are things that I can do here, and I’ve got the power to make a major change in the place that I have to walk by every day.” To me, that’s radical. That’s life-changing, and really, really important.
What’s the biggest challenge facing Placemaking practitioners today, based on your own experiences? What do we need to address in order to “scale up” our efforts, as a movement?
As someone who was in housing development for many years, I think there’s something very tangible about that work, in the same way that there is in bringing new retail to an area, or a school. That kind of work is much easier for people to wrap their heads around. Even though you may have some opposition, people who say “I don’t want affordable housing in my neighborhood,” as a concept, people get that housing is needed overall. They may not want it in their backyard, but they get it.
One of the challenges with Placemaking is that some of the immediate tangibility of it is not so apparent. I’ve found that Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community study has been helpful, in explaining that when people actually thought about what mattered to them and made them feel connected to a place, it wasn’t the local economy, it wasn’t crime, it wasn’t even education; it’s that people want a way to feel connected to other people in the place that they share. That’s been helpful, I think, as a way to make the case for Placemaking, but it’s still a harder case to make than some others I’ve been involved with.
During the past five years, in a period of major austerity and catastrophic economic conditions, people can misunderstand Placemaking as sort of a warm and fuzzy extra. Like, “Yeah, it’s nice if you have somewhere you can sit outside and drink coffee…that’s nice.” But some of what I’m most drawn to, in talking about this, is that that’s not the whole story. Some of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Chicago are not that. If you look at 18th Street in Pilsen or 26th Street in Little Village, those are places that are not gentrified, and they’re incredibly vibrant. People are drawn to those areas from all around because there’s fascinating stuff going on, and there’s energy and people and a desire to be around that. The importance of that sense of place to local economies is a connection that we’ve got to do a better job of making.