By Neal Peirce

Washington Post, March 18, 2001

Many fine books have focused on valued “places” – the parks, the squares and blocks, the buildings and graveyards and public markets that give special character to our neighborhoods, towns and cities.

Such works as Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Tony Hiss’ “The Experience of Place” and William H. Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” spring to mind.

But as inspiring as the theory of place may be, it’s a bit like the menu in a fine restaurant. You can admire, taste, enjoy – but you’re still a visitor. Eventually you have to go home and eat what you cook yourself.

Now comes a places recipe book, self-help for everyone who wants friendlier or more livable home turf. It’s called “How to Turn a Place Around” and it’s published by the Project for Public Spaces (PPS).

I first covered PPS and its founder-president, Fred Kent, in this column 23 years ago; the piece was titled “Planning for Public Spaces As If People Mattered.” A lot has happened since. Based in New York but operating nationally and occasionally abroad, PPS has since gone on to counsel more than 1,000 communities on how to create more people-friendly, successful spaces.

Kent had worked with William (Holly) Whyte’s Street Life Project, learning the art and science of watching how people actually use a place – how they move about, go to work, wait for buses, window shop, sun themselves. The next step was then to apply those insights to suggest how public places – from plazas to train stations to neighborhood markets – can be retrofitted and adapted to work for people and bring communities together.

Kent believes it wasn’t just suburbanization that wounded cities so grievously in the last half of the 20th century, but also urban renewal and a near-tyranny of professionals with a narrow diagnostic approach – single-minded planners, architects in search of prizes, traffic engineers preoccupied with throughputs, for example.

Too often lost in the mix: any idea of cherished public places, of fostering whole neighborhoods, of ownership, equity and belonging.

“We counsel on projects but we’re primarily advocates,” says Kent. “We want to change how things are done. It’s more than being a consultant – it’s a passion.”

PPS’ new places recipe book includes diagrams and tools to evaluate and suggest potential changes for any public space, from a neighborhood playground to a major tourist attraction.

Along with that comes a handy set of principles for reaching success. For example: “the community is the expert.” So don’t listen first to planning departments, designers or architects. Instead, ask ordinary citizens about their own public spaces. And remember the words people, when surveyed, use about their special and favored places: “safe,” “fun,” “charming.”

In Montpelier, Vt., for example, the Post Office Building, heavily visited, was a cold marble and reflective-glass structure set 20 feet back from the street. Local citizens called it “off-putting.” A PPS-organized community workshop envisioned instead a “front porch” environment out in front, including rocking chairs, a community bulletin board, a coffee cart, a dog hitch, new crosswalks and relocating an existing farmer’s market closer to the post office. End product: a place, not a design.

The point is that any town, without calling in outside consultants, can use PPS’ new book to develop similarly inventive strategies.

Just imagine what that can mean as anti-sprawl sentiment puts more and more pressure on existing cities and neighborhoods. The wrong way to go, says Fred Kent, is to start urging more residential density – that just raises fears.

Instead, he suggests, focus on transforming communities into more livable, usable places for people of all ages, based on assets the community already has, from a central square to a grove of great trees to a riverbed. Maybe taking a schoolyard and turning it into a community place. Tapping residents’ ideas, wishes, at each step.

“The byproduct of that will in fact be density – not offensive density, but community-driven density. When a neighborhood becomes a real place, people densify it naturally, because it’s so interesting,” says Kent.

Look around the United States and many places fit Kent’s model. Just the more famed examples include San Diego’s revived, now 24-hour-a-day Gaslamp Quarter; Chicago’s Lincoln Park, on transit lines, with restaurants, shops and hot rents; Denver’s Lower Downtown, now throbbing with activity; Charleston, S.C., where conventioneers slip out of meetings to ogle some of America’s most-desirable housing – at 23 units to the acre.

Kent’s point, though, is that successful places can be created, and we can have a grand time occupying them, anywhere on the continent.

And at any age. Just check out the 60-somethings kissing on a park bench, beside a fountain, on the cover of “How to Turn a Place Around.” The book costs $30, but you can see the picture free at www.pps.org

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