The dialogue generated around the idea of “Placemaking as a New Environmentalism” is showing that this matter of how to engage with building sustainable spaces and places resonates with people across professions. In particular, Kaid Benfield’s articles from earlier this year, Is placemaking a ‘new environmentalism’? and Smart growth is a start. But it’s not enough have inspired us to expand on our original thoughts.
While the majority of the world’s citizens would probably not label themselves as environmentalists, most people do care about having a safe and enjoyably world to live in into the future—in the near term, for themselves, but in the long term for their children and grandchildren, as well. For an environmental movement struggling to find a new language as it looks to tap into this latent concern, Placemaking can provide a holistic vocabulary for defining the problem and reframing the solution.
Often, when we talk about the relationship between human beings and the environment, we use a very specific, almost clinical vocabulary; we talk about minimizing your carbon footprint, eliminating waste, and reducing stormwater runoff. This language of being less bad and at best achieving a state of environmental neutrality fails to spark peoples’ imaginations and get them thinking about how such improvements will lead to them living a better and more enjoyable life. In contrast, the messaging that has been used to re-frame the American Dream around the automobile and draw millions of people out into suburbs has focused squarely on inspiring visions of social mobility and privacy. “Don’t you want a safe, private yard for your kids or dog to run around in?” ask proponents of sprawl. “Don’t you want to keep the freedom that your car gives you?”
Placemaking can offer environmentalists a way to re-frame discussions about creating more compact, planet-friendly neighborhoods, streets, and cities. The deepest benefit of Placemaking is that it gives people a reason to gather and discuss their own visions for the future of their community. This process builds social capital by prodding neighbors to talk meaningfully about the places that they share. As a result, Placemaking instills a sense of ownership in the people who use a given space, and develops the kind of community pride and stewardship that is so critical to creating truly sustainable cities and towns. Put simply: there’s a big difference between posing the question “Don’t you want to limit your city’s Combined Sewer Outflows?” versus “Don’t you want to live in a neighborhood where people are proud to be connected to the land that they share?”
Another related challenge that environmentalism faces today is that solutions are routinely framed in a consumptive way. Activists, advertisements, and pamphlets encourage people to buy green products and services. Beyond that, green design is mostly about capital-intensive projects–big buildings with big green roofs, big infrastructure–which most people have no personal connection to, as they can only utilize these buildings, parks, and bridges once they’re already complete. In trying to sell people on the idea of building a truly sustainable society, the passivity of the role of “consumer” is a serious problem.
Placemaking is proactive. It introduces a new level of stewardship and a new paradigm for sustainable design that transforms people’s relationship to the environment from abstract to concrete. Although donating money to environmental organizations, passing new laws, and buying green products are important contributions, the heart of the matter–the physical place of the environment–is not often directly touched upon.
Placemaking aims to inspire communities to want, desire, and create better human environments. The vision is thereby built into the action, and people can engage in attainable results in both the long- and short-term. The creation of great places, neighborhoods, cities and towns transcends a single issue and brings diverse, interdisciplinary stewards to the table. Placemaking therefore attracts new partners into the environmental movement. While many groups, activists, and citizens may not be energized by issues framed in purely environmental terms, they will engage in Placemaking when it encompasses their passion for public health, food access, local economics, culture, or myriad other concerns as well as ecology. Sustainability is arguably most effective when it is not an end in itself, but a strong undercurrent to an inclusive effort to build better lives and places.
To that end, our own Phil Myrick has been developing a multi-module course, Placemaking in a Changing Climate, that hits on a number of topics from transportation and land use to green infrastructure. The next offering, focused on green infrastructure, will take place this September 10 in Beacon, NY. According to Phil, “Budgets are slim and cities need multiple outcomes from every investment, even an investment in sustainability should bring return on multiple levels. By using Placemaking to frame investments in green infrastructure, for example, we can create lively town centers, enhance pride of place, promote local economic development, and address sustainability. In fact, local sustainability measures can be spent in ways that produce huge social and economic returns for our communities.”
When people collaborate to create stronger community identity, they also engage what Phil calls “communal synapses” that enable them to act. Karl-Hendrik Robert, founder of The Natural Step, said it best: “Without healthy social settings, we cannot share experience and understanding about what is happening to our world, and we don’t have the opportunities to act as communities and address great problems.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the course, adding Placemaking into your mission to create greater, greener places, and abundant examples and data specific to green infrastructure, click here to download a flyer with more information, or click here to register for the course.
Please note that there is a $75.00 participant fee for the Placemaking in a Changing Climate course, or $125.00 with CEUs for planners and architects.