By Phil Myrick, Senior Vice President

It’s painfully obvious that development trends of the last 75 years are unsustainable. Performance indicators measuring climate conditions, public health, transportation patterns and household affordability are deteriorating.  Evidence continues to mount that land use and development patterns of the last three-quarters century contribute greatly to all of the above problems.

We see Placemaking as one solution to these problems. Placemaking is the nexus between sustainability and livability: by making our communities more livable, and more about places, we also are doing the right thing for the planet. Placemaking provides concrete actions and results that boost broader sustainability goals such as smart growth, walkability, public transportation, local food, and bikes, yet brings it home for people in tangible, positive ways.  We feel it is important to give people a proactive approach to sustainability in their hometowns. Creating lively town centers and neighborhoods that enhance pride of place and promote local economic development is critical to improving local quality of life as well as quality of the environment.  In fact, we can reinvent entire regions starting from the heart of local communities and building outwards.

What if sustainable development was shaped around comfortable places for people?

Placemaking offers a valuable tool communities can use to get back in control of their future and their environment.  Although it takes advantages of what professional disciplines know, it puts the community in charge of the project.

PPS believes that you can’t achieve environmental sustainability without addressing people’s inherent needs for a sense of community.  We can try to outsource our problems to a new generation of green engineers, designers and architects, but will only see broad, lasting changes when the people inhabiting these communities create a vision for the future and lead the process for change.

PPS recently helped launch an effort in Buffalo, New York, involving hundreds of residents whose keen interest in reclaiming their vacant waterfront led to several action groups being formed to help guide local and state authorities in how to rebuild this key asset, which could have a defining impact on revitalizing the hard-hit city.  This powerful movement is tapping 30 years of bottled-up community energy and offers a stirring example of what can happen when you match the resources of authorities with the raw passion, ideas, and entrepreneurial spirit of the people.  We believe every local government could do something similar to re-energize the public and forge a bright green community vision.

It is not as if we have a choice of whether or not to focus in on the places where we have invested the most – those existing centers that have served us well for so long.  The economic necessity to do more with our existing core infrastructure is in fact leading to our sustainable future. Let’s use the focus on better Placemaking to make it a positive leap forward. With a great vision and a motivated public, we can then make equal strides on a Transformative Agenda that could make every community a wonderful sustainable place.

A Transformative Agenda for Communities and the Environment

Here are some ideas and information from around the world about how Placemaking can transform our communities into sustainable success stories:

  • The planning and design of transportation networks and streets can be reshaped to encourage economic vitality, civic engagement, public health, and environmental sustainability, in addition to serving peoples’ mobility needs.
  • Creating sustainable local food systems and public markets to  provide access to fresh healthy food, integrate farmers and agricultural land into our goals for sustainability and economic health, and reduce our carbon footprint.
  • Reframing the professional disciplines that shape our places, including architecture, design and engineering, so that they result in the livable, sustainable communities we are asking for.
  • Creating diverse, lively and sociable public environments that help build social capital and place capital, focused on town centers. Great cities and towns are defined by great multi-use destinations and Placemaking provides the best ways to achieve them.
  • Promoting economic revitalization with a focus on what we can produce locally, encouraging local talent to flourish, especially in underutilized buildings and spaces. For some inspiring examples, see what’s going on in Boston and Newcastle, Australia.
  • Achieving all these goals through better coordination of our land uses and transportation, which will also preserve our best natural resources for future generations.

For more on the discussion on the role of Sustainability in Planning see ”What is Sustainability” from our partner organization the Planning Commissioners Journal.