Fred in 1970

40 years ago this week, I coordinated the first Earth Day celebration in New York City. The city had never seen anything like it.

We were laying the groundwork for a new way of looking at the world—expanding the public’s thinking beyond the limited vision that characterized fields like industry, economics, science and politics to embrace a much larger view of the whole planet.

Earth Day transformed New York—literally. To draw attention to protecting the environment in cities, we turned Fifth Avenue into a “place” by eliminating traffic from 59th Street to Union Square.  People poured out of offices and apartments to walk down the middle of the most important street in New York on a beautiful spring day. (This was five years before I founded Project for Public Spaces, but you can see the idea was already germinating.)

It was a lot of fun for everyone, but also a potent symbol that this new movement could bring great, positive changes to our lives.  And ideas born on the first Earth Day are beginning to come to fruition today, with the closing of portions of Broadway and the New York City Summer Streets Program which PPS helped bring about.

Union Square Park was the site of the main Earth Day celebration with an enormous stage set up for speakers, prayers and music. Booths promoting ecological awareness spread throughout the park. Bliss and the promise of a better world were in the air, along with whiffs of pot in a few isolated corners.

The Whole World is Watching

The original Earth Day offered something for everyone and almost everyone showed up. We had 400 volunteers—including John Reed, future CEO of Citibank, and a contingent of hippies from San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury— working around the clock to make it the biggest Earth Day event in the country. It was featured on TV newscasts and the front pages of newspapers around the world.

Earth Day, 1990, Central Park

It was a transformative event in an era of great social change. The Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, the Women’s Movement and Earth Day set up the possibility for change.

Those of us taking part in these movements remember our experiences as good times, but there was also a deep sense of malaise all around. War. Racism. Poverty. Violence. Cities, particularly, were in deep trouble. New York was going bankrupt, and politicians in Washington told the city to “drop dead” in response to requests for a bailout. Anti-urban sentiments were growing everywhere. Cities, still struggling to recover from the riots of the 1960s, were hit with the “white flight” stampede to “greener, safer” suburbs. Even many environmentalists compared big cities to rat mazes, condemning them for being cut off from nature.

Urban Innovations Increase

But even problems this big did not squelch widespread desire for a better world and the willingness to look at problems in fresh ways. Breakthrough legislation was passed, innovative organizations were formed and many people inspired by the new spirit of the times pushed for change. Ever since, we have seen small but steady progress on many fronts—even in cities, which were once written-off as a hopeless cause.

At first, urban revival efforts were focused on downtowns but gradually dedicated citizens around the world began to transform their neighborhoods, too. Local activists have pioneered successful new approaches in fighting crime, building affordable housing, fighting traffic, and improving their sense of community—usually without the help of experts, and sometimes in direct confrontation with them.  In cities from Tokyo to Toronto to Turin, neighborhoods are where the action is.  Even New York, world-famous for its Midtown skyscrapers and cultural institutions, has become a city of neighborhoods.

A Better World is Possible

Today, 40 years after the first Earth Day, the desire for transformative change is once again intensifying. More than in the 1970s, people know where they want to end up and what it takes to get there. Change won’t happen with massive demonstrations or an outpouring of angst; what’s needed now is a broad, collective, deep-seated commitment to improve life for people everywhere.

A key element of this reenergized push for social change is a new movement dedicated to making great places in our communities. Although still under the radar, the ideas of Placemaking are emerging as a key component of the Sustainability Movement (as the cutting edge of the environmental movement is known today). Both the Sustainability and Placemaking movements urge us to live more lightly on the Earth. Along with protecting air, water and land, people want places in their neighborhoods where they feel comfortable and connected to others.

Placemaking is a core value of sustainability. Maintaining livable urban environments is essential to protecting natural resources and the landscape from further destruction.

While the Placemaking movement is new, the idea is as old as homo sapiens. People everywhere want to get back to a way of life that better connects them to their natural surroundings and to each other.

A Surge of Fresh Thinking

It’s time for a new round of holistic thinking that can help us bust out of the narrow perspective imposed by today’s experts and authorities, just as during the rise of numerous social movements in the 1960s and 1970s. And cities are a prime place to start.

It won’t be easy.  Many powerful forces oppose any sort of change. But things looked equally tough at the time of the first Earth Day.  The problems then were seemingly insurmountable—people had always polluted the Earth, we were told, and that was not going to change.  But the desire to transform society expressed at Earth Day could not be contained, and we’ve seen real progress on many environmental issues over the last 40 years.

I see similar signs of hope for the campaign to transform our communities, which is picking up steam all over the planet.  It reminds me of a slogan that I saw on California license plates forty years ago: “If the People Lead the Leaders Follow”.

Placemaking Takes Off from Abu Dhabi to Buenos Aires

At PPS, we see growing evidence of Placemaking’s central role in transformative change in cities throughout the world.  Recently, we have heard from:

  • The Minister of Public Spaces in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who invited PPS to give a presentation for the staff of the city’s “Ambiente y Espacio Publico” department
  • The Norwegian Government, which is including a public space component in a national initiative to improve the sustainability of thirteen cities around the country
  • A new book, “Human Cities: Celebrating Public Spaces,” published by Stichting Kunstboek Publishers, Belgium,  is incorporating an introduction by PPS on Placemaking into a review of current practices, methodologies and tools related to public space conception and design
  • A leader from a community organization in Bayelsa State, Nigeria, who would like to organize a Placemaking training session in South Africa

In addition, teams from PPS are using Placemaking in their projects around the world. Together with local communities we’re hard at work:

  • Re-visioning a library in Ft. Myers, Florida as a green, sustainable community center
  • Applying Placemaking to the creation of a new master plan for a waterfront in Abu Dhabi, The United Arab Emirates
  • Discovering opportunities to connect farmers markets with federal buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Developing a program for the public spaces around the new business school at Stanford University

All of these thinkers, authors, organizations and leaders around the world are trying to use a Placemaking process as a way to define the future of their cities and communities.