Fred Kent discusses PPS’s latest activities and initiatives…
The Planning Report, January 2004
For the past thirty years, Fred Kent and the Project for Public Spaces have been working with cities and public agencies to improve the form and function of town squares, markets, plazas and the like. The Planning Report is pleased to present this interview with Fred Kent, in which he discusses the work of PPS and the importance of place-making in city planning.
Why don’t we begin by you offering our readers a synopsis of the work which, over the last thirty years, you and the Project for Public Spaces have been engaged?
I started working with William Whyte over thirty years ago, and then studied with Margaret Mead at Columbia. Whyte and I set up the Project for Public Spaces to apply his work to areas outside of New York. Since then, we’ve worked on about 1200 different projects in communities all over the world. We develop and run programs in four different areas: markets and local economies; transportation, traffic and transit and how it builds livable communities; architecture, public buildings and how they can become a significant place within their communities; and finally, parks, plazas and the return of the central civic square. Today, we’re active abroad in Eastern Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia.
We’ve recently started something we call “Great Public Spaces,” a listing of great public spaces from around the world, which were identified by us or nominated by the public. These places are much more about activities, uses, comfort and image, and sociability than they are about some design statement. In fact, you come to realize that these places have grown up over time and that the new designs are holding back the natural evolution of public spaces into something that can be more functional or usable. So, we’re making a big effort to go at the jugular vein of the design professions in thinking about how the idea of creating place has become almost incapable of happening because of the overemphasis on design.
This narrow emphasis on design has become part of the reason these spaces don’t develop naturally. The professions have gotten away from the natural community process, and have kept the communities from really actively evolving on their own into the kinds of places that reflect their values, their sense of community, and their cultures.
Can you elaborate on a few of the projects that exemplify the impact of Project for Public Spaces involvement?
In Southern California, we were working on Santa Monica and the Third Street Promenade. It was quite an important design in the beginning and, over time, it has been well visited. But now, Third Street is not reflective of the kind of people who are there and the kind of activity that the space was intended to host. The design of the central area has been taken over by a lot of druggies and kids, and it’s become a haven for undesirable activity. There’s a sort of heavy design where the entranceway is on both ends, and then the central place has become inflexible. Instead of being an entranceway feature and a central place, it has become controlled or limited by the way it’s designed. Santa Monica Place has clearly seen its day, and probably should be torn down and replaced with a central square-type of development with retail uses around it, which could lead you down toward the waterfront and the pier.
The other issue about Third Street and Santa Monica Place is that it is only one street. The challenge there is to integrate Second and Fourth Streets and the connecting alleyways so that the whole area becomes a larger downtown and a much more dynamic place. Restaurants that would be on the side streets could be much more part of the experience instead of being somewhat isolated. Adding connections to the Ocean would add a whole dimension if the park along Ocean Avenue along with the Avenue itself were improved.
That whole downtown grew up around that mall, but the area never expanded beyond that mall to become a much more important and dynamic destination. It has lost a lot of its original allure and it needs to come back in a much different form – a much larger, more diverse, dynamic experience than it currently offers.
Let’s turn your attention to the work you’ve been doing with single-purpose buildings. What’s the objective of this work?
We have developed a theory called “triangulation,” which holds that certain uses that seem like unlikely partners can, if put together, create a synergy that exceeds anyone’s imagination. The idea is, if you take a children’s reading room in a library, and put it next to a children’s playground in a park, and then you put a coffee shop, a Laundromat, and a bus stop, that would be a very vital place. It has never been done.
We were working in Danville, up near San Francisco, looking at a school. It was about 600 acres and there was a park of about 15 acres. We began to realize that if you thought of the school as a public space for the community, with the school was using it some of the time, and the community was using it the rest of the time, the students in the school would become stewards of the facility for the larger public use. The whole town was sort of shaken by this idea.
Our whole culture is about one-dimensional uses, one-dimensional ideas that don’t interrelate or don’t connect. As a result, we’ve become so isolated into the narrow, funnel-shaped types of settings rather than these integrated, exciting, dynamic, diverse, eclectic, chaotic, unbelievably interesting places to which people would be drawn.
In Los Angeles, school districts must build more than 200 new schools and 200,000 new seats in an already built-out metropolis. With voter support for facility bonds and through the work of New Schools-Better Neighborhoods, among others, collaborative efforts to leverage public resources to build community centered, mixed use schools are now being undertaken. But collaboration has been difficult. Are there lessons PPS has drawn from it’s efforts to triangulate that you could share?
It gets back to the disciplines and the professions. Most disciplines have become isolated, and in a sad way each has become its “own audience”. We’ve lost the kind of multi-dimensional purpose of each of the disciplines. In Danville some of the city council members and others began to realize that a new Library and Community Center, both beautiful buildings they had recently built were dysfunctional for the kinds of broader uses that the community would like to have. That was a real watershed for them, because they were nicely designed, and purely functional for the purpose that they had been designed for – but not functional for the larger community uses that normal people would want to take advantage of.
Can you describe community engagement processes that are compatible and supportive of this triangulation effort?
We have something we’ve developed called the “Place Performance Evaluation Game.” We’ll have about 200 people come to a meeting, and the area that we’re examining may be able to be broken down in to four or five sub-areas – it could be a neighborhood, it could be a park, it could be some public buildings around an intersection. We ask people to rate these sub-areas in terms of comfort and image, activities and uses, access and linkage, and sociability. Then they are asked what do they like best about it, what do they like least about it, what would they do in the short-term, and what would they do in the long-term. Then they discuss their conclusions with groups working on the other sub-areas. People begin to talk to each other about what could happen, and then all of a sudden there is a point at which they break out of their narrow thinking, and start thinking more holistically. People start to break out of this mold that we’d been subjected to for so many years and you can begin to see some amazing creativity come out. It’s harder for the professionals that run these various organizations – schools, libraries, etc.
We now offer what we call a “Great Cities Initiatives,” which consists, in part, of an exercise we call, “How to Turn a Place Around”, a City Commentary, demonstration projects, professional training/retraining, and as the community becomes engaged, we get them to actually do an audit and begin to see where the obstacles are. They are always the design professions, traffic professions, and narrowly focused people who run the schools, libraries and other public facilities. A person who is thinking naturally about where they live and what they do can also think very naturally about what they would like to do in these more narrowly defined places.
Fred, you and Project for Public Spaces have been writing a series of commentaries on great cities around the world. Elaborate.
We’ve done commentaries on Barcelona and London, and Paris. New York is not far behind. We look at both the new and the old places, as well as districts and larger transportation systems. We look at a place in terms of comfort and image, activities and uses, access and linkages, and sociability. We’ve found that there are some really scary things going on.
In Paris, the boulevard development that they did back in the 1800s, which was really for creating larger open-spaces and spaces for walking has now become just loaded with traffic. In the center medians they’ve actually put parking. Much of the boulevards in Paris are now just giant parking lots with very heavy traffic. The major intersections are all just giant traffic areas with no sense of place at all. So, what’s happened is that the smaller streets are the places where the tourists are going, and they’re beginning to drive out some of the locals who patronize the smaller spaces and streets. As a result, you’re beginning to see the replacement of some of the important neighborhood facilities with larger market-area driven stores. In addition, the new parks are ones that are designed more as objects or icons then they are about public use. Park development is much less usable and much more playing to the design professions. And then the waterfront along the Seine – you don’t think about walking along the Seine, you think about crossing it and getting to some destination somewhere off of the Seine. The whole city has become much more about getting on the metro and going to a destination rather than walking.
London and Barcelona are enamored with branded designers who have their own interests to protect. The new parks are unfit for human activity, and new building are stand alone icons drawing undesirable activity to their untended, unusable and isolated setting. If you just went and looked at contemporary design in any of these cities you would come away pretty discouraged about the future of cities. Put them all together and we think there is a crisis.
So, what then are the public space successes that deserve closer scrutiny?
The successes that are really interesting are the ones that have been allowed to grow up over time and take their own personality. For example, Luxembourg Gardens, which is without question one of the great parks of the world. When you look at it, you begin to realize that it’s not a very complex design. It’s basically a lot of open space with activities and uses, many of which are actually just small entrepreneurs doing a pony ride or a merry-go-round. There’s a playground that was developed by a small company, and it’s extremely popular because it’s so good. So there are all these little management entities that collectively add up to create an extraordinary place. It’s more about activities and use, and not as much about design.
We’re discovering management is the key to making these public spaces work. Design needs to take a back seat to management so that the natural human activity that evolves can really guide the management and the design of these facilities. Then, you’ll get successful parks.
Let’s close with this: If you were the mayor of a city in Southern California, what would your priorities be to make place making one of the hallmarks of your administration?
I would do a “Neighborhoods First” program. Ultimately, a city is going to be great because of its neighborhoods. I would propose to work with each neighborhood to discover what their assets are and how we can showcase and help each of those neighborhoods shape themselves around the public spaces and community facilities that are currently available. I would look at all public institutions – libraries, schools, city hall -in terms of what their broader possibilities are for integrating the different aspirations and assets. No facility can be one-dimensional any more. Each of them needs to be thought of much more broadly as community facilities and community institutions. The narrowness of each organization, each agency, each discipline, needs to be broadened to serve the larger community.
I would propose the city redefine how we design, place, locate, and manage our schools. I would seek to change the larger public institutions and see how they can be much more broadly defined as part of the community, rather than narrowly defined as many of them are.
A different city would emerge much more connected to the creativity of the citizens. Most cities are trying to copy other development trends instead of finding their own identity through their local assets – their citizens.
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