These are the impassioned citizens whose dedication to Placemaking brings vast improvements to their communities

We’ve seen a dramatic change recently in the way communities grow and improve themselves. You won’t hear much about it in the media or from the upper echelons of the design profession, but evidence of this new approach can be found almost everywhere else. Many towns and cities have transformed parks, downtowns and other crucial public spaces from derelict eyesores to lively gathering places beloved by local citizens. This is not the product of visionary planners, innovative developers or powerful politicians (although they helped) but by a new breed of engaged citizen we at PPS fondly call “zealous nuts.”

Years ago, when we began advising key decision makers, clients, and anyone else who would listen that they should entrust public spaces to zealous nuts-meaning people who were passionate about their communities-we were greeted with incredulous skepticism. There was great hesitation to empower people who seemed to care a little too much, and who may have had minimal expertise in planning, business or government. Why hand over authority to people who are not experts? That’s what local leaders wondered. They would probably just gum up the works with impractical ideas.

But that’s not how its works out in practice. “Zealous nuts” know more about the places where they live and work than anyone else, and therefore their ideas turn out to be most practical and valuable. They naturally engage in what PPS calls “Placemaking”–a new way of looking at public spaces that takes into account all the factors that make a successful place.

More and more developers, designers and leaders are now realizing that the success of a public project depends on the participation of the public itself. That seems obvious, but it took a long time for many decision makers to figure that out. We first began to notice this change of thinking here in PPS’s hometown, New York. An early sign was the successful turnaround of Central Park in the 1980s, spearheaded by Betsy Barlow Rogers. Her amazing work showed many leaders the importance of concerned citizens, who have the passion and persistence to ensure that promising initiatives are not undermined by bureaucratic red tape and the often misguided opinions of so-called experts. Betsy always talks about the importance of the “zealous nut” and made the phrase a badge of honor. In fact, she is a pioneering zealous nut herself.

The increase in the number and tenaciousness of zealous nuts all around the world over the past thirty years has greatly improved the way institutions make decisions regarding vital public places. More and more, public leaders are acknowledging and following the wisdom of non-experts. In fact, we are witnessing a true blurring of boundaries. Years ago there was often a clash between community-based efforts and local institutions, who often stood in the way of creativity and public participation. Today, however, many public officials, foundation leaders, and private businesspeople display all the qualities of zealous nuts themselves. Here are a few examples of how this change in thinking is making a difference all over the world. I think you’ll agree there’s never been a better time to be a zealous nut.

The Great Suburban Dream

Tomorrow’s suburbs will not resemble the sterile subdivisions we are familiar with today. We are now beginning to see the rebirth of many suburbs as genuine places with the pizzazz and congeniality we associate with the best urban neighborhoods. That’s because as they mature, suburban communities are more open to the zealous nuts in their midst. Look at Mississauga, Ontario, a city of 700,000 adjacent to Toronto, where a vital civic center is being created where previously a shopping mall had been the main attraction. The transformation of Mississauga’s City Hall and Central Library into a bustling “outdoor community center” was spearheaded with the ardent support of a core team of senior city staff who attended a PPS training workshop in New York, and who have since become advocates for community-based planning. In less than a year, 1000 city staff and local citizens have been trained in Placemaking. Mississauga has even established a new initiative called the “City for the 21st Century” that is managing a new program of events and activities in the civic center. More projects are being implemented with the intention of developing Mississauga as a city of great destinations, from the downtown center to its many diverse neighborhoods.

The Boom in Public Markets

We’re seeing an explosion of public markets in communities large and small. PPS announced a new round of grants in its influential Public Markets Program last May to help organizers increase their markets’ capacity to serve communities with fresh food and lively gathering places. This round of grants was awarded to farmers market networks and associations, a reflection of market operators’ growing sophistication and their ability to make change on a larger scale. What’s remarkable is the passionate belief in farmers markets as vehicles for broad-based social change expressed by all the grant applicants (both those who were awarded funds and those who weren’t). These people are transforming their communities. They are zealously pursuing new visions by forging partnerships with health organizations, community development groups, schools, and land trusts and reaching out to poor, immigrant and minority communities.

The Old College Try

Alumni, staff, students and community residents are now voicing their enthusiasm about making college campuses better public places. In a striking example of the new approach to campus-planning, Harvard University is working to use public spaces to bridge the town-gown divide. The school is actively partnering with residents of Allston, Massachusetts, as they undertake a major campus expansion in that community with new public spaces to be used by students and local residents alike.

Street Prophets

Australian gadfly and visionary David Engwicht is pioneering a new method to calm traffic that emphasizes the importance of reclaiming streets as social places with a wide range of community purposes beyond moving and storing cars. His most recent book, Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic (for sale at PPS.org), describes how anyone-even children-can make streets more livable by introducing “intrigue, uncertainty, and humor” through practical actions like hosting a block party without closing the street to cars. These actions reverse people’s psychological retreat from the street as a place for social activity as well as reduce vehicle speeds.

Hans Monderman, a traffic engineer from the Netherlands, also believes in social streets: places where traffic is secondary to the community life that takes place between buildings. Monderman advocates the removal of traffic control devices like stop signs and lane stripes — even sidewalks — because to him, these devices tell drivers that they are free to move as quickly as possible through a place. Without these devices, drivers slow down, make eye contact with pedestrians, and pick up other cues as to how to proceed. Although the method may seem counter-intuitive to those who have been steeped in traditional traffic engineering methods, several studies have now shown that Monderman’s approach results in slower traffic and safer streets, even compared to conventional traffic calming measures. Engwicht and Monderman are winning over zealous converts every day to this “second-generation” traffic calming, a movement that PPS will continue to track and promote through our Transportation Program.

Community-Conscious Development

Private developers are starting to give greater consideration to the needs of the larger communities they serve. We are seeing signs of this in North America, but the change is most evident in places like Hong Kong. Last month I traveled there to address the Creating Valuable Cities Conference–organized by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and the Business Environment Council (BEC)–where major developers from around the region gathered to discuss the lack of public spaces. With very few usable gathering spots in the hyper-dense city, Hong Kong’s builders realize they have backed themselves into a corner. Seeing how isolated their projects have become, they are now eager to work with the admirably zealous staff of local nonprofits (NGOs) to change the situation. One of the first steps in this significant shift is to open up Hong Kong’s spectacular waterfront to public use.

Foundations of Support

Foundations, too, are committing more resources to small-scale initiatives led by impassioned citizens. PPS is now working with community foundations and locally-oriented family foundations in several cities who now want to focus their grants on Placemaking. In Flint, Michigan, for instance, foundations are playing a large role in keeping the city alive now that it has been largely abandoned by General Motors. One of them, the Ruth Mott Foundation, is broadening its past attempts at “beautification” by investing in community-led Placemaking efforts. Instead of building bloated projects, the new focus on place will build momentum gradually and connect many areas of concern, such as broadening access to local foods, improving neighborhood health, and creating true destinations across the city that people will want to visit.

The Politics of Placemaking

We are witnessing the emergence of a new generation of politicians who understand that successful Placemaking requires many partners. In other words, they welcome the chance to work side by side with zealous nuts.

Bellingham, Washington: One of these energetic and effective public servants is Mark Asmundson, a.k.a. “Mayor Mark,” of Bellingham, Washington. Since 1995, he has led the transformation of downtown Bellingham from a largely vacant area to one with dozens of locally-owned stores, thriving community facilities, brand new residential and mixed-use development, and better transportation choices. After attending PPS’s “How to Turn a Place Around” training course this May, he is now getting his staff and constituents ready for Bellingham’s next huge Placemaking opportunity: the redevelopment of a 137-acre site along the waterfront. Mayor Mark is committed to an open planning process of public-private partnerships, broad community participation, and a focus on what Bellingham residents need in such a strategic location. “Citizens and communities will choose how to reshape the space they already have into great places,” he says. “The community is the expert – not an architect or consultant.”

Midland, Michigan: Bill Schute of Midland, Michigan is another politician with the heart of a zealous nut. Bill is a former congressman (now a state judge) in this small city of 55,000, which is home to two major international corporations, Dow Chemical and Dow Corning. He recently coordinated a two-day Placemaking training with the city leadership, local foundations and philanthropists, and executives from the two corporations. Their primary goal was to think of ways to draw more people from around the world to live in Midland by making it attractive to a diverse population. Midland already has impressive public facilities–including a performing arts center and an attractive farmers market–but they have yet to create public space destinations that draw people together. Bill Schute has pledged to help the city do just that. To demonstrate his commitment, he proposed creating pins for all 70 trainees that read: “I am a Zealous Nut for Midland.”

Lindsay, California: The town of Lindsay, California, a predominantly Latino community of 11,000 residents, merits special mention for making a political commitment to Placemaking with a real can-do attitude. Lindsay has been on the right track since the 2004 launch of a public market that draws thousands of people downtown on Friday nights. Then last May the mayor, the entire city council, and other city staff attended a PPS training course. They have since applied the lessons to their downtown, even creating a Department of Special Projects to conceptualize and directly implement new Placemaking initiatives. They recently broke ground on an outdoor courtyard for the town library, saving nearly $1 million compared to estimates from outside contractors. Other projects in the pipeline include the re-use of an abandoned packing house as a recreation center, and the revitalization of an empty downtown building as an indoor market space for local craftsmen and vendors.

These remarkable stories are just a few of the many wonderful transformations going on all over the world. I believe we are now waking up to the fact that the world is fundamentally changing, in a subtle but powerful way. The era of narrowly-defined professional disciplines and heavy-handed developers dictating the future of cities is thankfully ending. Placemaking transforms the roles of professionals and developers, enabling them to act as resources for citizens, who in turn are elevated to the role of respected experts who know their community best. This transition has far-ranging implications: Governmental structure and professional training will need to evolve drastically just to keep up. It never ceases to amaze how quickly such changes happen; if you don’t know what to look for, you might miss it. But those who are attuned to Placemaking will help it take hold.