From Public Art, April 2010. Translated from the Korean.

Non-profit organization Project for Public Spaces (PPS) was founded by Fred Kent in 1975 to advance a healthier society through public space design and management. Public Art sat down with Cynthia Nikitin to discuss the organization’s philosophy behind creating successful public spaces.

PPS builds on the work of William “Holly” Whyte, who studied how people interact with buildings and their surrounding public spaces. “PPS tries to understand real users of public spaces,” said Nikitin, “not just from surveys and talking with groups, but also from direct observation.” The process of looking at, listening to and asking questions of the people in a community to discover their needs and aspirations is core to PPS’ work. The group is equally concerned with the municipalities responsible for delivering public services, who are key to creating successful public spaces. Noted Nikitin,“We play an important role in connecting municipalities and residents to better people’s lives.”

Over the years, PPS has refined its observations and findings into guidelines for creating successful places. To evaluate how a space works, PPS employs a Place Performance Evaluation—or “Place Game”—with four categories: access and linkages, comfort and image, sociability, and uses and activites. Results from this evaluation offer valuable implications on public space planning and design today. “Women and children are more sensitive to their surroundings than males and adults, especially in public spaces,” said Nikitin. “When women and children frequent a certain space, there’s a good chance that it’s a wonderful place with lots of good design elements.”

PPS’ vision of pedestrian-friendly planning and design has emerged from years of studying public spaces, but it is also influenced by the theories of Jane Jacobs, who, like Holly Whyte, studied how cities work on the smallest scale. Jacobs’ findings often went against conventional wisdom; she once noted, “It is desirable for people to detour rather than to go straight when they walk.” Jacobs was also concerned with the role of government in city planning, proclaiming, “Government-centered urban planning and economic planning draw to the city’s death.”

Some critics have argued that Jacobs’ theories, embraced by PPS, work against the city’s efficiency, particularly the moving of goods and services. Nikitin is quick to offer a counterargument. “We believe cities are for people—pedestrians, citizens and residents—and not just for cars. For example, a six-lane highway in New York City was planned by Robert Moses in the mid-1970s. The plan would have worsened the present road condition and destroyed several neighborhoods, and Jane Jacobs along with many others conducted a campaign against it. This campaign became the first community design movement, and afterwards Jane became a mentor of PPS.”

Nikitin is not a proponent of removing cars altogether, but rather of striking a balance between cars and people. “Cities need an effective balance between aims and methods, people and automobiles. If the balance of the city breaks, the city will decline, even in spite of its powerful infrastructure.” Emphasizing the importance of community-led design, Niktin noted, “Good community design encourages urban revitalization, attracts people and supports urban economies.”

In recent years, many cities have been shaped by design that is the exact opposite of what communities desire. PPS recently engaged in a heated discussion regarding the importance of this community input with  “starchitect” Frank Gehry after commenting publicly on the shortcomings of the public spaces that surround his buildings. “Frank Gehry is notorious for disregarding environmental context when he designs,” said Nikitin. “He himself has recognized that he does not consider environmental context.

“Unfortunately,” she continued, “it is essential to consider community context to do good public design. And this is not only the architect’s problem, because the right to make planning decisions technically was not granted to architects. It is civil authorities or managers who strongly desire landmark buildings, and architects usually have no choice but to create the structures.”

Here, Nikitin sees a larger role for NGOs to create a link between communities and the public sector. “There are rare opportunities for NGOs like PPS to participate in master planning processes. But it is people who use buildings, not managers, and the earlier managers realize who the real users of the public spaces are—citizens and residents—the more money and time can be saved.”

At present, Nikitinis in the process of bringing the Walk 21 conference—an international forum on walking and placemaking—to Korea. The conference will be held in Vancouver next year.

About the interviewee

Cynthia Nikitin, an expert and activist in public art and community design, studied Art History and Comparative Government at Clark University and Art Management and Urban Planning at New York University. As a Vice President at PPS, she has led over 150 projects related to public spaces, some of which have achieved international recognition.