By Fred Kent

When I coordinated New York City’s first Earth Day celebration in 1970, I hoped that the new idea of environmentalism would launch a robust citizen’s movement to create what today we would call “livable” and “sustainable” communities. But over the past three and a half decades, what began as an extraordinary outpouring of grassroots energy has turned into a professionalized movement that seems beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. Scientists and lawyers now dominate green discussions.

While environmental organizations have made great contributions, we are increasingly confronted by problems that transcend science or law, from the deterioration of our landscape at the hands of out-of-control sprawl to the decline of once-vital communities in cities, suburbs and small towns. These realities are shaping the lives of tens of millions of people.

In celebrating another Earth Day this year, we at PPS are reminded that creating great public spaces is one of the best ways to engage people in shaping the environment around them. In other words, Placemaking creates meaningful connections between people and their surroundings. This simple idea could have profound implications for the contemporary environmental movement.

The environmental movement has raised its voice loudest in defense of rainforests, wetlands, and old-growth wilderness, sending a subtle message that the places most of us care about strongly–our neighborhoods, our hometowns–aren’t really as important. But suppose for a minute that we enlarged the usual definition of the environment to include the places that people inhabit–where we live and work and play. Many people would then be willing to stand up as part of the environmental movement.

Through its emphasis on walking, biking, and transit, Placemaking can yield immense environmental benefits.

We’d witness a new breed of environmental activists working to make streets safe from traffic so our children can walk to school. They would lobby for communities to be better served by parks and farmers markets, and against the proliferation of wider roads and vast parking lots. They would transform outdated shopping malls into neighborhood centers complete with housing and lively public squares, sidewalk cafes and convenient transit stops, even libraries or new schools.

In short, this emerging vision of environmentalism protects both communities and nature by:

  • Curbing sprawl by improving places in existing neighborhoods, creating less incentive for people to move to new homes in greenfield developments;
  • Reducing air and water pollution by supporting small-scale, local economies, which by their nature are less resource-intensive;
  • Reining in global warming by creating mixed-use destinations that shorten and minimize vehicle trips and reduce energy use.

Campaigns that incorporate the common goals of environmentalism and Placemaking are already underway. For instance, the New York City Streets Renaissance, a partnership between PPS, Transportation Alternatives, and the Open Planning Project, seeks to reduce car use by creating places that prioritize pedestrians, transit, bicyclists, and above all street life. The challenge now is to make this kind of thinking–and this type of action–a model for environmental groups everywhere.

Luckily, environmentalists have always embraced the idea of place, especially in its ecological sense. Kentucky poet and farmer Wendell Berry, one of the most influential spokesmen for environmental causes, has written eloquently about the role of local ecosystems–or “places”–in sustaining human civilization. Gary Snyder, another respected thinker in the movement, has stated that “community values come from deliberately, knowledgeably, and affectionately “living in place.” British green leader Jonathan Porritt notes, “the environment is rooted in our sense of place: our homes, our streets, our neighborhoods.”

A great opportunity now exists for the environmental movement to reach out to a broader base and new partners simply by expanding the scope of places it is willing to fight for. This expanded notion of the environment would encompass rural watersheds and town squares, coastal wetlands and neighborhood playgrounds. And by reinforcing the connection between public spaces and environmentalism, it would harness the energy of people who care passionately about Placemaking. It’s a winning strategy to revive the movement and restore our planet. Let’s bring the environmental movement back home.

Tell us your stories about Placemaking and the environment

Have you been involved in a project that includes both Placemaking and environmental goals?

Email your stories to PPS and we’ll publish the best in an upcoming issue of our newsletter dedicated to Placemaking and the environment.

More about Placemaking and the environment on PPS.org:

Creating Community Places: An Antidote to Sprawl

Rebuilding Communities Can Help Save the Environment