By Jay Walljasper

Over the past few years, people have grown accustomed at looking to Seattle (and the Pacific Northwest in general) as a source of new ideas and inspiration. Grunge rock, Microsoft, Starbuck’s coffee and amazon.com have all sprung out of Seattle into the center of American and global culture. In less publicized ways, the northwest region has also become a laboratory for new ideas about how we think about our places. Pike Place Market is widely celebrated as a national symbol about the possibilities of public spaces, and Seattle, Vancouver, and particularly Portland are looked to as beacons for new ideas in urban livability.

Pike Place Market is one reason Seattle and the Pacific Northwest are looked to as models for urban livability.

So it should come as no surprise that the first comprehensive meeting about launching a movement around the ideas of Placemaking should take place near Seattle, with a sizable number of Seattle participants. For three days in late February, more than 40 people assembled at the lovely Sleeping Lady resort in the Cascade mountains to discuss the prospects for improving our places–streets, downtowns, markets, gathering places, neighborhoods and more. It was a well-connected group, mostly Seattleites, who gathered: a Seattle city council member, prominent developers, the city parks superintendent, head of the county library system, head of the Seattle art museum, chair of the University of Washington urban planning department, a key official of the Seattle Housing Authority, a key figure in establishing Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, as well as leading environmentalists, journalists, architects, foundation officials, activists, public officials, educators, and more.

Place is an Environmental Issue

Seattle’s continuing population growth means that if residents are not engaged and excited about the places where they now live, exurban sprawl will continue its destructive march up to the foothills of the Cascade mountains–a point that was dramatically made the first evening with a map of projected 21st century growth in the Seattle region presented by Gene Duvernoy of the Cascade Land Conservancy.

“We can’t force people to live in cities if they don’t want to… That’s why place is a critical environmental issue.

The meeting was conducted with a sense of both urgency and opportunity. It was clear to all that we were not discussing mere aesthetic questions, but key issues affecting the future of Seattle, the Northwest and the world. As Ron Sher–a developer, business owner, and community activist–put it in his opening statement: “We can’t force people to live in cities if they don’t want to. So we must make cities places where people want to live. That’s why place is a critical environmental issue.” That theme was returned to by many participants throughout the following days.

Seattle’s Best

The first order of business was to identify the best-realized and least-realized places in the region as a starting point on how to think more meaningfully about the concept of public places. Given the wide range of professional backgrounds, there was remarkable agreement in people’s choices (with the contentious exception of one new shopping development downtown, West Lake Place, rated as best by some and worst by others). This reinforces the idea, long promoted by PPS, that identifying good places is not simply a matter of relative taste–as many design professionals and design critics would have it. It’s not true that some people are drawn to bustling sidewalks and others are inspired by wide, traffic-choked roads lined with strip malls. People may accept standard American sprawl because they don’t see other options, but it’s not what they would aspire to for their community. There seems something instinctual in the heart and soul of humans that attracts us to certain places and repels us from others.

An American Renaissance

Fred Kent and Kathy Madden of PPS offered a brief overview of the PPS approach to Placemaking, which helped instill the meeting with a common language in how to talk about place. A cheer went up from the crowd when they presented a slide of what residents of Littleton, New Hampshire came up with as the elements of a good place in a series of PPS-led meetings around transportation issues in the town.

  • Eat in diners
  • Ride trains
  • Put a porch on your house
  • Shop on Main Street
  • Live in a walkable community

These ideas were later emblazoned on T-shirts, under the title of “Recipe for an American Renaissance.”

Diversity Questions

A central topic of discussion through the entire meeting was diversity–both among public spaces themselves and advocates for this emerging Great Places movement. The group assembled was overwhelmingly white, with a preponderance of middle-aged men. Yet public places are most used and most needed by young people, immigrants, and low-income people. Presumably, these people would play a major role in the movement as it evolved. Several participants voiced the opinion that rather than expecting representatives of youth, low-income and immigrant communities to attend a conference conceived by someone else, the key to diversity would be to partner with already existing groups and movements within these communities.

Chaos is often an important ingredient in creating places that people love.

In a similar vein, several participants raised a concern that Great Places have a flexible definition, and that people in communities themselves are always the final arbiters of what constitutes greatness in their own places. A “great” Latino neighborhood or young people’s hang-out might look different than a “great” country club district. While these places would all share the fundamental characteristics of offering a place for people to gather and interact, the look and feel of each would reflect the people who use it the most. A presentation by Ethan Kent of PPS drove this point home by noting how chaos is often an important ingredient in creating places that people love–and these places don’t always reflect the tidy, charming qualities usually favored by upper-middle class Americans.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Discussing how to launch a movement was the not-so-hidden agenda of the Sleeping Lady meeting, and no one expressed dissent from this idea. But that still left a lot of ground to cover about the shape, focus, strategy and goals of the movement. There seemed general consensus that this ought to become a regional movement, focused on the Seattle region or Pacific Northwest, but built upon a foundation of work on the neighborhood level and eager to make connections with people pursuing similar goals around the world. It seems a great opportunity to dust off the old slogan, “Think globally, act locally.”

A Big Tent

There seemed a similar consensus that this is a non-ideological (or “post-ideological”) movement that has genuine potential for common cause with groups all over the political spectrum. The foundation of Placemaking is the principle that the people living, working and hanging out in a certain place are the people who know that place best and should be centrally involved in making decisions about its future. This message appeals to both conservative ideals of decentralized government and progressive values of community empowerment. Though the current constituency of the movement is mostly left-leaning–and it may alienate some fervent pro-market conservatives–there is every reason to believe it will attract social conservatives and people in the middle of the political road.

Conferees agreed that Placemaking could garner a very broad base of support.

It was deemed important that great places not be seen as a strictly urban phenomenon. Suburbs, which were well represented at the meeting, and rural areas, which were not, must also be viewed as places of potential greatness. A great small town, or outer-ring suburb, of course, would look much different than an urban center but still showcase the qualities we all associate with lively public space.

Another point of lengthy discussion was that this is a movement with a small “m” — an umbrella over which to unite many ongoing efforts in areas as divergent as inner city revitalization and environmental restoration. It is most likely a movement of movements, in the same way that Earth Day represented the unification of many longstanding conservation and anti-pollution campaigns into what we now call the environmental movement. Forging connections between all kinds of efforts–large and small, within existing institutions and outside–may be the most important element for the success of Placemaking work.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The meeting closed with a high degree of exuberance, as well as a few lively exchanges about what role big developers and community dissenters play in the whole process of making great places. How to keep the energy of the meeting alive after everyone headed home was a topic of discussion.

Karen True, who did a masterful job arranging the meeting, agreed to sign on as a coordinator in the coming months. A steering committee was formed. It was agreed that e-mail contact and a Web Site were essential and that a follow-up meeting be planned. On the indirect, but no less powerful, level, the cause of Placemaking will be carried forth from the inspiration and connections coming out of the conference.

For its part, PPS is planning to partner with local organizations in various regions across the continent and around the world to initiate more meetings with a similar goal: translating the wisdom and work of Placemaking into a broader social movement. “These ideas resonate with people everywhere we go,” notes PPS President Fred Kent, “and now is the time to turn these ideas into practical action in communities all over the planet.”

This is indeed a revolution, based on the simple idea that democracy cannot flourish in a culture where there are no places for people to gather.

He sees more regional Placemaking meetings like the one in Seattle leading up to a large event, modeled on the immensely popular Chautauquas of the early 20th century, where the Great Places movement is unveiled to the public as a whole. Kent, the lead organizer for the first Earth Day celebration in New York City, sees this event as a moment of similar magnitude. It would most likely take place in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps as early as 2006.

Next Steps

A long and intriguing list of ideas came up during the three days of meetings, meals, and impromptu discussions at Sleeping Lady. All of them offer opportunities to take action, both in individual initiatives and in coordinated projects, and plant the idea of Placemaking more firmly in a number of communities. Here are some of the ideas raised:

  • Establish a clearinghouse for information and educational efforts around creating and protecting Great Places. PPS would most likely play a large role here.
  • Launch a Great Places Speaker’s Bureau, which can spread the word everywhere from Rotary meetings to campus rallies.
  • Establish a research and education institute (think tank) to promote Placemaking and furnish data and analysis.
  • Develop a place curriculum for colleges and K-12 schools.
  • Create an inspirational video on Placemaking that can be widely circulated.
  • Introduce a Great Places seal of approval or certification, along the line of the LEED principles in sustainable building.
  • Find funding for a grant program to boost local efforts to make great places.
  • Hold a yearly national conference, perhaps following up on a series of regional ones, along the lines of Rail-volution, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and ProBike/ProWalk.
  • Design a Placemaking edition of the Sim City computer game.
  • Instill Earth Day 2006 with a strong Great Places emphasis.
  • Reach out to seniors’ organizations and youth groups — two groups negatively affected by current patterns of development.
  • Call Great Places town meetings in coffee shops, libraries, community centers, schools, church basements, parks, and anywhere else people will gather.

Talkin’ About a Revolution

Throughout all the discussions over three days there was a deep feeling that the underlying strength of this emerging movement is its literal grounding in real places, and that these places should form the basis of all we do. That means no strategy sessions at airport hotels. Reveling in the pleasure and capacity of genuine public places will give us the vitality and imagination to spark a real revolution in the way we live today.

This is, indeed, a revolution, based on the simple idea that democracy (and many other noble and practical goals) cannot flourish in a culture where there are no places for people to gather. As Harry Boyte, an authority on community organizing and key supporter of this movement in the Midwest, has said: “In the ’60s we thought the revolution was just around the corner. Now, we know it’s around every corner.”

And this revolution already has its anthem, a rhyme composed spontaneously in the Francis Scott Key tradition at one session and performed by “Big Rich” a/k/a Richard Conlin, whose day job is with the Seattle City Council. Here’s how it goes.

PLACEMAK’N

You gotta put your face
Into a human space
And you’ll create a place
That you could not replace

It’ll be for everyone
No, no one will be shunned
We can be so diverse
And it’s not for the worse

We’ll have our shops and parks
And room for dogs and larks
Somewhere where we can walk
And yes where we can talk

We’re saying “hi” to folks
And laughing at their jokes
We’re buying from our friends
So we can all meet ends

Some risks we’ll need to take
Make sure it won’t be fake
All folks should be involved
As plans we do evolve

Yes, there’s a movement coming
And it will keep on humming
Together we will work
No one will be a jerk

We’ll listen to each voice
Then we will make a choice
We’ll make a place for all
And we will conquer sprawl.