The Danish Exchange
On August 12, PPS welcomed colleagues of Copenhagen architect Jan Gehl to our office in New York for a discussion of placemaking and ways to effect change in cities. The Danish team presented a history of the decades-long effort to free the core of Copenhagen from auto traffic. By gradually pedestrianizing streets and squares over time, the car culture of the 60s has been completely transformed, and today pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers share the city center equally. Following the presentation, PPS staffer Ethan Kent led the guests on our famous tour of midtown Manhattan’s public spaces.
Before the exchange in New York, PPS President Fred Kent and Vice President Kathy Madden had met the Danish team in Copenhagen to talk about the principles of placemaking. The trip also included a meeting with members of the Danish Road Directorate, a government agency that has embedded the idea of context into their philosophy for the past 25 years. In their recent publication Beautiful Roads – From Concept to Reality, they state emphatically: “Roads exist not in isolation but as part of a totality, no matter whether they are in the open countryside or are a part of the urban landscape.” The meeting centered around context-sensitive design and PPS’s upcoming work for the Federal Highway Administration. (More details on this exciting project will be available in the next issue of Making Places).
Public Participation in Poland
While in Europe, Fred and Kathy traveled to Cracow, Poland to conduct a workshop at the invitation of the Polish Environmental Partnership Foundation. The workshop took place in the town square of Kazimierz, once a separate city that became the center of Poland’s Jewish culture in the 15th century. It was absorbed by Cracow in 1791 but retains its own distinct character. About 40 people participated in an evaluation of the square, including several planners from other Polish towns interested in applying lessons to the revitalization of their own squares. After the evaluation exercise, the group convened in Kazimierz’ 17th century town hall to discuss steps to improve the space. “As focused a group as I’ve ever seen,” Fred said afterwards.
Armenians Recapture Civic Life
Going even farther abroad, PPS Assistant Vice President Phil Myrick was in Gyumri, Armenia from July 19 to 28, introducing a community-based approach to the development of the city’s central square complex. Like many Armenian cities, Gyumri was struck hard by a 1988 earthquake that left 25,000 people dead and 100,000 more without homes. In 2001, Aram Khachadurian, former COO of PPS, joined the Urban Institute to help rebuild thousands of housing units for the displaced families, who were still living in temporary shelters in public spaces all over the city. With the success of this rehousing program, the central square is again available to the public, opening the way to plan its revitalization.
A grant from the Academy for Educational Development (AED) allowed PPS to come to Gyumri and, in partnership with the Urban Institute and a local steering committee of architects, planners, NGOs and city officials, put together the first effort since the earthquake to recapture some of the civic life that had characterized this cultural center. In fact, as Phil was later informed, PPS’s placemaking approach introduced public participation to the decision-making process for the first time in Armenia’s 6,000 year history!
At first, there was a certain amount of skepticism about the ability of Armenians to contribute to a conversation about public spaces because they were raised in the Soviet system, where experts and government officials made all such decisions. By the end of the visit, however, everyone was impressed by the reaction of citizens, professionals and government representatives alike, who all exceeded expectations. More than 70 people attended the workshop, and everyone was as vocal and eager to participate as any American audience. Local officials seemed receptive and told the audience they would incorporate the input into their decisions.
The follow-up activities after the workshop proved equally exciting, since the team immediately embraced the idea of revitalizing the square for three days in September as a demonstration project, utilizing many ideas that people came up with in the workshop. Among the planned activities and improvements are an open-air rollerskating rink on the square, cafes and umbrellas, a giant chessboard, children’s programs, TV news broadcasts from the square, outdoor films and concerts, and a folk dance. There are also several permanent improvements the team and the city will make for the September event that will leave a lasting mark on the square, including lighting the fountain, striping traffic lanes to keep traffic out of the center of the square, new street signs, flags or banners on light poles, and gardens planted by the church.
The initial ideas will be on display at the New Gyumri Festival and Placemaking Expo, from September 26 to 28. Click here for more about placemaking in Gyumri.