COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

The Placemaking Movement

Feb 29, 2004
Dec 14, 2017

The placemaking movement was born over forty years ago, when pioneers like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte published their groundbreaking ideas about Americans and the urban experience. Back then there was no name for their way of thinking--they simply showed us that cities should be designed for people, with walkable streets, welcoming public spaces, and lively neighborhoods. When PPS was founded in 1975, we used their ideas to develop a unique method to help communities make better public spaces. We began calling this method "placemaking" to emphasize our belief that cities thrive on well-managed community places, not superficial designs. This simple idea--combined with the work of our predecessors--seeded a movement that is just now beginning to bloom in full.

Defining the Movement

Through our project work in cities and towns across the country, we've met hundreds of community activists and civic officials that are dedicated to placemaking: They know that better public spaces are the result of community-driven design, and PPS's message resonates deeply with them. They are the heart of the placemaking movement.

People everywhere are applying the PPS placemaking model to improve their public spaces.

The movement also reaches beyond the places where PPS is currently working--people everywhere are applying the PPS placemaking model to improve their public spaces. We know from the thousands of queries and emails we receive that the people who comprise the movement encompass a broad cross-section of professionals and laypeople: landscape architects, traffic engineers, community development experts, government officials, and community activists, for starters. We know that they come from all over the world--six continents and 130 countries. In 2003 they viewed our website over 11 million times (almost triple the 2002 number), and they came away with resources--like our place diagrams and image collection--to help them in their local placemaking efforts. Here's a sample of what they are telling us:

"Placemaking is the most important issue in urban design today as we try to undo the damage of the mall and car era."

"We are hoping that with your techniques, we can put the life back in our town parks."

"I am heartened and energized by the work you are doing and look forward to learning all I can!"

Developing Key Constituencies

In 2003, we witnessed a three-fold increase in visits to our expanding website. As these visits grew, we moved to complement our online resources with presentations and events targeted at influential constituencies. Our goal is to simultaneously build the movement among grassroots supporters and show key decision-makers why they should get on board. Our presentations to leading national bodies such as the American Institute of Architects, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Federal Highway Administration, and the National Park Service are spurring entire professions to consider the value of community places over project-driven designs.

Our goal is to simultaneously build the movement among grassroots supporters and show key decision-makers why they should get on board.

We are also bringing the movement to design professionals through our training program, which continued to grow in 2003. 120 people attended our accredited "How to turn a Place Around" workshops in New York City and London. The London workshop, co-hosted by The Prince's Foundation, was especially significant since it gave us the opportunity to hone our partnerships with influential British organizations that share our commitment to better public spaces. Our meetings with CABE Space, GreenSpace, and The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister were proof positive that the placemaking movement is truly international in scope, with significant strides being made in the UK to make streets that serve pedestrians and parks that function as great community places.

Fittingly, our biggest 2003 event had an international flavor as well. Great Parks/Great Cities: Celebrating 150 Years of Central Park was hosted by PPS and the Central Park Conservancy with New York City Parks & Recreation and many other local and national partners, including the City Parks Alliance. The conference convened nonprofit leaders, civic officials and community activists from over 12 countries to exchange ideas about parks as catalysts of urban revitalization. With over 500 people from 100 cities converging in New York, it was by far the best-attended of the eight parks conferences we've organized. "The overwhelming response to the conference shows that there are a significant number of people all over the world who are trying to create parks that are catalysts for community revitalization," said PPS Vice President Kathy Madden. "Now all we have to do is translate that energy into tangible results."

With our professional outreach on the rise, we turned our attention to potential placemakers at the most formative time in their careers--school. In 2003 we made a conscious effort to present our ideas to more students and faculty than ever before. We were enthusiastically received at institutions such as Bowdoin College, Columbia University, the Harvard School of Design, and New York University, to name a few. And by marketing publications like William H. Whyte's Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, and PPS's own <How to Turn a Place Aroundto professors of architecture, planning, and other design disciplines, we're getting placemaking on the curricula of influential institutions. For example, a professor teaching graduate-level architecture in the Midwest has her students use the observation forms in How to Turn a Place Around to evaluate the public spaces on campus and in the urban area where the school is located. After analyzing the data and presenting it to the class, students then use the<Great Public Spaces nomination form on the PPS website to summarize their findings and submit a final presentation.

We're getting placemaking on the curricula of influential institutions.

It's our way of counterbalancing a trend we see in which designers who try to brand themselves create places that don't work. When students learn a different approach to creating places that goes beyond high-profile design, they won't have to un-learn so much in order to make good places in the real world. And that will make our job a lot easier.

Expanding the Movement

To grow a movement you need partners, and in 2003 we found an ally in Scenic America, a national non-profit based in Washington, DC dedicated to preserving public lands from invasive development and visual blight. The partnership allows both organizations to reach a broader audience and cross-market each other's resources. Our first joint venture addressed the growing commercialization of public space with an issue paper illustrating ways people can reclaim their local parks and community places from the encroachment of private interests.

We also expanded the movement in more informal ways with our first round of PPS Socials. A PPS Social is a monthly gathering, usually in a bar, where people come together to talk about how they'd like to see the places in their communities improved. We've organized two in New York, and people in Providence, Minneapolis, Asheville, NC, and even South Africa have also held them. As we encourage future rounds of Socials in more cities, we will promote the idea that anyone can have a say about their public spaces, and anyone can join the placemaking movement.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space