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Final Reflection of a PPS Intern: How to Turn a Place Around

Amy Tomasso
Sep 16, 2014
Dec 14, 2017
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Amy Tomasso with Fred Kent to the right, and Casey Wang (her mentor) and Deland Chan (of Stanford University's Urban Studies Fellowship Program) to the left | Photo by PPS

Placemaking.  It’s a process, a way of thinking, a rousing and powerful call to action. It’s a vision for how to elevate community life around the world, starting one public space at a time. As a living and evolving concept, Placemaking is exciting—and also challenging to explain and grasp. That’s why I’m so grateful I was able to witness Project for Public Space’s entire Placemaking process, start-to-finish, this summer during my internship as a Stanford Urban Studies Fellow. In a piecemeal way, all my projects added up to a wonderfully comprehensive and informative encapsulation of PPS’s core work: how to turn a place around. So, how does one actually turn a place around? I'll tell you how!

1. Meeting with stakeholders about the place in question. Identifying issues and opportunities.

  • I met with Harvard’s campus planners and Common Spaces Project managers to discuss Phase III of the Common Spaces project.

2. Developing hypotheses about the site based on the issues and opportunities (such as, “This is an unsuccessful public space because it lacks shade”). Developing a work plan.

  • Based on my knowledge of the Stanford campus and the goals laid out by the campus planners, I identified the issues (i.e. uninviting space) and opportunities (i.e. potential to interact with the streetscape) of Herrin Lawn and White Plaza.

3. Collecting on-site data using PPS’s observational techniques such as behavior mapping, tracking, trace measures, interviews, questionnaires, and lots of photographing.

  • I collected field data during my community outreach in Marcy Plaza, Brooklyn.

4. Analyzing collected data, reviewing initial community input, brainstorming ideas for implementation. Creating summaries of the data, revising the hypotheses.

  • These were critical parts of my Stanford project—I have long, messy lists of potential ideas and amenities as proof of my brainstorming!
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Amy helping out with tons of dots at a Crystal City workshop |Photo by PPS

5. Hosting a public forum to solicit community feedback. May involve pop-up workshops, the Place Game, a community voting system, a mock event or activation. Based on this data, break the site down into potential zones of activity. Public forums may be repeated throughout the entire process.

  • The pop-up workshop I helped with in Crystal City, VA, provided valuable community input. I also attended design workshops PPS was hosting in Los Altos, CA during the winter.

6. Make a conceptual plan that includes the bubble diagram, benchmark images for each bubble, a schedule of amenities and a cost estimate for the amenities.

  • I completed this process start-to-finish for the Stanford project, and I made a schedule of amenities and cost estimate for Balboa Park in San Diego.

7. Make a draft report presenting these recommendations. Dialogue with the stakeholders about any changes and make revisions.

  • Over the past few weeks I’ve been communicating with the Stanford planners based on my draft report.

8. Order the amenities, implement them into the public space, gather feedback from the community. Take pictures of the activated space and note successes/failures for future projects!

These steps are meant to serve as a framework and not a rote tactic for success, however, they boast a track record of transformed public spaces. And after following the formula for the Stanford project, I’m thrilled to say that the campus planners began ordering my recommended amenities so that Herrin Lawn will be activated by the time school starts. That’s the beauty of PPS’s “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” approach: things turn around with gratifying rapidity.  WOOHOO!!

After a whirl of finishing up my projects, sending off final recommendations, and preparing for my departure, I was happy and relieved to share my final presentation with the PPS staff, hours before I left 419 Lafayette Street for the last time!

In leaving PPS, my mind cycled back to the questions I’d asked myself at the beginning of the summer:

What makes a great public place? Is it the buildings, framing the action with grandiose architectural form? Maybe it’s the street-level activity of markets, sidewalk cafés, and well-used parks on a hot day. Or perhaps what makes a place thrive are the people who give it character and identity. How can we create public spaces which are vibrant, inviting, and beautiful?

In its simplicity, it’s startlingly clear to me now that great public spaces are the result of the conscientious interplay of all these factors. Public spaces are the heartbeats of both the megacities and the picturesque villages, those unifying zones where people and place meet and interact with harmonizing energy. We need to be stewards of these spaces because they mean so much more than just some colorful chairs. Thank you, PPS, for showing me how.

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Amy's final presentation with PPS, a bittersweet moment! | Photo by PPS
Amy Tomasso
Amy Tomasso
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Learn about PPS's Three-pronged Approach to Drive Change