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.
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.
3. Collecting on-site data using PPS’s observational techniques such as behavior mapping, tracking, trace measures, interviews, questionnaires, and lots of photographing.
4. Analyzing collected data, reviewing initial community input, brainstorming ideas for implementation. Creating summaries of the data, revising the hypotheses.
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.
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.
7. Make a draft report presenting these recommendations. Dialogue with the stakeholders about any changes and make revisions.
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.