What If We Built Our Cities Around Places?

Oct 31, 2004
Jan 8, 2018

One of the joys for all of us working at PPS is learning from people all around the world about how they'd like to make their communities better. No two answers are the same, but listen long enough and the degree to which people share similar desires is remarkable. "Downtown would be a better place if I felt comfortable walking there," is a common sentiment. Or we'll often hear someone tell us, "There should be a place close to home where I can take my kids to play." Though the specifics vary, a steady current runs beneath the surface of what people say. It's the same desire for shared, public places that has shaped human settlements since the first cities were built.

The architect and author Christopher Alexander coined a phrase (and authored a book by the same name), "The Timeless Way of Building," that touches on these common yearnings and how people have intuitively used them to build congenial places to live. The process of building cities today has become so institutionalized, however, that people seldom have an outlet to put their intuition to use anymore. At PPS, we believe this timeless way of building can be reinvigorated, and we offer a common-sense way to do it: by empowering people to initiate improvements to their local neighborhoods place by place. These small steps to enliven streets, parks, and other public spaces are the building blocks of a thriving city.

Volunteerism is a sure sign that a neighborhood is heading in the right direction.

That is the idea at the heart of PPS's Great Cities Initiative (more on that below). The vitality of any city depends on citizen action such as neighborhood groups reclaiming their local parks and small businesses recharging commercial streets. Many times, communities need just a little nudge in the right direction to set this process of revitalization in motion. And in a short time, the entire neighborhood has undergone a turnaround as residents take comfort and pride in their public spaces.

What sort of "nudge" are we talking about? Imagine, for example, a neighborhood park bordered on one side by a commercial street and on another by a public library. These urban elements work together to form a single place, yet in a typical city that area would likely be managed by a number of public entities, each operating independently of the others. Instead of a unified approach to improving the place, we likely end up with atomized spheres of influence. The Department of Transportation promotes fast traffic on the roadway with little concern for pedestrians, park users, or patrons of local businesses. Park officials don't factor in library patrons or local shoppers when programming activities. You wind up with a park without popular activities, a street where people don't feel comfortable walking to the park or library, and local institutions cut off from the surrounding neighborhood.

Atomized spheres of influence: This street, bus stop, and library in San Antonio have no relation to each other except for a shared sense of emptiness.

But if we look upon these elements as interrelated components of a single place, we create more opportunities for local people to collaborate and jointly create a vision of what's best for the community. How can the street, park, library, and businesses support and strengthen each other? What do business owners, library employees, and nearby residents envision for the area? By simply observing and listening to the people who live or work or play in the area, the solution to what the place needs will become apparent.

Every day, PPS puts these ideas into practice in the cities, towns, and regions where we work. In order for this approach, which we call "Placemaking," to be effective, we've found that professional planners, designers, and engineers first need to move beyond the habit of looking at and shaping cities through the lens of single goals or professional disciplines. Only by adopting a more holistic view can we say goodbye to streets dominated by traffic, parks little-used by local residents, and public institutions and redevelopment projects isolated from local communities.

Fortunately, there is a new wave of interdisciplinary collaboration that adopts a more cooperative approach to knit neighborhoods together, and it brings real economic and social benefits to cities. Parks departments are partnering with transportation officials to create greenways and other transportation networks for pedestrians and bicyclists. Transportation agencies are teaming up with economic development organizations to bring housing, businesses, and a sense of vitality back to downtown streets. And community development groups are investing in parks, plazas, and other public spaces with the goal of reviving urban neighborhoods.

Innovative partnerships are central to PPS's mission of shaping cities using a multi-disciplinary, place-based approach. In California's populous San Mateo Peninsula, a string of diverse communities south of San Francisco, we guided a collaborative effort between transit authorities and economic development agencies to create active, walkable downtowns. Plans for housing and mixed use development were integrated with transit stations in seven towns to foster bustling street life and boost light-rail ridership.

In Tucson, Arizona, the once-vibrant retail and cultural district is now struggling to draw people. PPS is working in partnership with the landscape architecture firm Wheat Scharf Associates, the transportation planning firm Transcore, David Tryba Architects, the City of Tucson, and Tucson DOT to help revitalize downtown by growing places around existing assets, such as historic theaters, a bus transfer center, a landmark hotel, and a restored train depot. The city's historic commercial corridor, Congress Street, will be the spine of the district, connecting the places to each other and to adjacent downtown institutions.

Congress Street will be a corridor linking several revitalized places in downtown Tucson.

Placemaking is not just an urban idea. Small towns are adopting this innovative approach, too, as seen in the region around Littleton, New Hampshire. Business and community groups there partnered with the state Department of Transportation, enlisting PPS to use traffic calming experiments as a way to enhance the quality and popularity of downtown. Several other towns in the region conducted their own workshops and experiments after watching the results.

New partnerships are forming around Placemaking because it is a powerful movement that comes directly from people's concern about their lives. Now, what if we took this emerging spirit of partnership a step further? To revitalize our cities through the process of making better places, we need even more collaboration--not just between disciplines but also between professionals and the communities they serve. Imagine interdisciplinary teams--park planners, traffic engineers, economic development experts--working together with local residents to realize a vision for the key places in their communities. Strategically implemented throughout the neighborhoods of a city, the cumulative effect of such a program would be enormous.

That's the crux of the Great Cities Initiative, PPS' program that applies our 30+ years of experience in improving transportation, parks, public markets and buildings to the wider mission of creating livelier neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions.

In Littleton and several other New Hampshire towns (such as Chocorua, above), PPS worked with teams of residents and traffic engineers to create better downtown places.

As we've taken on more citywide and regional projects like those in San Mateo County, Tucson, and New Hampshire, we've found that our Placemaking process succeeds at this larger scale precisely because it encourages everyone to think small. Starting at the scale of an individual place allows a broad range of stakeholders to become involved and make meaningful contributions to the process. And by carefully selecting which places to improve with an eye towards maximizing their impact in the community, the effects resonate throughout the city or region. The Great Cities Initiative capitalizes on this phenomenon, expanding our Placemaking techniques into a comprehensive yet flexible process cities can use to improve themselves, place by place, neighborhood by neighborhood.

The prototype for our Great Cities Initiative was pioneered in Omaha, where PPS helped community and economic development organizations create an ambitious strategy to tap the potential of parks and public spaces to revive urban neighborhoods. Following a PPS-led "How to Turn a Place Around" workshop for 123 people, our local partner, the nonprofit Lively Omaha, deputized 22 volunteers to help groups of local residents conduct PPS's Place Performance Evaluation Game (Place Game for short) in specific spots around the city. The Place Game synthesizes observation techniques and interview skills into a short, user-friendly exercise that people can use to understand the good and bad qualities of a place, and suggest both short- and-long term improvements. The volunteers led 23 of these Placemaking sessions in the first year alone, working with community and civic groups to show how particular places can be improved.

The efforts underway in Omaha illustrate the core principle of the Great Cities Initiative--that instead of approaching the city through the lens of a complex, heavy-handed one-size-fits-all master plan, we should view it as an agglomeration of neighborhoods, each of which contains key places that can have a substantial impact in improving quality of life. These important community places can be identified by conducting a comprehensive Public Space Assessment, similar to theCity Commentaries PPS has written for Paris, London, Barcelona, and  New York. Teams of citizens aided by professionals can then evaluate how well these public spaces work according to more specific measures, using the Place Game to identify opportunities for short- and long-term improvements (see step-by-step process in sidebar).

We believe this approach makes a profound impact on communities because its small-scale emphasis naturally leads to collaboration and community involvement. Breaking down the mission of city revitalization into manageable chunks enables citizens to become engaged without feeling overwhelmed. The inertia common to large-scale projects is overcome first by implementing small yet visible changes that can be accomplished without great expense, like the successful traffic-calming experiments in New Hampshire. Strategically carried out throughout a city, these short-term experiments create credibility and enthusiasm for long-term improvements to come.

The time is ripe for a bold idea like the Great Cities Initiative. As we've seen, towns and cities are already forging ahead with innovative partnerships and a sharpened focus on how to involve local communities in the process of revitalization. The Great Cities Initiative is the next step, providing a unique framework for professionals from different disciplines to collaborate effectively and for citizens to take part in creating the neighborhoods they really desire. Applied throughout a city or region, PPS's Placemaking techniques can bring immense positive change to neighborhoods and public spaces, creating the kind of vital public life and community energy that has always been the most compelling reason people choose to live in cities.

To discuss implementing the Great Cities Initiative in your town, city, or region, call Ethan Kent at (212) 620 5660 or e-mail ekent@pps.org.

What Makes Great Cities?

The Power of Ten Why great places are more than the sum of their parts.

PPS City Commentaries Unique PPS analysis on major global cities.

The 20 Best North American Districts, Downtowns, and Neighborhoods Here are our picks. Now it's your turn to select the best spots to live, work, and hang out. Plus: A few of our favorite neighborhoods abroad.

Cities of Joy Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, believes that one day cities of the developing world will offer us lessons about providing everyone with equal access to happiness.

What Makes Great Public Spaces?

Ten Benefits of Creating Good Public Spaces

What Makes a Successful Public Space?

Why Do Many Public Spaces Fail?

PPS Training Courses

How to Turn a Place Around

How to Create Successful Markets

The PPS Approach to Parks

PPS Programs for Great Parks and Squares Our placemaking services revitalize important community gathering spaces.

The World's Best and Worst Parks PPS names the parks--both superb and shameful--that stand out from the rest. Which places do you think should make the list?

Six Parks We Can All Learn From People everywhere are searching for ways local parks can better serve their communities. In the pursuit of great parks, here are six places to learn from.

Which Direction for Our Parks? Recent trends show a strong new focus on parks as public places that enhance almost everything about their communities. At the same time, interest grows in parks that have been designed as aesthetic objects. Which represents the future?

The Return of the Civic Square From San Francisco to Vienna, squares are rebounding to become centers of civic life once more.

The PPS Approach to Transportation

Building Livable Communities Through Transportation (coming soon)

Traffic Calming 101 An overview of the tools and techniques used to reduce traffic congestion, slow down vehicle speeds, and make streets safer for all users.

Transit-Friendly Streets Ways to achieve an equilibrium among modes of transportation on city streets, including public transit, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.

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