COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

People Are Talking About Placemaking...

Fred Kent
Nov 1, 2011
Dec 14, 2017

Placemaking is in the news these days, and it's got us thinking that we are at an exciting moment in history. In just the last couple of months, we've seen the benefits of a place-based approach get a lot of positive coverage in the national press, and we wanted to share that with you.

Houston's Market Square Park

In September, I was interviewed for a piece in The Atlantic, in which I was able to speak to a wider audience about the power of Placemaking. We at PPS also were part of a big article in New York magazine about imagining a better New York. It was great to be able to get these ideas out for discussion.

new radio show and podcast called "Place Matters," hosted by Dr. Katherine Loflin, deals with the role of Placemaking "in building next generation cities that are economically successful, talent magnets and destinations where people want to come to live, work and play." Our work at PPS was featured in the first episode.

There is definitely something brewing out there -- a general realization of the importance of place on all sorts of levels, including the impact on the economy and the environment. And the response we're getting when we go out into the field is phenomenal. We just got back from a trip to Perth, Australia, where a Placemaking approach is completely revolutionizing their cultural center. It was exhilarating to see (and we'll be telling you more about it in the future).

One of the things we've read and appreciated the most in the last couple of months is a terrific article by Chris Turner at Mother Nature Network about Frank Gehry's new buildings in Düsseldorf, Germany, and the destructive effect that starchitecture can have on streetscape. This is a topic we've talked a lot about in the past -- Turner references our semi-infamous  "smackdown with Frank Gehry" from the Aspen Ideas Festival back in 2009, an occurrence that was enlightening for the huge amount of debate and engagement that it engendered.

Frank Gehry's iconic Düsseldorf buildings are surrounded by dead space

In his piece, Turner really gets to the heart of why urban designers are losing credibility: Urban design has been taken away from its connection to communities by designers who are imposing their own brand on people and neighborhoods. He doesn't have anything against Gehry's buildings per se -- he thinks they're great to look at -- but he noticed immediately how dead the space around them was:

Wealthy, ambitious Düsseldorf has surrounded Gehry's slouching cones and boxes with a showcase of iconic design and outlandish form: everything from a technicolor tower by Will Alsop to a sleek hyper-modern abstraction by David Chipperfeld to a plain old office building scaled by dozens of primary-colored stick figures. It's stunning in photos, and it's a fascinating neighborhood to walk around during the day. There's even a stylish café cantilevered off the side of a pedestrian bridge in the middle of the harbor when you need a rest.

I was in Düsseldorf with a handful of journalists and designers on a tour, and we stopped in at the café for a midafternoon coffee-and-cake break. It was a fine summer day, a weekday, the offices around us full of busy workers. The café was empty. So were the streets and laneways in and around most of the iconic buildings. If you moved a block or two off the harbor, you found a few busy shops and restaurants, but Medienhafen itself was cold in that stage-set way starchitecture often is. It was a collection of exquisite sculptures with some offices inside, a magnificent art gallery and probably not such a bad work address, but it was not a place, not a neighborhood or real urban district.

In contrast, the older streets of Düsseldorf are magnets for people.

Powerful stuff. It speaks to an idea we've exploring here at PPS, the "Architecture of Place." We think the design profession is ready for a new direction, away from the iconic buildings that have had the same deadening effect on streetscape as the Brutalism of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Instead we need an architecture that recognizes that a community's people are the true urban designers, and what happens where the building meets the street is critically important to the health of our neighborhoods.

Another article that got us talking around the office appeared in The Line, a publication based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Titled "What's Working in Cities: Placemaking," it focuses on Detroit's enormously successful Campus Martius project. The reporter, Michelle Bruch, talked to me and PPS vice president Ethan Kent about why Placemaking is becoming a new economic development strategy in cities (a trend we've seen most recently in Houston, which we named "North America's Placemaking Capital").

Here's an excerpt:

Detroit's Campus Martius Park

The strategy that built Campus Martius is called "placemaking," and it's a development approach gaining momentum across the country. The strategy gives local residents and stakeholders a major voice in shaping new development.

In the case of Campus Martius, the locals pressed for a park they could use all year long. They created a park with wireless Internet, 1,500 movable chairs, and more than 200 events per year, such as concerts, film festivals, and bocce ball tournaments...

Detroit's $20 million park investment has paid huge dividends, according to Gregory, the Campus Martius president.

A software company called Compuware constructed a one-million-square-foot headquarters at the fringe of the park. Several hundred units of new housing went up a block-and-a-half away. Quicken Loans' new headquarters arrived with 1,700 employees, the Westin renovated a historic vacant hotel, 35 retailers opened near the park, and the Ernst & Young accounting firm anchored the construction of another new 10-story building.

"$750 million in new development has happened around Campus Martius," Gregory said. "And there is more coming."

It's not just Detroit and Houston that are seeing this type of effect. The article also looks at the positive impact Placemaking has had in Pittsburgh and in Bristol, Conn.

As you can see, it's a great time for Placemaking! We'll be keeping you up to date on future news and developments.

Photo of Gehry buildings in Düsseldorf: ign11 via Flickr. Photo of Düsseldorf street scene: maccusphoto via Flickr.

Fred Kent
Fred Kent
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space