COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Bringing Environmentalism and Placemaking Back Together

Apr 21, 2016
Jan 3, 2018
“Perhaps it will be the city that reawakens our understanding and appreciation of nature, in all its teeming, unpredictable complexity.” Jane Jacobs, The Greening of the City
‍Vancouver is a leader in integrating environmentalism and placemaking, and hosted the the 1st Habitat Conference in 1976, that launched UN Habitat. This is a big reason why we held the 1st Placemaking Week there. | Photo by Guilhem Vellut via Flickr

The environmental crisis pushes human civilization in meaningful ways. On one hand, the profound natural forces at work are humbling and make clear humanity’s limits. On the other, they challenge us to be more resourceful, collaborative, and creative. Proven and urgent threats to human and natural habitats are forcing us to work together to improve our relationship with each other and the places we inhabit. Environmental degradation is giving us impetus to reconnect to place, as well as to the process through which we collectively shape it for shared benefit—placemaking.

Placemaking can influence current urban development patterns - a leading contributor to emissions growth, and effectively implement the goals of COP21. Beyond cutting emissions, the placemaking movement, locally and globally, can support an environmental agenda that is inspiring, emergent, and actionable on an individual level.

‍The first image that comes up if you google "The Future of Cities", looks like the rest, and though perhaps aesthetic to some, embodies many of the continually failing patterns of cities. | Image by Philip Straub

We need technological solutions, encouraged by smart regulations and policy. But as scholars Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros have pointed out, technological solutions can be a mirage when they don’t consider users, management, and the specificities of place. Only new models of governance and development will shift our culture and capacity for change and enable us to innovate and thrive together. Placemaking offers a valuable tool communities can use to take back control of their future and their environment.

Unfortunately, most of the visions for a “green future,” often promoted by the architectural establishment and now pervasive in the media, are contrary to the patterns of civilization we need to have a truly sustainable society. Too often they are repackaging the same mid-century concepts of static cities and tower-in-the-park development that destroyed our pre-car walkable urban fabric,  only adding green tricks like “bolt-on” roof gardens, solar panels, and triple-paned glass.

Beyond innovative technological and design solutions, we need to drive change and innovation through dynamic human environments that produce not only environmental benefits, but proven social and economic returns as well.


After organizing Earth Day in NYC in 1970, our founder Fred Kent realized this need. He shifted his focus away from the environmental movement in favor of research on what makes cities work for people. Fred went on to pioneer placemaking as a means to turn the development process upside down to start with people and places. Today, a burgeoning global movement of placemakers—activists, developers, designers, and officials—are all working to build a more equitable, healthy, and sustainable society.

This diverse group of placemakers made the Placemaking movement go global in 2016. The first Placemaking Week fed into a strong presence at Habtiat 3, the largest UN conference yet, organized to set the New Urban Agenda. We are now working with UN Habitat and partners for to support the implementation of the New Urban Agenda with placemaking.

Determining the right implementation strategies will be the defining task of the placemaking movement, and a focus of our upcoming Amsterdam Placemaking Week. We need people working in all different disciplines to contribute their experience and expertise, and help set the course for a sustainable urban development for decades to come.

By Ethan Kent and Matt Bradley

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space