The Key to Safe Streets: Five Cities Humanizing Street Design

The Wild World of Placemaking

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Lively public spaces are vital to every community on the planet. How places are planned and used can vary from place to place, but PPS has found universal principles that apply to how people use public spaces based on our work throughout the world. Last year, international trainings, workshops and presentations accounted for almost half of our work, including projects in China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia as well as Europe and North America.

PPS' place diagram translated into Serbian. Since 2003, PPS has carried the ideas of Placemaking to the Balkans, which at the time was emerging from a tragic and disruptive period of civil war

People everywhere desire places where they can meet other people in a safe, comfortable setting. The best public places offer people a variety of things to do along with convenient places to sit and relax. PPS emphasizes the importance of sociability, functionality, and a sense of place wherever we work, and this is what we invoke in Placemaking training sessions we hold in cities around the globe. Our programs also aim to fundamentally change how community input in the public space planning process works.

Our approach is drawn from 33 years of observing how people use spaces and examining the elements - both physical and non-physical - that encourage that use. These conclusions are similar to those of researchers from around the world who have also have studied people in public settings. Danish architect Jan Gehl notes, "Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it."

Here's the core of what PPS teaches in our trainings.

- How to recognize a good place, and discover what's wrong in mediocre spaces. - How to evaluate a place in terms of how it is used and how it is perceived by the public. - How to facilitate a Placemaking meeting or workshop in any community. - How to translate information from the workshop into a design concept and a management strategy for new or existing places. - How to use public space research to make the best decisions and plans. - How to present information and results to others so they will be inspired to make improvements.

The following stories show how Placemaking is at work in different cultures, and how these principles are helping shape a new era of great public spaces around the globe.

Placemaking Around the Globe

The United States has a long tradition of community participation in planning, which is lacking in many other countries where government agencies are more likely to make the decisions affecting a public space. This means that citizens in these countries are less familiar doing things for themselves, a key issue PPS addresses in our international trainings.

However most European city centers and many in Latin America and elsewhere have better public spaces than in the U.S. - their squares, historic town centers and pedestrian districts are the envy of American tourists who visit. But many of the public places in outlying neighborhoods and small towns suffer from the same problems that American cities face - suburban sprawl, domination by the automobile, and a lack of people on the street. An auto-dominated form of urban planning imported from North America has had great impact in the developing world and even on the classic cities of Europe.

There's a need for Placemaking almost everywhere as both alternative and antidote to many urban problems today. Even in the United States where community participation is a longstanding element of the planning process - people often feel let down because they attend meetings and enthusiastically offer ideas for improvements in their public spaces , but then what emerges at the end of the process is not close to what they envisioned. PPS training programs aim to give people the tools and knowledge to radically improve how community involvement in public space planning takes place.

We are happy to see organizations of all kinds embrace Placemaking methods and look for new ways to improve public spaces. Through our licensing program, workshops, and presentations as well as other examples of fresh thinking about public spaces, its is clear that the Placemaking is going global and we are delighted to be at the forefront of this growing movement.

1. The Greening of Scotland

During one Placemaking training in Edinburgh, Scotland a man who had been a community activist for 40 years went out on a 20-minute visit to a site in his neighborhood, and came back amazed. "We've been trying to sort out parking problems at a community park for 10 years," he said later in a discussion, "and just today I realized the problem: we had the entrance in the wrong place."

This man had found a solution to a decade-old problem in his community by simply approaching it differently, with help from a diverse, engaged group of people. "Without this process of Placemaking, these people wouldn't have been in the room together at all," comments Deryck Irving of Greenspace Scotland, who sponsored the Placemaking training.

Participants evaluate Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh as part of a "Making Better Places" seminar conducted by Greenspace and PPS in 2006

An innovative country-wide Placemaking movement has grown up in Scotland during the past three years, led by Greenspace Scotland, an environmental organization which became a PPS licensee in 2007.

Greenspace, like PPS, views the meaning of the word "sustainable" in the broadest sense. Focused on improving parks and other green spaces throughout the country, they have identified many challenges that need to be overcome in order to make Scotland into a more sustainable environment. These include the need for more quality green spaces in cities, greater community participation in making decisions, more effective programming of public spaces, and more emphasis on making public spaces accessible to everyone. Particular concerns are issues related to littering, vandalism, and vacant or derelict sites.

In addition to tackling these problems, notes Irving, Partnership Manager of Greenspace, "We are trying to get people out of organizational silos that prevent them from talking to each other. We realized that that was the true strength of the Placemaking process."

The partnership between Greenspace and PPS started with a keynote presentation in 2004 by PPS vice-president Phil Myrick at Greenspace Scotland's annual conference. Greenspace soon secured funding from the Scottish government to have PPS conduct a series of pilot training programs for Greenspace Associates - professionals throughout Scotland who were interested in learning a new approach to working in local communities. The Associates and Greenspace staff now use the Placemaking approach, tools, and techniques in their work throughout Scotland.

But this is not the full picture of what's happening in Scotland. Greenspace's progress in bringing new thinking about public spaces is beginning to have an exponential effect. "My job is about getting people to talk to each other," says Irving, "and Placemaking is a great way to get them to do that. One of the benefits is people realizing they have common ground. Actually having them walk around a site and interact really changes the way they view their options for spaces."

Colinton Mains Park in Edinburgh was one of the places studied by Greenspace Scotland to identify opportunities for short- and long-term improvements

Greenspace Scotland credits the PPS license as significant to their success with Placemaking. The organization hopes to develop its Placemaking work into an independent, self-sustainable branch of their organization, and is already making common cause with allies in the Scottish government's new "Sustainability Initiative."

Greenspace also feel that Placemaking allows them to offer advice on technical, non-greenspace-related projects such as downtown master plans, because of the universality of its applications. In their brochure, the organization explains they have been able to "try different approaches to building Placemaking capacity in local Scottish community organizations and to continue to distill the key elements of Placemaking to improve practice in Scotland." PPS looks forward to helping the "Placemaking Scotland" program grow in influence and accomplishments.

2. Reviving Democracy and Civic Engagement in Central Europe

The Placemaking process has been particularly important in Eastern European countries because it is a powerful democracy building tool that enables citizens and NGOs to work effectively with local governments. Starting in the Czech Republic in 1994, PPS has helped spread Placemaking throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The focus of these community efforts has been reviving public life in traditional squares and other public spaces that had been grossly neglected under communism as well as improving the monumentally bad new spaces these authoritarian regimes built - whose purpose seems to have been minimizing people's opportunities to freely and comfortably gather.

A plaza adjoining a bank in Prague was transformed from a desolate passageway into a popular square, thanks to input from the local community and the work of The Czech Environmental Partnership

In conducting workshops throughout Eastern Europe, PPS found that older participants often had the most to say. At one memorable workshop in the small town of Blatna in the Czech Republic, an older man shared stories of days before World War II when Blatna's squares were vital community centers, and he offered numerous ideas about how they could be brought back to life with markets and other activities that used to take place there.

Now, as democracy emerges throughout Central and Eastern Europe - and the pitfalls of Western-style development become more apparent - there is still a widespread suspicion about "planning" left over from the Soviet era. That's why the Placemaking approach--featuring a participatory, community-led process--has proven so attractive as a method to improve public spaces and reinvigorate a spirit of civic engagement.

PPS' work in the Czech Republic has been integrated into the Czech Environmental Partnership which continues to fund and support projects that engage citizens in the decision-making process and assist specific projects aimed at the improvement of public spaces. In 2001, under a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), PPS joined with the Czech Environmental Partnership to train 25 community and NGO leaders in methods of revitalizing public spaces so that they can facilitate community participation processes in small towns and villages. The Czech Partnership has also launched a new subsidiary organization to provide technical assistance to communities seeking to make more sustainable communities, based on PPS' model.

A local artist creates fanciful animal play sculptures to revitalize a neglected park in Slavacin, Czech Republic

The Czech Environmental Partnership has become a model for similar public space efforts in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, all of which are called Environmental Partnerships. Just last month a consortium of these groups received a major grant form the European Union to expand their public spaces work. They have asked PPS to be their strategic partner in this large-scale effort.

None of this Placemaking work in either Central Europe or the Balkans (make Balkans a link to the Balkan story) could have taken place without the long-term support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which was not only a key funder for PPS but also for groups like the Environmental Partnership organizations that have brought American-style grass roots activism to a part of the world where such a thing would have been considered impossible 20 years ago.

3. Public Spaces Heal Communities in the Balkans

Beginning in 2003, PPS carried the ideas of Placemaking to the Balkans, which at the time was emerging from a tragic and disruptive period of civil war. We have worked in a dozen communities in Serbia and Montenegro, as well as conducted trainings and worked with the Urban Institute in Croatia to introduce Placemaking as a public participation tool. Our work in Serbia was made possible with support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In the course of this work, PPS has certified five Placemaking consultants and licensed the Balkan Community Initiatives Fund (BCIF), a foundation which supports community revitalization, as a Placemaking organization.

Volunteers make signs for a new greenway linking the city of NoviSad, Serbia with the village of Chenej--one of the improvements coming out of a Placemaking workshop
The fruits of Placemaking: The first farmers market in 50 years for the city of NoviSad, Serbia, originated in a Placemaking workshop
A PPS-led working group in Presevo, Serbia, work on improvements for their main square

We began by helping BCIF create and strengthen local capacities for participatory planning so that the public could be more involved in decision-making on civic spaces in their communities. These initiatives were implemented with success in seven Serbian communities.

Last year, with help from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, BCIF established its own grant-making program called "Public Spaces: Our Spaces", which encourages community revitalization through citizen involvement on achievable, small-scale projects. BCIF received more than 111 applications from across Serbia, of which seven were chosen for the first round of grants totaling $44,484 U.S. The projects include:

* A volunteer firefighters association in the West Serbian city of Mokrin wanting to reconstruct the fountain in the central square to help revive the area as a cultural center.

* A local club in the East Serbian city of Knjazevac working to restore the city's central park as green space for the whole community.

* An arts group in the West Serbian city of Uzice planning revitalization of the central square and creation of an adjacent arts market with space for musical, theatrical and video performances.

*An ecology club in Raska in the Sandzak region focusing on adding walking paths, bike paths, and picnic grounds to an open space near the village, which could then be used as a park, art colony and eco-camp for local kids.

* A community action group in Pancevo in the Vojvodina autonomous region (which has large Hungarian and Slovak minorities) working to use art projects to improve a public passage that connects a city park, city hall, and a high school with the central pedestrian zone and riverfront.

"Our first year showed that there is great interest for these kinds of initiatives," BCIF organizers explained. "We found that citizens are very enthusiastic to have the opportunity to be involved in a process of creating public spaces in their environment, which was for them the first experience of this kind in Serbia."

The first Placemaking trainings in Montenegro (which separated from Serbia in June 2006) were held last November. PPS is working with FORS, an economic development organization, and the United Nations Development Program. All of these efforts throughout the Balkans illuminate the power of public places to restore civic pride in post-Communist societies and to help heal the wounds of war and ethnic strife.

4. Placemaking Goes Dutch

The Netherlands boasts some of the world's most interesting cities, but Dutch citizens and planners still find Placemaking valuable in improving public spaces

Even in a country with a wealth of charming and vital cities, Placemaking can be an invaluable tool. That's been the experience of CROW - a Dutch non- profit organization involved in planning, design, construction, management and maintenance of public spaces. CROW is incorporating Placemaking into all of its work with transportation officials and city agencies as a step toward creating more livable cities.

In 2007, PPS president Fred Kent and senior vice president Kathy Madden were invited to the Netherlands for a series of Placemaking trainings. Soon, PPS was involved with a program to develop CROW's capacity to introduce the concept and principles of Placemaking to audiences across the Netherlands as part of the organization's mission to improve and promote "systems engineering" of the country's public spaces. CROW saw Placemaking as an exciting opportunity to expand their reach and influence not only in the design of public spaces and infrastructure, but in the ways that these spaces fulfilled the wishes of their users.

"Our position as a design-based organization," says Harro Verhoeven, Project Manger of CROW, "allows for a uniquely influential interpretation and application of the principles of Placemaking. We have big plans to continue moving forward with these ideas in the near future."

This year, CROW plans to develop a fully functional and independent Dutch Placemaking training program that will be up and running by 2009. In November they will be hosting a National Congress on Public Space, which will launch the Placemaking movement in the Netherlands.

CROW aims, according to Verhoeven, to "give Placemaking a fixed place in the Dutch process" and to use their own design expertise to find out how the ideas and vision that flow from a Placemaking process can be translated into specific designs and materials.

Acknowledging the unique geography and climate of the country and a need to tailor the process in order to implement it effectively in the Netherlands, CROW aims to recruit and train native Dutch citizens to serve as trainers for future workshops, and to incorporate more Dutch examples into training sessions. They are also translating PPS Placemaking tools like the book "How to Turn a Place Around" and the Placemaking syllabus into Dutch.

At this early stage in creating a Placemaking program for the Netherlands, PPS remains actively involved in advising CROW and promoting Placemaking in a variety of ways, but it is clear that through the driven, forward-thinking actions of CROW's staff, the movement will soon have a strong presence in Holland.

5. A Library Instills Community Spirit in Nova Scotia

A year ago, the staff at the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library based in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, realized that in order to move forward with the plan to improve their network of libraries, they needed to break out of the old way that libraries were traditionally thought of in Canadian communities. That's when they discovered Placemaking as the solution to their challenge. This idea was inspired by what Eric Stackhouse, chief librarian of the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library, had learned about looking at public spaces in new ways at a PPS "How to Turn a Place Around" course in New York. He came away from the training with a clear sense that he wanted his library to play a bigger role in the community: "Librarians have to think about our spaces differently. Our role is heading toward more community development skills."

Residents of New Glasgow discuss findings of their audit of public spaces at the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library

Today, after a PPS-led training workshop in New Glasgow, the staff of the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library is excited about using a Placemaking approach in their work. "Placemaking gave us a really great framework and structure to be able to then move forward. We've been using those principles to make the public library one of those great, central places in the community," Stackhouse reports.

The Pictou-Antigonish Library now features an outdoor "library patio" offering seating and shade for local folks. It is seen as a major breakthrough for the library in reaching out to the community and in introducing the principles of Placemaking in the Pictou-Antigonish region.

Plans are in the works to develop a neighborhood café on the patio. An expansion of the library building will allow for more community gathering spaces and resources within the library and provide an opportunity to create a more well-defined outdoor connection with the park adjacent to the library. Stackhouse notes. "Before we managed book collections. Today, we're doing much more to manage community spaces."

Building on this experience in Nova Scotia, PPS recently facilitated Placemaking training for librarians in British Columbia and Saskatchewan to give librarians the tools to turn their libraries into community places that serve as civic anchors and destinations. The goal of the training is to encourage the programming of outdoor public spaces proximate to libraries which subsequently act as extensions of the facilities themselves. These bold steps are already contributing to the enlivenment of the public realm in city centres around Canada.

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The Key to Safe Streets: Five Cities Humanizing Street Design