PPS President Fred Kent leads a tour of Times Square during a Placemaking training / Photo: PPS

Every spring and summer, we welcome people from all over the world—architects, planners, developers, academics, city officials, advocates, activists, engaged citizens—to our offices in Manhattan for our Placemaking Training programs. While we offer several different training programs that can be tailored to different types of public spaces, our core curriculum is made up of four courses that have become mainstays in our efforts to spread the tools of Placemaking to an ever-broadening constituency: How to Turn a Place Around, Placemaking: Making it Happen, Streets as Places, and How to Create Successful Markets. So how, you may ask, do these workshops really work? What am I going to get out of attending? What types of people actually attend?

How to Turn a Place Around (HTTAPA) is, put simply, “Placemaking 101.” The course is designed to introduce the core principles and fundamental tools at the heart of the Placemaking process. These tools will help anyone working on a public space project—whether you’re the architect designing a new plaza or a stay-at-home mom trying to rally neighbors to improve a local playground—to not only evaluate current uses of a site effectively and brainstorm for the future, but how to build community support and explain the mechanics of how great places work as well. As past HTTAPA participant Adele Gravitz (who works as the Sustainability Coordinator for Lenox, Mass., and Community Transformation Grant Program Coordinator for Tri-Town Health Department in Lee, Mass.) explains it, “The people running the training are remarkably precise about something that you’d think of as not just hard to explain, but to quantify! Everything you get is pure meat; there’s no fluff, no filler, no wasted time. I took away so many nuggets of tangible knowledge, as well as site-specific examples.”

Placemaking: Making it Happen (MIH) builds on the knowledge set up in HTTAPA and digs into the complicated and fascinating process of place management. At PPS, we’re fond of saying that the success of a public space is about 80-90% reliant on its management, so MIH offers critical insights for people who spend a good deal of their time working on spaces over the long term. “Most planners finish their plan and go on to another place,” says MIH alum Zvika Mintz, an urban planner from Kfar- Saba, Israel. “They don’t often stay and work on the maintenance of the place. Making it Happen shows the importance of maintaining the space. You’re never finished with a project.”

“I think the Making it Happen training is really helpful for anybody who is in need of outside-of-the-box concepts to help motivate them or drive a new process,” says Cara Salci, a Development Project Manager with the National Capital Commission in Ottawa, Canada, who participated in MIH last spring. Salci, whose job was to manage the implementation of a series of  projects along the Rideau Canal this past summer, utilized the principles of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper. She noted that her experience with the Making it Happen training was especially helpful in giving her tools and a framework for approaching a project that was based upon ideas from the public: “Consulting the public isn’t a big, bad, scary thing. The public has a lot of positive input to offer and, when you empower them to do things, it can work out in a good way.”

Over the past few years, we’ve been listening, learning, and iterating to improve our Placemaking training programs by getting participants out into public spaces around New York City for hands-on evaluation exercises like the “Place Evaluation.” If it’s true that the best way to learn about a place is to manage it (and it is!), it follows that the best way to learn about the Placemaking process is to interact with other people around a real site. Mee Kam Ng, a professor of Geography & Resource Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explains the benefits of this social approach thusly: “As an academic, participating in such a hands-on workshop was very useful for me to ground some of the theoretical discussions in my field in practical, real-life situations. We can all contribute our own experience and perspective in producing a better city; that’s my fundamental belief. That coincides with how PPS does this work. We can all learn from one another. Placemaking is also a learning process in itself, that’s really more about tapping into one another’s perspectives. It’s about figuring out how to make a shared place better, but also making ourselves better along the way.”

Norman Mintz speaks to training participants last spring in Manhattan’s Bryant Park / Photo: PPS

Truly, one of the great strengths of the Placemaking trainings is the diversity of the participants. In addition to representing a wide variety of professional backgrounds and perspectives, attendees tend to gather from all corners of the globe. “As much as we bring our own expertise,” notes Norman Mintz, one of the PPS training leaders (and no relation to Zvika), “we find that when people have more time to get to know each other, it’s made the course even better. It’s more than just sitting down and taking notes, it’s sharing experiences. We’ve noticed that the caliber of people is very high; by and large these are people who are very knowledgeable. Being able to share their knowledge, with PPS and each other, is a big strength. To be able to do it with people from across the world is wonderful.”

From the participant side, Gravitz echoes this: “I was so impressed by the people who participated in the workshop; they really had something to offer. Everybody had such clarity and was so sharp about why they were there, what they wanted to get out of it, and what they could contribute. It was one of the few workshops I’ve attended where I really did get something out of listening to the other participants. The conversations were quite elevated.”

More often than not, one of the most interesting results of this cross-cultural exchange is the realization amongst participants that people all over the world are dealing with many of the same issues they are. There are unique challenges at every site, but the common problems that the people working to create great places share offer the greatest opportunities for participants to jump in and start applying the Placemaking principles that they’re learning. Everyone gets to know each other through exchanging their own tips, tricks, and lessons learned. The trainings provide the tools and framework to facilitate these kinds of place-based discussions by illustrating simple but hard-to-pin-down principles in ways that just make sense.

“One of the key takeaways that I brought home and have used in my work since the trainings,” says Salci, “is to always keep an open mind. You have to give your projects the flexibility to breathe a little bit. If someone throws out an idea, take the time to really consider it. It may not be the right solution, but it might lead you to the right one. Sometimes we’re so quick to judge whether something is a good idea or a bad idea, but within the Placemaking process, there’s more of a spectrum. With a project like the one I was working on—we hadn’t done something like it before, so it was great to have these tools and concepts to back up the decisions we were making.”

“I went to grad school already passionate about Holly Whyte’s work,” says Gravitz, “and that was years ago. But I found that going through the exercises we did at PPS’s workshop really armed me with an understanding—and the vocabulary—to explain with a clear certainty things that I always knew in my head, in a sort of fuzzy way, to someone who knew nothing about Placemaking.”

Zvika breaks it down in even more straightforward terms. “People like to watch people,” he says. “It’s very simple, but the way that Fred and the other instructors at PPS show and talk about ideas like this helps you to truly understand the importance of simple things.”

Interested in seeing for yourself how valuable PPS’s training workshops can be to your advocacy efforts and/or professional practice? Our next round of Placemaking training workshops is never too far away! Click here to visit the trainings page of our site to learn more about upcoming programs.

We’re looking forward to seeing you  in New York!

Learning About Placemaking: You Can’t Do it Alone! was last modified: February 4th, 2013 by Project for Public Spaces