By Courtney Knapp
The following lessons represent the findings of a major PPS research initiative, “Placemaking in a Pluralistic World: Using Public Spaces to Encourage and Celebrate Social Diversity,” which was carried out during the summer of 2007. These key ideas can be used as practical steps for civic institutions as they begin thinking about engaging a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic groups through their public spaces and programming. The process of Placemaking is also an important dimension in bridging difference.
Diverse social interaction is a goal of Placemaking, but so is creating safe spaces where groups can celebrate and seek out their cultural peers. Although some people argue that a “melting pot” is the highest form of multiculturalism, others maintain that fostering “safe” spaces where particular communities can come together and celebrate their unique culture is equally important in achieving diversity. Studies conclude that the most successful multicultural spaces are those that combine both elements: “The social interaction of diverse groups [in urban parks] can be maintained and enhanced by providing safe, spatially adequate territories for everyone within the larger space of the overall site,” write Setha Low and co-authors in Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity.
People must be represented through familiar cultural symbols in public spaces. When people do not see their values and preferences reflected in a place, they feel unwelcome. Placemaking puts a particular emphasis on engaging many different stakeholders, listening to their stories, and making recommendations reflective of their specific concerns and desires. No community group’s history should be erased from the physical and cultural reality of a public space.
Extensive and ongoing community participation is critical to the success of a multicultural place. Community-based planning is one method for tackling issues of underrepresentation of subcultural groups. On the one hand, it seeks to redress the monolithic and often top-down approach to politics and planning by bringing those historically excluded voices into the decision-making process. On the other hand, participatory planning is crucial because it is a mechanism for empowering communities to make planning and development decisions for themselves rather deferring to professional planners. The potential for the development of social capital through this process should not be underestimated. Placemakers know well that outreach requires more than simply advertising workshops and meetings. More proactive and context-specific strategies must be developed to gain resident input, especially when working with communities who have been historically excluded from the public process.
Discrimination is real, and needs to be tackled by public space managers. We would like to believe that public spaces in our community are free from inter-cultural hostility and discrimination, yet studies reveal that many people do experience overt discrimination in public space, which discourages them from using parks, business districts, civic centers, and other places. Creating a positive, welcoming space through design and programming should be a top priority of planners and managers.
Integrate many different types of uses–as well as elements that bring people together–into plans and designs. The most meaningful public space plans and programs strike a balance between official and vernacular uses, incorporating many different kinds of activities while simultaneously remaining flexible enough to accommodate values and preferences of different cultural groupings as they evolve over time.
Locate public spaces in areas where they can serve multiple communities. Markets, playgrounds, and parks on sites where they will border different communities is a proven way to increase the social diversity of public places. But, as Setha Low and others maintain, good access and linkages are about much more than simply physical proximity. Addressing social issues such as affordability, cultural representation, safety, and understanding all play into whether or not people will choose to use the public space.
Focus on neighborhoods. As a unit of planning, the neighborhood is the most important in terms of promoting social diversity and increasing social capital. It is conceptually broad enough to get individuals to think beyond themselves and their streets, but of a small enough scale to still support the notion of “neighborliness” and encourage collaboration between community planners and stakeholders.
Program public spaces with educational and cultural activities that celebrate diverse cultures. Programs that offer educational experiences related to the history or the environment of a particular place have been shown to be effective in bringing people together. People want to learn, and when they come together to share the experience of knowledge, social divisions often dissolve. When spaces are programmed to celebrate diverse cultures and histories, there is an even greater impact. The power of learning and exploring should not be underemphasized.
Courtney Knapp was a Project for Public Spaces intern. She completed her Masters in Gender/Cultural Studies at Simmons College in 2006 as well as a Masters in Urban and Environment Policy and Planning at Tufts University.