As we transition from a burgeoning economy to one that’s rapidly deflating, people are realizing that placemaking offers the ideal approach to improving our cities and neighborhoods in these hard times.

Placemaking puts people first. It is a holistic approach based on public involvement, on citizens working to make things better. Capitalizing on communities’ often overlooked assets and can-do spirit, placemaking shows how we can advance everyone’s health and happiness without spending huge amounts of money.

We now see the limitation of the privatized pursuits that flourished in recent years, and are rediscovering the importance of truly public spots—parks, markets, waterfronts and downtowns, to name a few—where we can come together to meet our needs and solve problems.

Taking stock of our work over the past year, we noticed 10 significant trends that are redefining the world as we know it, even in a down economy. What stood out in looking over all that we accomplished in 2008 was how people can still make big changes in their community if they have the right tools.

1. Placemaking gains ground around the globe

Places as diverse in climate and culture as Norway and Dubai, Chicago and Singapore, Scotland and Korea, Bulgaria and Australia are all developing broad placemaking agendas. By collaborating with PPS, they are defining and planning their cities with the future in mind.

In the Czech Republic, placemaking programs are still going strong 12 years after the fall of communism through the revitalization of public spaces and public life. Under the leadership of PPS partners’ The Environmental Partnership for Sustainable Development (EPSD), our Eastern European program has been expanded to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria.

In Western Europe, Scotland is currently in its fourth year of applying placemaking principles to improve public spaces throughout the country, and over the past two years, PPS has been conducting placemaking training in various Dutch cities in collaboration with CROW, a not-for-profit organization that unites government and business in pursuit of common interests through the design, construction and management of transportation infrastructure.

An impromptu drawing class in Osaka, Japan

Citizens in Osaka, Japan have been exploring and defining a placemaking strategy for several years, which was finally unveiled with a PPS keynote speech given to over 300 business, governmental and academic leaders. This event was preceded by a training session around key sites in the central business district, and marked the beginning of a larger regional agenda around the idea of placemaking.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi–laboratories for a wide spectrum of new ideas in urban development–have also contacted PPS for guidance in incorporating the principles of placemaking into their ambitious planning efforts. This has included discussion on how placemaking could form the foundation of a whole new city. In 2008 PPS presented a lead-off speech to top officials at a major development company there and are currently exploring placemaking as a core component for a new research and urban innovation center.

Chicago’s Guide to Neighbrohood Placeamking

Meanwhile, Chicago is pursuing the boldest placemaking agenda in the United States through a PPS collaboration with the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council. A new publication, “A Guide to Neighborhood Placemaking in Chicago” and its accompanying website were created to help people learn more about how to make places and share their ideas, successes and failures. In addition, PPS and the MPC led training sessions for both government and grassroots leaders last fall.

PPS President Fred Kent leads participants at one of two Chicago workshops

Finally, PPS’s handy guide to placemaking, “How to Turn A Place Around,” has now been translated into 5 languages-Japanese, Korean, Hungarian, Czech, and Dutch, with a Polish edition in the pipeline as well.

2. Collaboration is the key to making change

In partnership with AARP’s Livable Communities Initiative, PPS has produced new training materials to assist AARP staff and a growing legion of volunteers in making changes to transportation decision-making throughout the U.S.

The project has produced three easy-to-use booklets: “A Citizen’s Guide to Better Streets: How to Engage Your Transportation Agency,” “Streets as Places,” and “Great Corridors, Great Communities.” Also part of the project is a series of three webinars: “Understanding the Transportation Planning and Project Delivery Process,” “Dealing with Government Bureaucracies,” and “The Role Community Planning Plays in Transportation and Vice Versa.”

The cover of the first of the PPS-AARP booklets, A Citizens Guide to Better Streets

3. Greenplace: how community revitalization fights climate change

Ever since organizing New York’s first Earth Day celebration in 1970, PPS President Fred Kent has believed that environmental restoration is closely tied to community wellbeing. Mr. Kent elaborated on this connection last year at the Green City of the Future conference in Bergen, Norway, where he spoke about how placemaking can play a key role in the planning of a green city.

The Green Buildings Conference, organized by the City of New York and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), also stressed this natural connection by inviting PPS to give a keynote speech on placemaking. In addition, PPS was on hand for “The Global Discussion on Global Sustainability: Where Do Science Centers Fit In,” at the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) international conference in Philadelphia, as well as gave a keynote presentation at the Walk 21 conference in Barcelona, which championed the development of healthy, sustainable and efficient communities where people are eager to walk.

4.Placemaking is essential to vibrant travel destinations

The travel industry has long understood that cities and towns need ways to showcase their uniqueness in order to attract visitors. To that end, PPS gave the lead-off speech to 1600 travel industry professionals attending the Destination Marketing International Conference in Las Vegas under the theme of “creating destinations.” This year, we also gave presentations to the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s Resort Committee and at the national conference on Civic Tourism in Providence, RI. A recent story in the industry journal Convene highlights how PPS’s placemaking approach applies to destination marketing.

The historic swan boats of Boston’s Public Garden have attracted locals and visitors for over 130 years

5. Libraries emerge as new town squares

Librarians represent a newly emerging force for placemaking. They already provide a resource center for their communities, but many of them are now pushing to turn their libraries into civic centers that foster a sense of community and offer a unique gathering place. Many librarians now envision their facilities as both virtual and literal town squares for their neighborhoods and downtowns. PPS recently offered workshops and keynote addresses at library conferences in four provinces, and in early 2009 will give a keynote presentation to the National Librarian Conference in Canada. We have learned a lot about the potential of placemaking from these innovative librarians.

A new patio outside a regional library in Nova Scotia draws in the community

6.How cities stay lively 12 months a year

Peace Plaza in Rochester, Minnesota, Kennedy Plaza in Rhode Island, Campus Martius in Detroit and Market Square in Pittsburgh are just a handful of new or revitalized public spaces that have been successful in attracting people all year round despite rain, snow or freezing temperatures. The secret they share is strong and creative management. In the winter months, these squares and plazas each feature a program of public activities that include skating rinks, holiday markets, or temporary “ice cafes.” The success of public spaces ultimately depends on programming and management, and spaces are best equipped to thrive when they host events and activities throughout the year.

Kennedy Plaza in Rhode Island has been given new life with a variety of programming and activities

7. The Power of 10 leverages community assets

The bold idea that every town and neighborhood should have at least ten destinations, each with several things to do, has been greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm everywhere we talk about it. Now, public leaders all over the world are embracing this vision as an effective way of enlivening communities by tapping into local assets and knowledge of place. Offering people the chance to identify ten potential great places in their neighborhood can be a powerful tool in developing a vision to improve any community.

Last fall, the West Virginia University Extension Service’s Center for Community, Economic & Workforce Development hosted a “Power of 10” summit based on the simple but important idea that the more things there are to do in a place, the more beloved and important that place will become to the neighborhood. PPS offered the keynote at the summit, which was attended by people from throughout the state.

PPS has also utilized the “Power of 10” concept for workshops in many settings: in Washington D.C., in collaboration with the Downtown Business Improvement District, to transform F Street into a world-class avenue; in downtown Houston, for a new park called Discovery Green; in Dubai, for visioning and planning ambitious new developments; and Harvard University, as part of planning for a brand new campus across the Charles River.

8. Public markets provide a leg up in a down economy

Public markets reach a more diverse customer base and often have more positive economic impact on a community than conventional retail projects of comparable size. In 2008, PPS completed a three year, $3 million grant program funded by the Ford Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundations to support new as well as established markets, many of which are located in low-income communities. Through the course of this work PPS provided tools that not only helped grantees achieve their project goals, but also enhanced their markets as popular community gathering places. More than 40 markets in 20 states were funded through this program.

Many lessons and best practices have surfaced through this work, which will be showcased at our 7th International Public Markets Conference to be held in San Francisco on April 24 – 26, 2009. The timely theme of the conference this year will be the role that markets play in strengthening local economies.

Ferry Terminal Market in San Francisco, CA

9. The rise of community-based transportation planning

PPS is playing an important role in the way transportation planning is done today, helping shift the focus from simply moving traffic toward creating and sustaining vital communities. In 2008, PPS’s transportation program moved from operating on a project-by-project basis to joining broader collaborative efforts to influence policy and funding priorities at the national level. Placemaking is now being embraced in many sectors as an important and legitimate component in transportation planning, including the Federal Highway Administration for whom PPS facilitates and operates the Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) web site. PPS has used its extensive on-the-ground experience to help shape the platform for the T4 America Campaign, a major voice on Capitol Hill advocating for the new federal stimulus package and this year’s transportation bill to have a positive impact on American communities and the environment.

A multi-modal street in Portland, Oregon

We’ve discovered that one good way to introduce the idea of placemaking to a wider circle of decision makers is through transportation training programs. We’ve connected placemaking to land use policies at workshops in Oregon, Chicago and Los Angeles, and to the notion of Context-Sensitive Design at workshops in New Mexico, Denver, Charlotte and Hartford. In 2009, The New York State Department of Transportation, (NYSDOT) is collaborating with PPS to conduct “Thinking Beyond the Station” workshops along the Tappan Zee Bridge rail corridor. We will also lead a two-day transportation workshop at our offices in New York City called Streets as Places. (For more information, please click the previous link.)

Participants at a PPS workshop in New York City

10. New developments create innovative models for destinations

The global economic downturn is squelching most conventional developments-including mixed-use done the usual way with just office, commercial and maybe housing. But interest remains high in creating destinations that bring together local cultural organizations, entertainment venues, public markets, parks and community retail that serves local needs. Granville Island in Vancouver and the Pike Place Market in Seattle are two prominent examples. They thrive in part because of the loyalty of nearby residents, yet both are also popular tourist destinations. New examples of developments that succeed because they help define a local identity can be found in in Savannah, Georgia (Trustees Garden), and San Antonio, Texas (Pearl Brewery), along with the building boom accompanying the opening of Discovery Green Park in an overlooked corner of downtown Houston.

PPS will be hosting a forum in Savannah, Georgia, “Creating New Models for Destinations,” that will gather developers, government leaders and public spaces managers to discuss strategies for managing public spaces and creating these types of vibrant destinations. For more info on the forum, please contact Dana Kitzes at

Aker Brygge, a new development in Oslo, Norway, combines residential, commercial and recreational uses

For more in-depth information about PPS and Placemaking, check out two recent articles from Convene Magazine and the Urban Land Institute.

PPS Greatest Hits of 2008: 10 Trends Shaping the Future of Our Communities was last modified: March 7th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces