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“It’s difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished,” the urbanist and author William Whyte once said. We all know those spaces: the corner at the end of the block that everyone seems to avoid, the park where no children actually play. These are exactly the type of spaces that New York-based nonprofit Project for Public Spaces has been working to transform for the last 30 years with the help of communities the world over. The group helped turn New York City’s Bryant Park from a base camp for junkies and criminals into one of its great public spaces by implementing common sense ideas like moveable seating and food vendors.
This people-centered approach to urban design is what the organization has dubbed placemaking, which Vice President Ethan Kent describes as “the process by which a community creates and shapes the public realm.” That the community, not the professionals, know what’s best for places can be a bitter pill to swallow for architects and urban planners in love with their own designs. But it’s that approach that communities need to return to, says PPS. Instead of focusing on fancy architectural details we should create places where families and couples want to linger. Or, as one staffer put it, “Where are people kissing and taking off shoes? Affection is a sign of good public space."
Whether it’s rehabbing a vacant parking lot or placing a bench in front of your house, the placemaking process just takes some dedication. “We’ve found that all great projects at every scale can be tracked back to some zealous nut,” says Kent. “Someone who is passionate about their community.” Ready to turn your neighborhood around? We asked PPS how to get started.
1. The Community is the Expert
That the community is the expert might be the defining principle of the PPS placemaking process. Tap your community early in the process to help create a sense of ownership of a project. All communities have people who can provide valuable insights into how the area functions and what is meaningful to people. Even if that that old sign doesn’t seem important be sure to ask: It may be the main meeting spot for people who use the park.
2. Create a Place, Not a Design
To make an under-performing space into a vital “place,” elements should be introduced that make people welcome and comfortable. Things like modular seating and new landscaping can dramatically change the way a space is used. The goal is to create a place that can serve as a setting for community activities. And don’t forget the people. People attract people.
3. You Can't Do It Alone
Finding a diverse group of partners is critical to the success of your project. Local institutions, museums, schools, and small businesses all make great partners and will help ensure your project has broad community support. And having partners makes it easier to find more, so get them on board early.
Image courtesy Project for Public Spaces
4. Observe How Spaces Are Currently Used
Look at how people are using (or not using) public spaces. What do they like about them? What don’t they like about them? Why do couples sit near the trees instead of the fountain? How come the kids always play on the chairs and not the playground? Through these observations, it will become be clear what kinds of activities are missing and what might be incorporated, what makes them work or not work.
Image courtesy Project for Public Spaces
5. Have a Vision
The vision for a public space should come out of each individual community but it needs to consider what kinds of activities can happen in the space as well as how to make it comfortable. Perhaps most importantly, it should instill a sense of pride in those who will use the space the most: the people who live and work in the surrounding area.
6. Start with the Petunias
Public spaces are complex and you cannot expect to do everything right initially. The best spaces are developed with short-term improvements that can be tested and refined over many years. Seating, outdoor cafes, public art, striping of crosswalks, and community gardens can all be added relatively quickly. And don’t forget the flowers!
A big word for a very simple concept. “Triangulation is the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to other strangers as if they knew each other,” said Holly Whyte. In other words, create excuses for people to bump into each other. Place a bench, food stand, and stage together and watch the magic happen.
8. Form Supports Function
The people who use the space know what the space needs. And although design is important, input from the community and partners will tell you what “form” you need to make the space successful.
Image (cc) via Flickr user Ed Yourdon
9. Money Is Not the Issue
It’s not that money is not an issue, it’s that money is not the issue. Of course projects need money, and not everything can be donated, but once you pool the resources of your community and partners you may be surprised at how little it takes to complete a project. Starting with something small like Park(ing) Day is an easy way to gain an early success that you can build on.
10. You Are Never Finished
By their very nature good public spaces respond to the shifting needs of the community and will require maintenance. Amenities wear out and the area surrounding the space can change so flexibility and open-mindedness is essential. Placemaking is more art than science so be prepared to adjust course as the project evolves.
Image (cc) via Flickr user Natalie Maynor