Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Placemaking – Making it Happen

Saturday Market (Photo via Wikimedia licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
The AIA-Southwestern Oregon Design Excellence Committee continues to produce outstanding talks for its series of Making Great Cities events. The 2016 edition was no exception as a packed house at the Hult Center Studio gathered last Wednesday to hear from Fred Kent on the subject of placemaking, and how relying upon the input of community members is necessary to create well-used and loved public spaces. 
Fred is the president and founder of Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. The PPS approach helps citizens transform their public spaces into vital places that highlight local assets, spur rejuvenation, and serve common needs. Fred founded PPS in 1975 to expand on the work of William Whyte, author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Since then, PPS has completed projects in more than 3000 communities in 43 countries and all 50 U.S. states. 
It was clear Fred took the time to explore some of Eugene before his presentation. He said he believes Eugene is “close to an enormous opportunity” and that now is a “wonderfully transformative time” for the city. Given this may be true—and I agree that it is—we certainly should capitalize upon and avoid squandering this opening. The next few years may determine whether Eugene will develop truly effective public spaces or continue to suffer without enough of them because we failed to come together to make it happen.  
We immediately recognize a great public place when we see it. Fred characterized great ones as places that breed affection. They attract people, who in turn attract even more people, further enlivening the place. They each have their own distinct identity. They make people feel welcome and comfortable. Most significantly, the community of which they are a part had a hand in creating them. After all, the members of the community are best equipped to understand what they want and need from the spaces they share. Successful public places instill a sense of pride and ownership in those who live and work in the areas surrounding them. 
A ubiquitous impediment to creating great community places is our tendency toward addressing problems in less than holistic ways. Urban design problems and the means to solve them are often tackled independently by disciplines all too dedicated to their areas of specific expertise. As Fred said, “each discipline has become its own audience,” its discourse conducted within an ideologically disconnected echo chamber. For example, much of our public realm has become defined by the needs of and dedicated to motor vehicles, thanks to the diligence and laser-focus of municipal traffic engineers. Efficient flow of traffic is what’s important to them. The problem for Eugene is this blindered view of the world has meant many of our streets are terrible places for human beings; “a disgrace,” Fred called them. Streets should be used for going to places rather than merely through them, he says. 
Fred picked on traffic engineers because the consequences of their decisions are especially impactful upon our cities, but too many bureaucrats (and also architects) with the power to shape our public spaces are likewise afflicted by the silo mentality. Eugene has few benches to sit on as we’re too afraid of who will use them and law enforcement wants to discourage loitering. We lack the kinds of multiuse buildings that activate sidewalks because our land use regulations have prohibited or failed to mandate them in many instances; and so forth. 
So, how do we get everyone to crawl out of their comfortable silos and collectively think about how to make Eugene’s public spaces vibrant and attractive? How do we shift the mindset and culture toward those that foster the creation of the kinds of places we’ll all be proud of and want to use again and again? Fred’s answer to these questions is to converge on the notion of place, because when you focus on place, you do everything differently. 
Fred identified 11 key principles useful to transforming public spaces into vibrant community places. These principles are: 
  1. The community is the expert
  2. Create a place, not a design
  3. Look for partners
  4. You can see a lot just by observing
  5. Have a vision
  6. Lighter, quicker, cheaper
  7. Triangulate
  8. They always say “it can’t be done”
  9. Form supports function
  10. Money is not the issue
  11. You are never finished
Each of these principles is succinctly explained on the PPS website. Of these, looking to the community for expertise, creating a place rather than a design, and starting lighter, quicker, and cheaper stand out for me. Resources are always limited, so top-down (as opposed to community-led) and expensive solutions are often neither possible nor desirable. Simpler, bottom-up, low-cost processes may be equally or more effective means for achieving the kinds of public places we yearn for. Managed properly, simple processes don’t result in impoverished solutions but instead embrace the real complexity of vital and vibrant spaces and the manner by which they support both programmed and spontaneous social gatherings. Making things happen with lighter, quicker, and cheaper means entails at once both less risk in terms of capital outlay and more risk-taking by a community members emboldened by a vision of their own making for what a successful, active, public place can be. 

Fred went on to describe PPS’s placemaking process and its tools. One of these is the “Power of 10.” This concept is used to facilitate placemaking at multiple city scales. Having a range of reasons to be in a place—such as reading a book, people-watching, listening to music, eating food, meeting others—makes it a place. Some of the activities that regularly occur there will set it apart as unique and particular, reflecting the culture and identity of the surrounding community. When the range of reasons to be there numbers ten or more, the place thrives. 

During the placemaking process, participants not only start at the small scale by identifying the 10+ things to do, they also locate ten or more places within what can become a destination: corners, edges, centers, and other subspaces that layer a variety of activities upon one another. No single type of use or user dominates the space. The synergistic and incremental outcome is a set of workable ideas the community can implement (perhaps with a minimum of means). Ultimately, a city with ten or more great destinations is on its way to becoming a more resilient setting for urban life at its best. 

Fred presented numerous images of successful, enthusiastically embraced public places. All of these featured cheery people bathed in obliging sunshine. What? You say it rains in Eugene and people tend to shun outdoor spaces when it does? “Weather is a perception,” Fred says, meaning our rain is an impediment to enjoying a good public place only if we allow it to be. If anything, a vital and vibrant space shines through even when the sun cannot. 

While creating effective public places is often difficult, Eugene definitely has all the ingredients necessary to develop its fair share of them. We have an engaged citizenry, neighborhoods with distinct and emergent characteristics, and, as Fred pointed out, we simply need to adopt the necessary mindset and focus first and foremost on the notion of place. I’m enthused by the opportunities in front of us, and I’m hopeful we’ll seize the brass ring by coming together to create the lively, inclusive, and attractive places our city deserves.

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Kudos to the Design Excellence Committee for putting together such a great event. And big thanks to Dustrud Architecture, The National Association of Realtors, The American Planning Association, Lease Crutcher Lewis, the City of Eugene, and Patricia Thomas for supporting the Making Great Cities speaker series with their sponsorship contributions.

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