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Placemaking and the Future of Cities

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, September 24th, 2012


Why Public Spaces Matter

“What defines a character of a city is its public space, not its private space. What defines the value of the private assets of the space are not the assets by themselves but the common assets. The value of the public good affects the value of the private good. We need to show every day that public spaces are an asset to a city.” — UN-HABITAT Executive Director Joan Clos i Matheu

“You have to turn everything upside down to get it right-side up.” –Fred Kent, President, Project for Public Spaces
Building inclusive, healthy, functional, and productive cities is perhaps the greatest challenge facing humanity today. There are no easy solutions. And yet a key part of the puzzle lies right in the heart of the world’s urban areas: the public spaces.

Healthy public spaces are the springboard for revitalizing communities, whatever they are and wherever they are. That an attractive, active, well-functioning public space can jumpstart economic development in a community – from a small rural town to a big city – is being recognized increasingly around the world.

Public spaces are a vital ingredient of successful cities. They help build a sense of community, civic identity and culture. Public spaces facilitate social capital, economic development and community revitalization. This is as true in the Global South as it is elsewhere in the world.
Every community has some sort of public space, even if it is not immediately apparent. Sometimes it is obvious — a shady park with walking paths and benches; a boulevard lined with sidewalks, a grand plaza surrounded by government buildings. But public space is also what we find in between private spaces, and is not always recognized or honored as public. Back alleys, neglected courtyards, and stairways may escape our notice — but these are nonetheless among a city’s most underutilized and potentially valuable assets. Because they belong to everybody, they are perceived as belonging to nobody. And yet if they are claimed, and owned, and developed, they can be harnessed to strengthen and enrich their communities.

When municipalities are struggling economically, investment in public spaces may be seen as a non-essential response. In the Global South, establishing the minimum conditions for proper public space — safety and cleanliness— can be a particular challenge. But the truth is that even a small investment in quality public space delivers a manifold return to the cities with the foresight to see its value. By strengthening the social fabric, providing economic opportunity, and boosting the well-being of citizens, public space can make limited resources go further and enrich the community both socially and monetarily.

Case Study: Detroit, United States

The city of Detroit is working on a new vision for its future that will address long-term challenges while improving the quality of life for its residents in the short term. “Rebuilding Detroit’s Neighborhoods through Placemaking and the Power of 10” is an initiative that offers concrete solutions on the neighborhood scale that will result in significant quality of life improvements. The project leverages the gathering power of food and markets as catalysts for bringing people together, while building public spaces by improving vacant lots, existing parks, or too-wide streets. These public spaces will build a new sense of community and create opportunities for people to come together.

It has been widely recognized that Detroit’s inner city is home to one of the worst “food deserts” in the country. Detroit’s neighborhoods are also often “place deserts”: they lack public spaces where people can gather, they lack lively shopping streets where street life binds residents together, and many have limited numbers of neighborhood destinations. Existing neighborhood facilities such as schools, clinics, or community centers tend to be internalized, and offer specific, sometimes one-dimensional experiences. That is also often the case with neighborhood parks or community gardens, which could have much stronger impact as community destinations.

Project for Public Spaces, with support from the Kresge Foundation, is addressing the lack of place in communities by building on the growth of neighborhood farmers’ markets in Detroit. Farmers’ markets offer an opportunity for short term, immediate steps to enhance access to fresh, local food and to use the gathering power of markets as catalysts for retail development while building a stronger sense of community. While the city is developing its Detroit Works plan for the future, small scale, focused interventions in targeted neighborhoods can send a strong message to residents about the power of community in neighborhood revitalization.

Central Detroit is a neighborhood with a lot of basic needs. Despite its location in the United States, it shares many problems with the Global South. Many residents are out of work. Many don’t own cars, and the public transit system is utterly inadequate. Safety and security are a major concern — the city can’t even keep up with repairing broken streetlights. A lot of houses are abandoned and occupied by squatters.

Last fall PPS was thrilled to be part of a very successful harvest festival outside the wonderful Central Detroit produce market Peaches & Greens (with key support from the Kresge Foundation and working with the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation). Although flanked by vacant lots, Peaches & Greens proved to be the right spot for the festival — and the event showed how this could evolve into an even better place for the neighborhood to come together.

The tough conditions faced by local people made the response to the festival even more heartening. People were ready to jump right in and become part of something more meaningful. They provided a lot of practical ideas for activities could be taking place around Peaches & Greens on a more regular basis. One thing we heard from a lot of local residents was that they are eager to see more community-building events in the neighborhood.

Download full report (PDF): Placemaking and the Future of Cities

About the Project for Public Spaces
“Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. Our pioneering Placemaking approach helps citizens transform their public spaces into vital places that highlight local assets, spur rejuvenation and serve common needs.”

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