The past several months have been full of appearances, articles and podcasts in multiple venues, ranging from Seattle, Washington D.C. and Cleveland, to Stockholm, nine Australian cities, four Portuguese cities, London (where I am now based), and more.
See also, related articles and award nominations, including:
“A view of Seattle from the outside looking in,” Crosscut, August 6, 2018, here.
“Thinkers in the Tropical Shade: Empowering Lessons for Livable Places,” with Silvia Tavares and David Sellars, Planetizen, June 28, 2018, here.
Marc Furnival’s summary of Seeing the Better City, on page 28 of the Urban Design Group’s award booklet for the United Kingdom National Urban Design Award Finalists, presented in London on March 7, 2018.
“Forget ‘Smart’–We Need ‘Context Cities’,” Planetizen, December 17, 2017, here.
Andy Boenau (@boenau) is a Richmond, Virginia planner who manages a go-to podcast about human-scale urban solutions. His “on-air” questions are always designed to invoke practical hints and examples for listeners, and I track his topics and guests on a regular basis. This week, I was both flattered and pleased to be featured, as we discussd a common passion, the proactive use of urban photography today.
Andy’s questions focused on the practical side of my upcoming book, Seeing the Better City. He emphasized the book’s “obervation for more than observations’s sake” approach, and he probed the elements of the “urban diary tool” and the many ways it might be used by city-dwellers today.
See Andy’s summary, here. To listen immediately, click the direct podcast link, here.
My Twitter stream is alive with the sound of placemaking. While those are not the exact Sound of Music lyrics we remember, I am as guilty as anyone for hyping Placemaking Week in Vancouver, British Columbia (which begins September 12), using the increasingly popular twitter hashtag, #placemaking.
Food trucks and human scale, sit-able places (consider the chair interventions that we now see in public spaces around the world) are just part of the focus. Another is breaking free of the car and walkability. Most clear is a spirit of empowerment in how the public realm develops, always contrasting with “starchitecture,” rigid design or top-down plans. For PPS, a carefully studied, bottom-up approach is often the secret sauce of successful urban places. This long debate about managed design versus the verbiage of democratic placemaking recently reached a zenith with a controversial essay on “bogus placemaking” by architectural critic James S. Russell last year, and the illuminating comment chain that followed.
However, like imposed urban design, conference agendas also impose a direction and control, which is ironically anathema to a bottom-up approach . So, hearing that over 1000 people will attend (and preparing for my Future of Places presentation), I’ve been perusing the program and schedule for the week’s Placemaking Leadership Forum, full of creative, equity-centered language and ideals, in direct preparation for the United Nations’ Habitat III Conference, which follows in Quito, Ecuador in October.
The placemaking movement is hitting stride, and its principles are embraced by a number of professional organizations—from architects, to planners, to new urbanists—under different labels but with similar livability goals. I’m not so interested anymore about who owns the ideas, or whether a design professional is needed to implement a livable city. While not a design professional, I am more concerned—but without Russell’s biting prose cited above—that a place-based approach remains more than pablum, and truly honors the latent needs of urban inhabitants and the findings of those well-versed in the academic discipline of place-attachment.
For some years now, I have also focused a critical eye on the role of spontaneity and authenticity in successful urban outcomes. I examined a city of celebration—with new, shared uses of closed streets and vantage points—amid the “placemaking lessons learned” as 700,000 people watched the 2014 Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl Parade. I mused about, and wrote a book surrounding the “urbanism without effort” experienced in neighbor-generated, summer evening “alley movie nights” behind my house.
My conclusions usually stress that authentic “placemaking” with a purpose is often best, how one-time events can help crystallize potential alternative uses of urban spaces and how real neighborhood experiences offer a meaningful gloss on how to make cities better and increase shared places for all.
Because I think success often emerges from urbanism that we already have–which is readily observable, and already there to be nurtured—I’ll be going to Vancouver with an informal metric in mind: how many of the panels, proceedings, talks and strategies avoid immediate prescription without critical analysis? Will they remember to look first for what people have, want and need?
If nothing else, the overall program looks diverse, interactive and sensitive to the Vancouver locale. Just outside, Vancouver will provide the perfect sort of people-centric observatory at the heart of the #placemaking song.
Last week, Island Press Field Notes featured a perspective from several Island Press authors on why Times Square should remain a pedestrian plaza. I was honored to take part, and I wrote the following:
In downtown Seattle last night, I saw the soft glow in the dark of Westlake Park’s evolution from a “little engine that could” to the real deal. The evolution, you may ask? A one-year experiment in private management of a public place, partially inspired by Bryant Park, a New York City example. Yet this particular darkness said, in effect, worry not, for this is just a Friday night off for the Downtown Seattle Association/Metropolitan Improvement District management scheme.
Another New York City example has recently been at least a bit under siege. Like Bryant Park, the conversion of Times Square to a pedestrian plaza has become a model for the American experience. In civic discussions around the country, it is touted as proof of the possible, a domestic shining light of how every city can recreate places for people. Who needs to cite to Mayor Jaime Lerner’s similar accomplishments in Curitiba, Brazil—or to evoke European forbears—when you have an American story for local consumption that easily translates to “why not here”?
So, whether panhandling, or other tourist-oriented aversions drove (no pun intended) a late summer New York re-examination of the pedestrian concept, a “return to what was” for Times Square risks unintended consequences for the rest of us. As Seattle’s Westlake example shows, we covet the emblems and icons of big cities that lead, and for many Americans, the lessons of New York ring truer than Las Ramblas of Barcelona ever will.
If New York slides backward, so may also a multitude of “engines that could” who need the confidence that feeds the Little Engine’s immortal words, “I think I can”.