“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.
Image (cc) from Flickr user Ed Yourdon