Empowering Communities and Building Movements

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Our Guest Speakers Fred Kent and Katherine Peinhardt debate ‘Placemaking’ as a strategy for building better and more resilient public spaces.

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Or read the transcription:

Carolina Nunes:


I’m Carolina Nunes architect of urban ecosystems at Humanität. In this Urban Dialogue, we are going to talk about Empowering Communities and Building Movements.

Our Guest Speaker is Fred Kent. Committed to transforming spaces in which we live into places we love, Fred Kent has worked with 3,500 communities in 50 countries for over 40 years. He is a leading voice in the ‘Placemaking’ movement, which uses the vision and expertise of a community to create better public spaces.

As one of the founders of Project for Public Spaces, he worked in hundreds of projects, including Times Square and Bryant Park in New York City; and trainings for audiences such as the Ministry of Environment in Norway and the Dutch transportation organization.

Today, he is part of Placemaking X, which is a network to accelerate placemaking movements all over the world, and is also working on The Social Life Project, which showcases user-friendly spaces that promote health and economic vitality.

Our Guest and Co-Host is Katherine Peinhardt. She is German Chancellor Fellow and Guest Researcher at DIE – the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik. Her research concentrates on blending social infrastructure into resilience planning, improving urban resilience through public spaces.

She worked as Project Reporter at Project for Public Spaces, telling the story of placemaking, synthesizing the projects and promoting a narrative for building cities around places. Katherine also worked at World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, coordinating digital communications and producing written content to promote a vision of more sustainable urban development.

Carolina Nunes:

Hi Fred! It’s such an honor to talk to you and to listen to your experiences about Empowering Communities and Building Movements. My first question for you is: 

There is a gap between people who are prepared to discuss participatory planning (for example Architects and Real Estate Developers) and people who need suitable places to live (such as people in social vulnerability, communities affected by socio-natural disasters, and so on).

In this sense, I would like to ask: How can we bridge this gap? What are the best ways to communicate with the members of a community, and ensure their vision comes to life in the public realm? But more than that: considering that our dreams, wishes and demands are based on “the world that we know”, mainly on our real experiences: How can we ensure that the vision of the community isn’t limited by the influence of developers and other interests?

Fred Kent:


I’m here to talk about placemaking and how communities can shape their future. 

And I want to start with one big idea. That is that an architect, actually this sort of surprised me, but Christopher Alexander who wrote a book called the ‘A Pattern Language’ had this quote: “People are deeply nourished by the process of creating wholeness”. 

That and these two people that are in this picture (FOTO), this woman, this elderly woman, walking down a street in Paris, has never left my mind. This was probably 30 years ago that I watched her struggle bravely coming down a street with no intersections. In other words: this street was an open street both sides with retail and cafes and stuff like that. So she didn’t have to cross an intersection. So this was her probably daily walk. But when I looked at her, I realized that: I wonder how many other people are in their homes who can’t come out.

And then I watched these two women in Barcelona a few months ago, (FOTO) enjoying their stroll through a neighborhood with hundreds of other people, all promenading. And the pleasure that I saw in their faces! Just regained, just embraced me enormously. As to how: Who are we really working for, who are we serving: The people who we don’t see? Yes. The young, the old, the infirm, the poor, the weak. All of those people are really important. But what’s going on here, and the reason we don’t get this, this kind of attention to the right people to create that wholeness that everyone really is craving for. And when they have it, boy are people happy. The ideas of fear, the kind of goals that a community has, are narrow goals.  

The siloed disciplines are the ones that make all the determinations in government, and in the professional world. That the kind of development is sort of (FOTO) project-driven rather than place driven, so we’re not really getting the wholeness that a broader way of development can have. That is design-led by professionals, rather than place-led with the community having a big role. And the government structure and regulations forces the kind of presentation or the requirements that disciplines have to be in charge of everything.

And that doesn’t work. And so one of the big issues that I’ve always had on my mind is: How do we get around this? And when we first started working, we have this phrase: “Each discipline has become its own audience”. And when we were working we had to go up against all of these disciplines because they were all focusing on their own agendas. You know, the traffic engineers, transportation people, they own the streets. The designers own the buildings. And it was a building in the way it was designed, not the way people used it, that became the agenda for them. And they were judged by other people in that same discipline, not judged by how the results were in the communities where they built.

And that was often a big part of the failure of communities, is that what they were given wasn’t had nothing to do with what their needs were, or what they really, how they wanted to live. And what happened about 40 years ago, these are the disciplines that we worked on, had to work with. And each discipline was very hard because they all had to be at the table, they all had to have their say, they all have to create the outcomes that they wanted.

Well, guess what happened? Those dozen disciplines have multiplied by probably by a factor of two, or two to five times. And so now you can’t do a project in a city without all of these different disciplines. They’re all experts and they’ve all been to professional schools, they are high level, highly qualified people for their discipline. But are they qualified for the people they’re working for, in the communities? And that’s where I think there’s a big failure. 

And so what’s happened is: we’ve created all these siloed disciplines but also these siloed places. So we have all these different places: the community centers, parks, libraries are all in separate districts, different buildings, and each one of them does its own thing. And they don’t converge around the common goals or the sense of a larger place. They don’t converge around that. So placemaking has always been our fortei. And it’s really become more and more necessary globally and there’s a big, there’s a really big, movement to support this. So it is a dynamic human function. It’s really an act of liberation, of staking claim, of beautification, and it’s true… It’s empowerment for people. And once you get that you get some enormously big impacts as a result of that.

And what we would say is that: when you focus on place, you do everything different. And it’s that difference that really delivers the outcomes that we’re looking for. And so we came up with these 11 principles we wrote a book called ‘How to turn a place around’. And the first principle is the community is the expert. And right away everything changes. As soon as you realize that, that’s really the basic issue, that who we’re supporting, and who the real professionals are, it’s the community. And that we’re creating a place. Not just a design. And that they can’t do it alone. It needs multiple levels of people working on this together. 

And they’re always people that say: “it can’t be done”. I mean, the traffic engineer will say: “Well you can’t slow the traffic down here” or “You can’t make that intersection more difficult to turn” or “We’re not going to take a lane of traffic out of here because the traffic is what drives the economy”. And you can go on and on about that.

So what we do is: we create a vision with a community. And we come up with these what we call ‘lighter quicker cheaper kinds of activations’ and they become the foundation for growing that place.

Carolina Nunes:

Thank you very much for this excellent explanation, Fred! And now I have a second question for you:  

There are good practices in urban planning. Projects that changed not only a square or a neighborhood but also the city and other aspects such as economic development. But these projects, although participatory, are usually led by governments. You work directly with communities. 

Can you provide one or more examples of a community-led movement that has changed a city, and how they came to be implemented?  

Thank you

Fred Kent:

So now I want to turn to a project that absolutely floored me when I actually went to see it. It’s in Toronto and it was absolutely stunningly awful. It could not have been worse. And yet it won the landscape design award for Canada, about five years ago. And it’s what we call a design-led one.

And then not too far from there, in a park, in a neighborhood that had a lot of difficult situations: crime and health issues. There was another park that has a lot of trees and grass. But not a lot of good uses. And the person that actually was the one that transformed it was about to have a baby and she had to decide whether she wanted to be whether she should be afraid or (scared) *boredom. And she chose (scared) *boredom and you’ll see what happened. 

So this is what we would call a design-led versus a place-led project and they’re so different. It’s really astonishing how bad something could be. (FOTO) This is a place called Sherbourne Common, in Toronto, near the waterfront. And there are two sides to a street and on one side there’s this building (FOTO) . No one knows what the building is. It won the architectural award in Canada for that year and no one knows what it is! It’s a water filtration plant.

And then right next to that is this: on one side there’s this park, or playground (FOTO), if you want to call it that. And on one strip of black stones there’s one kind of use and then another strip, there of white stones, there’s seesaws and swings and some seating. And what happened: we were there and a couple, a family came up and the little kid came out and started playing in this park. But then he realized, that boy, (FOTO) these white stones should mix with the black stones. So he started doing that and his parents got upset, and they quickly moved the stones back to where they belong and they left. And then another family came. And there were two older children and there were these two swings but they were four rows away. (FOTO) And so fortunately with two parents, one parent could be with a swing and one and the one on the other. But they didn’t last long and they left. And you kind of wonder: how they could, how could anyone design something like this? Who was it for?

And what happened is that the designer actually called me because I put it on a ‘Hall of Shame’. And said: “Stay out of my world you’re not a professional. You do not. You cannot say anything about this because it’s about the professional”. That the professionals that do this, that are the ones that get the awards. And you know they chastised me for it. And I couldn’t have been happier because I can’t think of a worse kind of place that anyone could do! 

So… But nearby, in a place called Dufferin Grove Park, in another neighborhood in Toronto, this woman (FOTO) , a pregnant woman, went into the park. And there are all these what she called tufts. And they together, they built a bread oven (FOTO) . The Portuguese bread oven. And here it is. And it brought all these people from the community into that place. And they have all these events. And then one group of people actually built a kitchen (FOTO) , with outdoor dining, (FOTO) so that people could come in and eat there. And then there was a performance in a little path that had hills (FOTO) on both sides, so people could sit on those hills and (FOTO) watch the performance.

And then the playground (FOTO) couldn’t have been messier, dirtier, but everyone wanted to be there. (FOTO) And so they had a little pipe where the water came out and so. All these activities could actually occur in this place and it became a true community destination.

So: is that good? Yes, of course, it’s extraordinary. But who did it? It was a community that did that. And another one, quickly, is working in Detroit (FOTO)  We were brought to Detroit, in the downtown of Detroit, and we did a community plan for the city (FOTO). A placemaking vision and they implemented the vision. In about four months we’re doing what we call ‘lighter quicker cheaper activations’ (FOTO). And something like this, (FOTO) became this, (FOTO), (FOTO) six months after we did the plan. And they put a beach (FOTO) in the center of Detroit (FOTO). And it brought all the neighborhoods and became the destination for the whole city. Games were brought in for people to play (FOTO), there was markets and cafes (FOTO). And the person that began to build his identity in Detroit, (FOTO) Dan Gilbert bought all these buildings and created this public space. But it was the public space that drove the outcome. They couldn’t get any retail. So they went with a public space, and they made it open and dynamic. 

And so the strategy for implementing something like this is (FOTO) ‘lighter quicker cheaper’. You create energy, energetic anchors of activity, you crowdsource the ideas, you make it a moveable feast, you get life on the streets, and you bring the inside out. And this has become by far the biggest destination in Detroit and it’s been part of the amazing turnaround for the whole city of Detroit. So the design-led, place-led, community-led, program-driven, are really alternative solutions and directions for how to create cities of the future.

Carolina Nunes:

Thank you, Fred, I’m really thankful for your contribution. Thank you for sharing this.

Dear Katherine, it is a pleasure to have you as a Guest and Co-host in this Urban Dialogue. And I also have a question for you:

Urban resilience planning is becoming more and more important in this context of climate change. Many cities around the world are investing in “gray” resilience, like walls and levees, and “green” infrastructure like green roofs and rain gardens. Although these infrastructures play an important role, we can feel sometimes a “lack of humanity” in this process. People are no more than numbers: the number of people affected by a weather event, the number of people protected after building infrastructures, and so on. Urban and disaster planning are considered apart of community planning.

In this sense, I would like to ask: How can we build resilience using the process of placemaking? Why is this important? How can it enhance not only the expected results in the case of disaster but also the connections between people and nature? What is the role of public spaces in resilience planning but also in the quality of life?

Thank you

Katherine Peinhardt:

Resilience is often a term that when people hear it, they think of sea walls or other large pieces of infrastructure that physically protect a community from the impacts of climate change. And while that is a part of it, I think it misses the point where social infrastructure has a lot to do with the way that we react to a shock or a disturbance, whether it’s climate-related or not. Resilience, just like sustainability, is pretty multifaceted. (FOTO) And beyond being about physical spaces and how they absorb shocks, it extends into the way the communities function, and how we interact whether there’s trust. I think that resilience and ‘placemaking’ are linked because they both relate to or rely heavily on social infrastructure. So public space and ‘placemaking’ support the social infrastructure where people make these crucial ties to each other, build trust, and learn how to count on each other in moments of need. As a result, I think that ‘placemaking’ can be a really strong tool for resilience building. To focus too much on hard measures, like landscaping choices, would be to miss a huge opportunity to cultivate the social side of resilience. And that’s where ‘placemaking’ comes in. To tie that off: I think that, right now, there’s a common thread between ‘placemaking’ and climate action as communities of practice. In that, they both seem to be changing the way that they handle and talk about equity and inclusion as a guiding focus area. For example, the climate movement at large seems to finally be listening to the folks, that have been saying for a very long time, that climate action can’t take place without recognition and action on long-standing environmental racism. On the other hand ‘placemaking’ is also increasingly about deep listening. Drawing on the resources and knowledge of a community while also recognizing its history, especially the harder and more complicated parts of it.

The thing about ‘placemaking’ is that it can strengthen our communities, not only on the worst days when we have to deal with a disruption or a disaster of some sort but also in the best days of normal days when it just creates the backdrop for social life in a city. (FOTO) There are a few things though that I think can help guide the blending of physical and social resilience through the lens of public space.

And the first of those would be to make a space useful, on a day to day basis. So to illustrate this: (FOTO) This is a photo of the seawall at Stanley Park in Vancouver which blends flood protection and spaces designed for walking and biking, into the world’s largest and uninterrupted waterfront path. Originally it was aimed primarily at flood protection. But beyond creating what could have very easily been a dead space with an inactive and flood-resistant hardscape, the designers of the seawall created one of the city’s best-loved recreational areas, that connects destinations throughout the city. So, hard resilience, here, is layered with everyday functional and vibrant recreational use.

My second recommendation would be to make public spaces a hub for recovery. So, for this one, (FOTO) my example is in Houston, Texas. After hurricane Harvey, Houston was left with a lot of flooding, and the Baker Ripley Center was quickly transformed into a hub for emergency services and volunteers because it was already seen as a place well equipped to provide community services like daycares and libraries and an art studio. It was able to remain a driving force behind disaster recovery processes. Of course, this mobilization required a lot of strong communication and organization efforts but it becomes just that much easier when it takes place in a trusted community hub. 

My third recommendation would be to mix social and physical uses. And for this one, my example is in Toronto. (FOTO) Corktown Common Park, in Toronto, was a former brownfield site that now does a great job of mixing human and ecological uses of a space. It layers marshes, urban prairies, and underground floodwater management systems with paths and playgrounds that people can use. On the physical resilience level, the park’s structure divides the area into two sections: one where it’s designed to flood, and the other protected by design, situated on top of the slopes of the flood retention structures. But on a non-flood day, all of these uses meld into one cohesive public space that’s active year-round. 

Next, I would recommend that people accommodate the local realities of the climate crisis and tailor their solutions to the real impacts that a specific community will be seeing. And for this one, I want to talk about Hunter’s Point South and Long Island City. It’s a former post-industrial site that has been repurposed as a waterfront space. (FOTO) And it’s part of New York City’s sustainable parks plan, which is designed to accommodate storm surges through a system of tidal marshes and barriers. These are all features that were put to an early test in the form of hurricane Sandy. And besides its environmental education programs and stewardship, the park is improving area resilience, in that it protects the residents of Queens from locally relevant climate impacts, like rising sea levels, stronger storms. It’s among a host of other places in New York City designed with sea-level rise in mind, among the Governor’s Island. 

My last recommendation would be to meet local needs in a playful way. This one is particularly exciting to me, as it’s hopefully going to be one of my case studies, in my research project right now. And we all know that Rotterdam is in seemingly constant need of stormwater storage, reflected in the city’s climate resilience strategy. (FOTO) This is the water plan ‘Benthemplein’, part of Rotterdam’s first climate-proof district. And it’s a floodable water square that incorporates seating and open play space but also doubles as stormwater management infrastructure. There are basins underneath it that are also designed for skating and connected by a system of steel gutters to the city’s open water system. So it’s an example of incorporating play and resilience in one fell swoop. And is part of a wider effort by Rotterdam to turn itself into a sponge.

What is the role of public spaces in resilience planning, but also in quality of life? Public space sits at the intersection of so many of today’s global challenges, whether it’s equity public health, air quality, or resilience. Our parks, roads, and markets are opportunities for improved quality of life in so many different ways, whether it’s through the proven mental health benefits of access to green space, or better safety outcomes, that come from roads that prioritize human health rather than vehicle traffic. But we have to keep in mind that they can only provide those benefits when they are designed, programmed, furnished and managed effectively, and with the input of the whole community, which is where ‘placemaking’ comes in. Having access to public space is something that has long been unequal across cities, so public space benefits often don’t reach the folks who live far from parks or are not served well by public transit and so on. Again, public space and climate resilience alike must be driven by meaningful inclusion, in order to make sure everyone has access to the progress made, in either of these areas.

Katherine Peinhardt:

Now I have a question for you, Fred. In an era when environmental groups and climate groups like ‘Fridays for Future’ are growing fast, how do you think the ‘placemaking’ movement and the climate movement can overlap?

Fred Kent:

So I want to talk about how climate change and the global catastrophe that we’re all faced with can have an enormous benefit by working on communities all around the world. And we strongly believe that making communities healthy and successful, (FOTO) around broad issues convergence of sustainability, of local food systems, of transportation and preservation, local economies, energy and consumption, resilience: all of these coming together around specific places and can collectively have an enormous impact on the future of the planet and the future of every community. Everyone wins. And we all can become part of a world that we want to live in, that we can live in, and that will give the planet a future. 

So if we… One of the most basic things is the gathering place (FOTO), the central gathering place, the civic square, the public square their time-honored. Even indigenous cultures would have these gathering places around a fireplace in far-off places. And as cities developed up until the last till 100 years ago. They were built around a series of gathering places of squares. Then the car came along, and the future of cities became around grid systems which took out that whole idea of the central gathering place. And we lost that and we have to get back to that. And one of the ways you can do it is this, by taking like this. 

It is at Harvard University and this is the old Harvard campus. (FOTO) And for 375 years there was nothing in there and then all of a sudden one day they put chairs out there. And chairs of different types so that people could do different things in them. It was just that simple idea that could do that, could turn that around. And then the whole idea of having markets (FOTO) you can have a market for repairing computers, or your blender, or whatever it is. There all of these things can be done by people who know how to do it. (FOTO) But these markets are time-honored, their historic also from the beginning of time. 

And you can take streets. (FOTO) We’ve lost the whole idea of streets as public spaces but you can turn them back. (FOTO) And this place in Buenos Aires, it takes the street back and makes a square out of an intersection. And then you can apply design (FOTO) instead of building objects that win a Design Awards. You can actually create the base of a building that is at eye level (FOTO). It is an attraction because it’s defined by people not by the architecture. And you can get really beautiful buildings of human scale. And then the whole idea of community hubs (FOTO)  how you can turn a whole library and cultural center (FOTO) into a series of places (FOTO) that is defined by nature in people? 

And you can take waterfronts (FOTO) as they become central to the defining a city. Places like Porto (FOTO), in Portugal, is defined by their waterfront on both sides. It’s one of the most extraordinary public waterfronts anywhere in the world and (FOTO) you can take cultural destinations and take them out of their buildings, and put them in on the river, or a bookstore (FOTO), or a big blackboard (FOTO), and watch people become totally engaged in that. And want to be and come there on a regular basis. And then you can take the (FOTO) whole idea of different items or pieces of art and sculpture, and that people can come to and roll around on the (FOTO) fake grass and climb on the statues (FOTO). And you get some enormous amounts of laughter and pleasure, and people from different cultures coming together. And that place becomes sacred in their minds. And you can also just put (FOTO) great amenities. You can take seating and flowers and all of a sudden you’ll find that that’s (FOTO) where lovers go. 

So what I closed with this, we have this phrase, with just really fantastic idea, (FOTO) if architecture is frozen music (which is what so much of it is today) and planning is composition, ‘placemaking’ is improvisational street performance. And it’s that improvisation, that iterative process of creating places that one of people want to be part of, that can really bring about a future that we all want to be part of. So the idea of those movements coming together around place that is defined by communities (FOTO), every community differently for its own identity and sustainability, we can have a planet that is thriving for everyone. It’s inclusive, it’s equitable, it’s dynamic, and it’s a very powerful example. Community by community of a world, we can live in together for the future.

Carolina Nunes:

Thank you so much Fred! And thank you very much Katherine! Your answers were very helpful.

Sometimes, architecture and urban planning are too concerned with the picture of the places rather than how the places will be appropriated by the communities in which the projects were designed for. Similarly, resilience planning is often concerned with hard resilience, while the human aspects are left in the background. And your reflections were really important, bringing people to the center of discussions, and ‘placemaking’ brings this expertise from communities to create better and more resilient public spaces.

Thank you very much!

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