Public Spaces Are a Bellwether and A Bridge For Difference in the Communitie

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Placemaking can bring people together and create a sense of shared ownership of a city and its public spaces. Through Placemaking, community places not only become more active and useful for the people who help to create them, they can become more welcoming to people of all ages, abilities, income levels and backgrounds.

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Public spaces are a bellwether, and a bridge, for difference. Photo of Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn by Ethan Kent

Since public spaces can both reflect and shape the communities they serve, they become incredibly meaningful places for people working to create more equitable cities. Many underserved communities have been systematically excluded from the prosperity and vibrancy that their city continues to generate for its wealthier residents. When neighbors come together to improve their public spaces, results can be tangible and immediate, and this process itself amplifies the sense of inclusion that great places can generate.

These benefits are often obscured in public debates surrounding Placemaking. Critics have voiced concerns, again and again, that Placemaking provides amenities that are geared toward a specific demographic—that its aim is to make “less desirable” areas more aesthetically palatable, and that it works to accelerate (or even initiate) gentrification by increasing property values and driving long-term residents out of their neighborhoods. Because of such fears, which urban critic Matt Yglesias has termed “gentrificationphobia,” neighbors often resist improvements to the public realm, from the installation of bike lanes to the development of long-vacant properties.

PPS developed The Beach in Detroit’s Campus Martius through a Placemaking process. It has become a shared place that brings together, and bridges, vastly different populations.

PPS developed The Beach in Detroit’s Campus Martius through a Placemaking process. It has become a shared place that brings together, and bridges, vastly different populations.

“It’s not always that neighbors feel new development will make the area worse,” writes

Yglesias, “sometimes they oppose new development because it will make the area better. [While concerns about people being priced out are not] crazy, it is crazy that this is the kind of thing people need to worry about in urban politics. ‘Your policies will improve quality of life in my community’ should never be a complaint about a policy initiative.”

Here we can see the fundamental misunderstanding that has led to so much of the concern around Placemaking today. A bike lane is not Placemaking; neither is a market, a hand-painted crosswalk, public art, a parklet, or a new development. Placemaking is not the end product, but a means to an end. It is the process by which a community defines its own priorities. This is something that government officials and self-proclaimed Placemakers ignore at their own peril.

This is why the involvement of all residents is vital for creating great places. Placemaking offers a unique opportunity to bring people of different backgrounds together to work collaboratively on a common goal: a shared public space. When local officials, developers, or any other siloed group prescribe improvements to a place without working with the community, no matter how noble those groups’ intentions may be, it often alienates locals, provokes fears of gentrification, and  increases the feeling and experience of exclusion. This kind of project-led or design-led development ignores the primary function of Placemaking–human connection.

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