Is this placemaking?
The Campbell Fitness Center at Columbia University’s sports complex at the northern tip of Manhattan looks strange to a lot of people. But the more you know the context–an elevated train rattles past it; industrial uses collide with with residential and institutional ones—the more you appreciate why its unconventional form is so right for its place. The building, on paper, could have been a windowless box, walling off Columbia’s athletic complex from the residential blocks as earlier buildings (and the regrettable new fence) do. Instead it opens views to athletic fields and the hills of the South Bronx beyond, and plays off the grey-metal counterweight of the Broadway Bridge (which is just out of this photo). Its sculpted volume and zigzagging stairs recognize the industrial pragmatism of the surroundings while making a boring, emptied street intersection come to jazzy life.
This building makes its place unique by recognizing and resonating with a messy context, rather than trying hopelessly to tidy it. Yet it does not follow the rigid rules of “Placemaking,” a rhetorical gimmick spreading across the urban-development wonkosphere like kudzu. Placemaking sounds good and everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon.
Unfortunately, Placemaking, as promulgated by its chief advocate, the nonprofit Projects for Public Spaces, is largely bogus, even though PPS rather presumptuously claims it “has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century.” After you hack through thickets of slogans and vagaries, Placemaking seems to comprise a community-driven process for designing public spaces (streets, sidewalks, plazas, squares, campuses, parks, and so on) that are mixed use, host a variety of activities for diverse audiences, and are well-connected to the larger city or town. All this has been mom & pop, apple-pie stuff in urban planning circles for decades, derived from the valuable 1960s work of the urbanist and author Jane Jacobs and the urban planner William H. “Holly” Whyte. The same ideas energized the 1990s New Urbanism that gave us Neo-historical neighborhoods, a few of them actually good.
Sadly, Placemaking could only gain currency because our building and development processes create so little that is inviting and memorable. America’s default is to assemble standardized real-estate products along roads engineered for auto throughput, and call it a day. Placelessness is so ubiquitous and such second nature that it is actually hard to think about what it takes to make a building or streetscape that’s appealing, that feels as if it belongs.
The tactics PPS advocates long have been baked into the development processes of many cities, though formulaic public design and private development suck the life out of them. Now urban developers have glommed onto the term, because Placemaking sounds like something that could sail through city-review regimes and sell. The trouble is, Placemaking does not itself make real place.
Though PPS claims to have completed projects in more than 3,000 communities and 43 countries, there is not one memorable example shown on its website. You can see some nice ye-olde streetscapes, some red-brick squares with happy children scrawling with chalk on a sidewalk. You’ll see public markets in faux-historical drag that would seem to undercut any claim to placeness or authenticity. But nothing that transforms a strip highway or dead mall into an environment that feels inevitable, extraordinary—that could be nowhere else.
Creating a sense of place, or divining its genius loci, has long been a concern of architects and landscape architects. That’s why truly unique public places are usually created by insightful designers who happen to be good listeners, good observers, and are capable of stirring together the sometimes-conflicting wishes of clients and citizens into a transcendent result none could have anticipated. The smart designers asks: What is this place’s essential uniqueness? Is there an eloquence that is perhaps underlying and needs to be teased out? How do I put something new here that does not screw up the valuable topography, view, history, or use that exists?
Let’s have a look at some actual places that work and some that don’t.
Gasworks Park, Seattle. Landscape architect Richard Haag retained industrial remnants to frame views to the downtown skyline across Lake Union in this conversion of a polluting gasification plant to a park. Preserving industrial archeology was a new idea in the early 1970s, and many citizens objected to it in the community consultation that preceded construction. Haag’s extraordinary insight and tenacity produced what was deemed an instant, unexpected hit in 1975, one of the most influential park designs of the 20th century, and still wildly popular in spite of being neglected and never completely finished. In a PPS-style process, where community input would seem to rule, the park, at best, would have been ordinary.
Salk Center, La Jolla, California. The courtyard of this research center is arguably one of the greatest public spaces in the world. It was designed by Louis Kahn with no public input. There is no retail, no bike lanes, no cute kids with balloons, in fact often no one. There is, instead, an extraordinary sublime, created out of stone, sky, sea and a rivulet of water. The Mexican architect Luis Barragán advised Kahn to eliminate planned rows of trees. “If you make this a plaza, you will gain a facade—a facade to the sky,” he said. He was right.
Apple store, New York City. Architect Peter Bohlin describes this store, with a glass roof, furnished only with rows of wooden tables, and open to the street through a full-height glass wall, as akin to a market hall. He transformed a private retail space into an alluring public place through metaphor. You walk by and you almost can’t help walking in, because there are so many people who appear to be doing something interesting. Bohlin is a good observer and a smart listener with a transformative imagination.
Millennium Park, Chicago: Skidmore Owings & Merrill made a tasteful neo-Beaux Arts formal space for quiet strolling and relaxation atop an open railyard. Millennium Park came alive, though, with monumental artworks by Jaume Plensa and Anish Kapoor, both of which visitors cannot get enough of. A bandshell of curling metal sheets, a serpentine pedestrian bridge, both by Frank Gehry, and a broad terraced garden by landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson have created an extraordinarily magnetic place—almost the only public place in the city equally enjoyed by visitors and Chicagoans alike. None of this was good enough for PPS author Jay Walljasper, who found it soulless, where a “sense of contentment and wonder was a secondary consideration.” And there were too few benches. Must all parks fit the same passive, trees-and-grass mold?
South Lake Union, Seattle. Tech workers stuck in suburban office parks look longingly to South Lake Union, at the edge of the city’s downtown and not far from a waterfront park. Bike racks and trolley? Check. Food trucks? Check. Mid-block pedestrian passageways? Check. South Lake Union is better than isolated suburban glass buildings ringed with parking lots. Yet this enclave built mainly for online retailer Amazon lacks two things: talent and insight. The buildings are clumsy and cheap; the streetscapes dull and enervated, the parklets feeble. This is exactly the kind of brain-dead urbanism checkbox “placemaking” promulgates.
Rose Kennedy Greenway, Boston. The burying of the elevated highway that cut through the center of Boston—its famously expensive Big Dig—created an opportunity to develop a truly transformative sequence of public spaces that would thread the divided city together. But Boston, with endless public input, never came up with a plan to match the opportunity. This city, bursting with intelligence and talent, ended up with an embarrassing, lackluster assortment of lawns, trees, bricks and such empty park gestures as an oversized sun shelter that stares at nothing.
The Atlanta Beltline. A very ambitious project to unite dozens of neighborhoods with a combination of trails, light rail, and parks along a necklace of abandoned rail lines. The project has been slow to progress in spite of enormous public approval and use, and a tsunami of development along the small portions of the project yet completed. While the Historic Fourth Ward Park pictured seems a bit clumsily over-engineered yet under-designed (by Perkins + Will with James Corner Field Operations), other parts too timidly engage the extraordinary variety of found conditions. The jury is still out because there is so much yet to be done, but the potential of the project is so extraordinary that Atlanta should not scrimp on either dollars or imagination.
What are the lessons here? Making great places is a more organic and less mechanical process than PPS makes it out to be. Yes, the public must be involved, and yes some places should be active social mixing bowls. But some places—especially extraordinary natural features—should be left alone. In others, we should recognize that what is unique is sometimes strange (like Gasworks’ rusting ruins). Recall that the rail line that hosts the High Line Park escaped demolition only because two intrepid people cared.
Holly Go Whytely says
If Gasworks and Salk Center are such fantastic public spaces then why are there are no human beings in them in the photos above?
JAMES S RUSSELL says
Love the name. I’m trying to broaden the idea of what a public space can do and be. Salk: The point is that it is OK for public spaces to be empty at times, especially if they encourage contemplation. Gasworks: I do have pics of people on the very dreary day I was most recently at Gasworks. However the only pics of the industrial remnants I have show no people. Believe me, it’s a very beloved and well-used place. It would be even more successful if they’d do something about the damn fence.
Fred Kent says
I have been to the Salk Center a number of times. The only people I have seen in the space were wearing black. They had cameras, not brief cases, so they could not have been lawyers
Howard Blackson says
The Salk plaza is not a public space… it is private and open to the public during the work week (not evenings or holidays) and is patrolled by security guards. A great place, but a terrible anecdote to the PPS beat down this article conveys. Fred, let no good deed go unpunished.
Fred Kent says
So, Why do I get critical or extremely angry at the design professions. I am dismayed when professions that I think should be way out front working with communities to create wonderful, nurturing, gathering places…buildings and public spaces, do the opposite to advance their status within their disciplines
But, since I travel a lot, I get to see the latest examples of award winning public spaces. Recently working in Toronto, I had the time to visit Dufferin Grove Park and the Sherbourne Commons parks. I was depressed when I saw Sherbourne Commons. It defied every principle of a successful public space. Then I learned that it won the design award for both best landscape design and architecture.
We had also been to Dufferin Grove Park that had everything we could imagine in a great park. It also was community owned in the sense that the community took it upon themselves to add elements to the park that would make it more usable for them. The result is something that the poor Parks Department can’t deal with because a lot of what they did does not fall within their criteria of what a good park should be.
When we sent the attached blog out, I got calls and emails telling me to stay away from interfering with their “profession” claiming that I wasn’t educated in their field.
I am not nice when I see that happening to design professions I believe in. My son and daughter-in-law are both trained as Landscape Architects from Berkeley.
I am so mad I can hardly type. Seeing this same thing happen so often gets me furious.
Sorry I don’t get to vent often enough. Let’s get the professions back on track. Help
Today we got word that one of our many successes got mentioned by ULI as one of the best public spaces and the picture of a beach we put in and plan we did for Detroit’s Campus Martius got recognition. Interestingly, Southwest Airlines paid for it as part of a 10 year effort to create a sense of places in the cities they serve. It is on today’s USA Today section on travel.
Christopher Williams Stebbins says
If a place encourages escape, contemplation, and refuge (aka “getting away from it all”), I would call it a “park”. These are places people from anywhere can drive to, and therefore don’t support the local community.
Urban plazas and city squares, in contrast, are places for informal (and formal) social engagement, connection, and therefore community-building.
Gary Hack says
James, your article is a series of non-sequiturs. Holl’s athletics building is great, therefore PPS’s ideas about public space are all wrong, and look at what works and what doesn’t. A university athletics center, and Gasworks Park for that matter, are simply different things than public spaces along the streets of our cities. Liking some things doesn’t negate the value of others. Look at it the other way: what do the Columbia Athletics Center or Gasworks Park tell you about how to design a neglected town common, or a disused plaza? PPS’s approach may rely overly on process, which you seem to say is a problem, but what is the chance of creating a great public space if you don’t engage with those who will use it?
Doug Kelbaugh says
Gary has nailed the balance and breadth needed in assessing places and placemaking.
I happen to like Jim’s examples, but there are many other good examples that are more everyday, simpler and less iconic/famous.
As someone who will be an official “framer” of language on the role of public space for UN Habitat, this is a helpful discussion. Keep it up!
I heard recently that the term “public space” is relatively new, starting during John Lindsay’s era in NYC.
Could this be true?
JAMES S RUSSELL says
It’s not either/or. The idea is broaden the menu a bit and also show how public spaces can tease out what is unique to a place, not just parrot other successful public places elsewhere.
Gene Threndyle says
Good public space was figured out a long time ago and it really doesn’t have to be re-invented. Fred Kent is completely right about the 2 examples in Toronto. Dufferin Grove is loved and heavily used by its neighbourhood. Real estate values reflect that. It is not as highly valued by city hall or parks department here and they constantly meddle with something that works well. The other park is only loved by designers and it is empty most of the time. It is not the only empty public space in this city celebrated by designers and the people who give awards to them.
I have stopped thinking that any good will come from public consultation because the public can be an unreasonable and conflicted voice. It is too easy for bureaucrats, developers and designers to use the confusion for their own objectives and gains.
Why must the public suffer from innovative design that does nothing for them except present them with a bill? Why do we have so many unattractive, uninviting and bad public areas in our cities?
Dale W. Barnhard says
Oh right, dog parks, tot lots and poorly maintained inaccessible medians in ROW declared “Parks” are places of contemplation and beauty. There is definitely a role for getting public participation, but our public spaces should exhibit awareness as to the site, the function in relation to the built environment, and have the integrity of a beautifully designed space.
Glenn Weiss says
James, I don’t think you need to worry. PPS type thinking leads government employees and elected official to think about the USE of the space during programming and design and its pedestrian connections. Citizen participation occasionally lead to intimate and to quirky attributes of public spaces. Both good things.
Fred Kent is a walking, talking hated crime against visual excellence and imagination. His “worst” public space are pictures of visually splendid spaces on an empty Sunday morning. His “best” places are former parking lots photographed on Saturday morning during the Green Market. Kent needs to stop the hate. All the public places makers in south Florida – city or suburb – want and expect active use and beautiful design. The problem is the contracting process that prioritizes visual design skills at the bottom of the evaluation.
Fred Kent says
It was hard to keep from laughing as I read your article. We don’t put our successful projects on our web site because we feel strongly that all of what we have done has been done by the community of people that want to “own” the places in their community. Place led design is a very difficult process where the answers are often below the radar screen and can only be discovered over a few years of experimentation. In fact, we would say that it is almost impossible to get it “right” without the community being part of the process.
We would also say that Placemaking is a deeply engaging “design” process that requires a patient and caring team of design types, programming people, social engagement efforts working with an engaged community over a period that might be three to five years of iterative efforts.
Fred Kent says
I would be curious how you might react to the idea below. We are constantly trying to layer meaning onto the ideas around Place and Placemaking.
Places are environments in which people have invested meaning over time. A place has its own history—a unique cultural and social identity that is defined by the way it is used and the people who use it”
JAMES S RUSSELL says
Thanks for writing, Kent. To both of these comments, I think it is extremely important to show examples of successful public spaces, especially ones that feel they belong in their places, and that have evolved over time. How can people learn if they only see the most generic and most imitative? That Boston Public Market is a particularly dreadful example of how a public process seems to engender a building and project that’s pretty much exactly what a developer would come up with on its own–and that could be anywhere.
Dale W. Barnhard says
The Roussification model which started in Baltimore, then Faneuil Hall, and continued with it most recent manifestation being the Wharf in SE Washington, DC, are themselves artificial theme parks, that are designed to supply fast casual (but pricey) housing & entertainment to a narrow social economic group.
We should be able to create communities that supply housing and services to a wide swath of socio-economic groups and have great public spaces that include a non-auto centric way of getting there. We have many such potential spaces to be created on the remains of the soon to be extinct automobile epoch.
It’s always a relief when someone with obvious exristepe answers. Thanks!
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gimbels lover says
Fred, I must say, you’re not showing yourself to be a good listener. Frankly, this is my experience with PPS. A very interesting conversation, with good discussions of how people use spaces, all somehow ending up with the things in example slides.
I guess it’s better than some disorienting statement piece, but it’s definitely filtered. It felt a little hollow at the end.
Ethan Kent says
This is very helpful to hear this critique laid out and these perceptions expressed. After 40 years of doing this work at roughly the same clip, this is the first time anyone has gone to the trouble to write a critique of it. Certainly a sign of success.
This also helps explain why Architecture was, until recently, the only built environment discipline that had not been partnering Project for Public Spaces to use a focus on Place and Placemaking as a means to broaden its impact and partners.
You can see how Placemaking is coalescing as a movement (though still unfortunately quite independent from Architecture), much broader than our work, that can offer a create deal to addressing the advancing the issues you seem to care about:
The first exception within the Architecture world, AIA SF has recently started partnering with us as they see Placemaking as a way that they can lead and convene many disciplines and sectors to facilitate broader demand, collaboration and creativity for architects. Their recent summit:
We are excited that PPS board member David Burney may have a chance to help AIA NYC and Pratt lead in a similar way. More on his thinking on the topic:
It is a false dichotomy to be about design or use, as Glenn states. What is most limiting design is the idea that design and architecture can do it alone. PPS and Placemaking have never pretended to be a design, or anti-design, movement, but when allowed, a Placemaking process can drive greater demand and creativity, and better clients, for architects. This article risks pushing away supporters that clearly care about the same placelessness and low quality design that you lament.
Placemaking is an ongoing inquiry into how we all best work together to create places that help people thrive. PPS has developed principles and processes to help overcome many of obstacles that you identify, including the misguided “public input” processes that drag down communities and experts alike.
Btw, I think we may agree with you on many of the projects you picked out, certainly, the Apple Store, South Lake Union and Rose Kennedy Greenway:
And your concluding paragraph is entirely spot on. It is as if you no longer agreed with you opening arguments.
We have never met, but I notice we have 63 LinkedIn connections in common. Perhaps we should meet.
Ethan Kent says
Reposting this comment I submitted last night but did not get approved.
Placemaking can Help Make Architecture More Relevant, and Contextual, Again
This is very helpful to hear this critique laid out and these
perceptions expressed. After 40 years of doing this work at roughly
the same clip, this is the first time anyone has gone to the trouble
to write a critique of it. Certainly a sign of success.
This also helps explain why Architecture was, until recently, the only
built environment discipline (see the list of others in the diagram in
the below link) that had not been partnering with Project for Public
Spaces to use a focus on Place and Placemaking as a means to broaden
its impact and partners.
You can see how Placemaking is coalescing as a movement (though still
unfortunately quite independent from Architecture), much broader than
our work, that can offer a great deal to addressing and advancing the
issues you seem to care about: (link deleted)
The first exception within the Architecture world, AIA SF has recently
started partnering with us as they see Placemaking as a way that they
can lead and convene many disciplines and sectors to facilitate
broader demand, collaboration and creativity for architects. Their
recent summit: (link deleted)
We are excited that PPS board member David Burney may have a chance to
help AIA NYC and Pratt lead in a similar way. More on his thinking on
the topic: (link deleted)
It is a false dichotomy to be about design or use, as Glenn states.
What is most limiting design is the idea that design and architecture
can do it alone. PPS and Placemaking have never pretended to be a
design, or anti-design, movement, but when allowed, a Placemaking
process can drive greater demand and creativity, and better clients,
for architects. This article risks pushing away supporters that
clearly care about the same placelessness and low quality design that
Placemaking is an ongoing inquiry into how we all best work together
to create places that help people thrive. PPS has developed principles
and processes to help overcome many of obstacles that you identify,
including the misguided “public input” processes that drag down
communities and experts alike.
Btw, I think we may agree with you on many of the projects you picked
out, certainly, the Apple Store, South Lake Union and Rose Kennedy
Greenway: (link deleted)
And your concluding paragraph is entirely spot on. It is as if you no
longer agreed with you opening arguments.
We have never met, but I notice we have 63 LinkedIn connections in
common. Perhaps we should meet.
John Kaliski says
True, there should be no contradiction between place making and design, but Fred has spent years bad mouthing the design professions continuously even as they produce both good and bad places and in many ways this article is simply the blow back that should be expected given his continuous lack of respect and misplaced anger. This is sad as much of what PPS does and says is very important. I personally dismissed PPS from my place of mind years ago because I found the rhetoric so juvenile. That was probably silly but my reaction mirrors unfortunately too many others and blunts the work of a valuable practice that emphasizes the value of public participation that designers can learn from.
Jeremy Hawker says
I agree, Jim. One other thing: great public exterior spaces like Salk or the Piazza Navona or whatever do not have frenetic paving patterns. They just don’t. The Seattle and Boston examples have WAY too many areas being defined on the ground plane: a bit of rubberized non-slip something here, cobbles there, grass, concrete steps… Gasworks Park & Salk are in fact the only ones you’re showing where the whole space has one material (grass or stone) and they’re by far the best (in my opinion).
The revamped Exhibition Road in London is a good example of a shared space that works fairly well. I was pleasantly surprised when I visited. Rowan Moore wrote an interesting article about it at the time it was completed: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/jan/29/exhibition-road-rowan-moore-review
and there are good (much better) pics here:
Susan Hines says
The designers v. PPS issue has roiled architects and landscape architects on the one hand, and PPS and its defenders, on the other, for well over a decade. As someone who has written about PPS on more than one occasion, I have contributed to this, and hopefully, made enemies on both sides.
My perspective: PPS is extremely good at engaging people and engendering community confidence around transforming place. They collect good ideas and they share them and public servants and community activists leave a PPS workshop feeling inspired and empowered. This is a good thing.
Architects and landscape architect as a group–albeit a far larger and less cohesive group than PPS–are not as good at community engagement. Frankly, this really isn’t what they are trained to do, and actually might be antithetical to both their training and their bent.
You don’t spend years in design school because you want to design by committee with whomever happens to show up to your “listening session” or community design charrette. When it comes to public space, architects have enough trouble getting along with landscape architects and vice versa. Neither wants to cede public space to the other. Old Fourth Ward Park’s design issues might reflect the seldom acknowledged fact that “seamless collaboration” between disciplines is often claimed but seldom realized. One has to wonder why Perkins + Will was necessary to the Atlanta project, above, unless an architectural firm was required by the RFQ/RFP (and even then, why?) or because the state of GA limits the scope of work a landscape architect can perform such that an architectural firm was legally necessary.
And here is PPS, trying to insert themselves into this already muddy public space, suggesting pots of pansies, programming and moveable chairs etc.as perhaps preferable means of encouraging use and suggesting those elements are solutions to design problems. Worst of all from the designer perspective, Fred Kent has an ego as big as any architect’s and he tends to hate on all designers fairly indiscriminately because they are convenient straw men and women for PPS.
It probably doesn’t help that designers feel fully capable of interpreting the work of Jacobs and Whyte without PPS serving in a priestly intercessional capacity. But Fred is a zealot, an admitted zealot.
The reality may be, and this is just a suggestion, that PPS and the design community take each other way too seriously. Both sides have different skillsets and plenty to offer, both sides have successes and failures on their hands. And, apparently, both sides are getting caught up in the concept of “layers of meaning” which is quote possibly more bogus than “placemaking.”
Well put, Susan.
As a practicing urban designer, landscape architect (with architecture in the training, too), and a participant in PPS workshops, I agree fully with your analysis of the approaches and conflicts of PPS vs professionals.
I would also offer that there is so much opportunity out there to better the public (and private) realm in every community and city, that there is NO room for petty ego flexing. (purely academic).
What there is room for is acknowledgement and collective desire to support all/any enhancements to space that make it more enjoyable -be it a community grass roots initiative and little funds or experience, or professionally lead projects-( which can always be done better)!!! There’s much room for both and certainly plenty of room for cross education/pollination.
Nikos Salingaros says
This article is certainly odd, and requires some explanation. A respected author and architecture critic (James Russell) going out of his way to demolish the credibility of an entire group of people who work to bring life to dead urban spaces. Not only ridiculing Fred Kent personally, but saying very clearly that the Project for Public Spaces is bogus. Why?
I could take Mr. Russell’s accusations more seriously if he didn’t disqualify himself at the outset by his examples. Most of what Mr. Russell proposes as good urban spaces are in fact the opposite: inhuman, oppressive, and sterile creations of the “designer” mindset. I know that a certain cult of architects likes these examples of wastelands, but that does not make them valid. Cults like all sorts of noxious stuff.
But maybe underneath this lies a more profound reason. Could it be that this is another attempt by the cult of so-called “Landscape Urbanism” to annihilate its arch-enemy, the New Urbanists? I don’t know, but wouldn’t be surprised. But if that’s the case, then we are playing like nasty little kids, and, moreover, playing nasty power games that affect the life of our cities. Those aesthetic games play with the lives of real people.
But who cares? What if we already have the tools to judge a successful urban space through its intensity of use, and the psychological reaction of the users? All of that is irrelevant. What we have here is an attack, pure and simple.
Rory Stott says
I believe the time will come that people look back on the ideals of “placemaking” and wonder how anybody could ever be so naive. Le Corbusier once proposed “all men have the same organism, the same functions. All men have the same needs… I propose one single building for all nations,” and people now rightly believe that this ideal was dreadfully misinformed. Is “placemaking” not an extension of that same kind of thinking to spaces instead of people?
How about some evidence that the Holl building brings anything to life outside its own walls? Still looks like a pretty boring and lifeless streetscape to me, formal interest of the structure notwithstanding. As for Gasworks, it’s hard to see how anyone could screw that up, given the quality of the site. Perhaps it is loved in spite of, and not because of, the preserved industrial ruins.
What makes a good urban place anyway? Surely it’s more than formal inside jokes and uniqueness-for-the-sake-of-uniqueness; but I am not convinced that Mr. Russell has given this matter much thought.
William Hosley says
Placemaking as a concept may be associated with urban design – but it and the larger sense of place movement its part of go back to Jane Jacobs – but also Wendell Berry, even Henry David Thoreau and has been inherent since the birth of historic preservation more than a century ago. Placemaking, in my view, is the deliberate act of enhancing our sense of place and the sustainability of local and regional economies that can protect and nurture it. Sense of place is about authenticity and indigenous qualities. Discovering and developing the qualities that make places special is a design problem, a content problem, and a matter that involves historical scholarship, marketing, art, and communication. It can involve urban design – though rural areas also – often famously – have a rich sense of place. Placemaking involves identifying the distinguishing narratives of places we care about and building a scaffolding of allure and protection around their authentic elements. This can be done without a bag of cement, a single piece of outdoor furniture and no manipulation of roads. I worry when an idea I mportant is reduced to one or two threads of meaning.
Fred kent says
Great discussion by good people. The different views help clarify a deeply important issue. How can we help to create places in communities where people thrive.
Your article raises the issue of the essential character of a place vs defining the essence of a place. They are not necessarily in opposition, but in terms of the institution of PPS and ‘meaningfulness’ of placemaking they are. At the heart of the issue is that the fundamental uptake of genius loci is the reverse of its stated aims. Rather than focus on the essence of place, it calls it that and then proceeds to discuss practical material attributes not in principle different from design. These are not architecture and they are not the essence of a place. They are generic signs.
Until architects learn in principle as part of the profession to enter the essence of a place, and to begin to discriminate there and open that space, it is up to individuals to hold that tight long enough to provide for its presence as architecture. Your selection o Holl is right although the example is not easy to understand in terms of your focus. Hence, your call of a fail for placemaking and PPS is good, but for reasons that return to what causes that fail, rather than a way to do it right.
Tom Emerson says
I understand the intent of expanding the notion of Placemeking, but alluding to a PRIVATE space like the Salk and using it to bash a group called Project for PUBLIC Spaces seems odd. Recall too the Nathaniel Kahn, in an attempt to humanize the Salk for a mainstream audience, filmed himself roller blading around the plaza. Apples and oranges.
For the child scrawling in chalk on the pavement, the place may very well be memorable. Any place where people feel comfortable enough to hang out and make the place their own has the possibility of being both inviting and memorable. I would submit that the graffiti scrawled alleyway is a place, the idea of divining its genius loci fairly evident.
I believe what is being argued for here is essentially an object quality conception of place not unlike that of object buildings. I suppose the answer can be found in whether the primary focus is identifying the essential nature of a place or creating places for communal gathering.
There is a place in my hometown of Kittery, Maine, out on the rocky coast, with a bench and a weatherbeaten tree, facing out on an equally weatherbeaten lighthouse. The place is symbolic, allegorical and contemplative. It is inviting and memorable. Alone or in the company of a loved one the place is magical. A couple of kids, a bicycle rider or a dog walker and the feeling of place evaporates, even if the kids, the bicycle rider and the dog are mine.
Sandy Sorlien says
Thanks for this topic. There’s good placemaking and bad placemaking. But “placemaking” is an outstanding term because it instantly distinguishes a certain purpose for public space other than automobile through-put. A “place” is for staying in, while for decades this country’s places, both rural and urban, have been excoriated in favor of zooming through them. What can be a distraction is the PPS/Landscape U focus on parks (squares, plazas, greenways) when our biggest problem is streets. And no, “Complete Streets” striped with segregated through-put are not necessarily bringing us good placemaking. Check out the Massengale/Dover book on streets for nuanced argument on that issue.
Eddie Sands says
“I’m trying to broaden the idea of what a public space can do and be.”
This should be stated at the beginning of the article. In reading your declarations (about what’s good and what isn’t good), it would be helpful to know exactly what your criteria for “good” is.
“The Campbell Fitness Center at Columbia University’s sports complex at the northern tip of Manhattan looks strange to a lot of people. But the more you know the context–an elevated train rattles past it; industrial uses collide with with residential and institutional ones—the more you appreciate why its unconventional form is so right for its place.”
Many new works of architecture have this problem. Despite being a major part of the public experience, they’re difficult for the general public to appreciate because they seem to require a written explanation about the design intention in order to be understood at all. The fact that this persists is an indication that the current mode of architectural design has an inherently dysfunctional relationship with the public (who architects claim to be serving).
“Though PPS claims to have completed projects in more than 3,000 communities and 43 countries, there is not one memorable example shown on its website. You can see some nice ye-olde streetscapes, some red-brick squares with happy children scrawling with chalk on a sidewalk. ”
-By glancing through a website and making judgments about the success of a place based on photos, you imply that your criteria for success is largely based on whether a place can make a powerful visual impression (to an architecture critic no less, who is accustomed to looking at provocative and striking architecture all day). I’m willing to bet that your definition of “memorable” doesn’t agree with that of the people who actually use these spaces, who don’t necessarily need powerful visuals or some kind of catharsis to make their own memorable experiences.
The contemporary view of architecture likes to treat the public as observers who will “regard space”, as though one’s personal experience of a place is primarily influenced by one’s personal perception of the architecture. The contemporary view tends to forget that the memorable moments of the public experience are largely defined by one’s interactions with other people. The designers of these “unmemorable” places you deride are aware of this and they choose to make interaction a priority.
The fact that you also denounce a place which features “happy children” – this sounds overtly antagonistic to the common good, and makes me suspect of the intention of this article.
“You’ll see public markets in faux-historical drag that would seem to undercut any claim to placeness or authenticity”
Sorry to say this, but almost all of the successful public spaces in America feature buildings in “faux-historical drag”. America’s historic building stock is made up of revival styles (or variations on revival styles). Surely you must enjoy spending time in some of these places.
The three examples you mention which are full of people (The Apple Store, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, The High Line) are full of people only because they’re nestled within traditional urban spaces which naturally attract those people before hand (and which do their job very well, as they always have). If these same example places were on the edge of town, way less people would be visiting them (save for perhaps the architects and the architecture students).
Placemakers aren’t interested in architectural stunts because they know that architectural stunts don’t make a successful urban place. They know that the collective public will outlive any individual designer and his artistic predilections. They know that buildings like the Campbell fitness center are only satisfactory to 1 percent of the general population (The art and architecture community) and nobody else. Avant Garde buildings do indeed have a place, but their architects refuse to study and/or acknowledge the limits of their appropriateness. This is not to deny the power of buildings like the Campbell fitness center, which is indeed rich in meaning and metaphor, but it is designed with an acquired sense and is only legible to others who have the same acquired sense (which the public obviously doesn’t have, and incidentally has no need for anyway. They will find meaning in their surroundings in their own way. They don’t need to be told how to).
Good Lord. Thank you Eddie Sands. This post should be read aloud in the studios of every architecture school in America.
JAMES S RUSSELL says
A characterless place cannot be injected with human energy for long no matter how people try. Architecture gives a frame and can be magnetic. Landscape and topography have, or create uniqueness. So architecture and design are extremely important even if people come and think only of the activities or the attractions that draw them to participate in and share a space. Klyde Warren Park, in Dallas, checks every Placemaking box and is indeed a lively and active place. But there’s not much innate to draw people without the private and public organizations that sponsor and pay for very heavy programming and maintenance. Alluring architecture is not enough, but neither are the dreams that public space that is not in some sense special will automatically be activated and attractive to diverse populations.
Ok, so what is “character” then? Are you arguing that character and avant-garde Steven Holl-esque architecture are one and the same? Placemaking checklists may not guarantee a well-used urban space that supports community well-being, but a building like Campbell Fitness Center sure doesn’t either, and your argument that it does suggests that you are a long way from understanding the premises and goals of placemaking, let alone discrediting them.
Here is a thought experiment for you – visit the Seattle Public Library, and also the main public library in Portland and see which one does a better job of supporting its immediate urban fabric as a place for people to gather and community life to happen.
Gretchen Winter says
You nailed it!!!
Atilla the Hun says
“Faux historical drag”. Were you referring to the Campbell Fitness Center invoking the look of early 20th century cubist painting? The problem with the “architecture of its time” logic is that as soon as the architect starts getting grey hair his ideas should be thrown to the waste basket of history. What does that logic mean for this article…. Millennials like new wave revival and any other kind of music if it SOUNDS good, how can boomers not see that they are still stuck in the 60s.
Margaret L. Crawford says
Placemaking, as practiced by the PPS is a questionable concept in so many ways. One, certainly is by dismissing architects and urban designers. But a more troubling problem is that their techniques lend themselves so easily to what George Lipsitz calls “The White Spatial Imaginary.” Although they nod to “diverse” places, their concepts are clearly addressed to creating “feel good” public spaces without acknowledging the real racism that exists in urban space. Good example: they love Bloomberg’s Broadway chairs and tables but never say a word about his “Stop and Frisk” policy, a way of denying public space to almost unbelievable numbers of minority males. #whiteprivledge.
phil Klinkon says
The first time I visited the Salk Institute was in the early 80s while still in architecture school. The sun was setting directly in line with the center trough of water. My breath was taken away. How could a building like this exist in a city full of poorly designed stucco boxes?
I recently returned to discover that the courtyard is now gated and locked off to the public. The great public space is no more. A real crime….
Allison B says
I think a less obvious issue realized by this blog post and its commenters is that public space has several definitions, and what a public space should be varies from individual to individual. My gathering is that Mr. Russell sees and defines public space as something more monumental and requires a level of uniqueness and perhaps grandiosity to earn the title of public space. By contrast, PPS looks at public spaces as every-day, functional places that should be inviting as the in-betweens of all of our private parcels. Both are valid and valuable for the life and longevity of a city, I suppose we just need to be on the same page on what we’re saying a public space is before going to bat on which ones are examples and whether or not to replicate them.
Steve Scalici says
I’ve read each and every comment, for and against the concept of Placemaking. As a licensed PE and transportation engineer, I find it more than odd, more selfishly ego-driven that not one post mentioned a concept pedestrian level of service…we, the users!
Too much space (ala the FDR memorial at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island) creates a clear barrenness that borders of forgotten-ness. Sure it’s well designed, but it’s a lumbering space that doesn’t inspire me, with the exception to see the historical Pepsi Cola neon sign facing to from the Queens side.
On the other hand, I’ve been to the High Line in summer…it’s an awful place to be. It’s teeming with people, “walking” so slowly so as to resemble mindless zombies in lockstep. And, it is borderline unsafe with a LOS F (failure) condition. I’ve since only gone up there in winter where while the plants are dead, the space is far less populated and friendlier…and so are the people (who are no longer forced to elbow past one another). Much more of a contemplative environ.
The Union Square Green Market lies in between…now THAT place works. Slow-moving shoppers stay to the side I/f/o food stands, and other passersby can negotiate in the more unused center aisle. I’m sure that was no accident. And the atmosphere is neither barren nor hostile. In fact, given just the right amount of space promotes such amity.
If I want sole space, I go to a nature preserve and amble amongst the paths, such as on Staten Island’s Mount Loretto Nature Preserve. Long, winding, up-and-down walkways, and rarely do I meet another dog walker. Or I go to Sailor Snug Harbor, which has numerous outdoor rooms to experience.
If I want a mosh-pit experience (which I don’t), I’d force myself once again to the improperly designed High Line, I’d force myself to attend a WTS forum in Grand Central’s Michael Jordon’s restaurant overlook facing the main concourse, I’d push myself to “Free MOMA Fridays,” filled with cheapskates crammed almost nose to nose to see a painting or two, or worse, attempt to pay homage down at the World Trade Center memorial park teeming with gaping, gawking tourists gathered in dimwitted circles wondering what happened here. In each case, it wasn’t the claustrophobia, it was the lack of ability to move, and God forbid, leave quickly.
Nothing breeds success like success. Who ever envisioned the High Line’s popularity? Well someone didn’t do there job. I bet the design would have been much different and more accommodating to pedestrians, and perhaps a bit less crowded.
Design, for my money, need not be crammed with formulaic this or that, as someone above bemoaned about the PPS way (e.g., benches, check; chunky granite blocks, check), if that’s indeed accurate. It’s more of a feel or art. Central Park is perfect…its big. But so are the Elevated Acre and Hanover Square Park (both modest). The common denominator is NO checklist, just an appropriate area and features for that area.
Coda: Yogi Berra: no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.
Jack Kolkmeyer says
As a recently retired urban and regional planner, I spent the last 35 years of my career in beautiful Santa Fe NM. As the Director of the Planning and Growth Management Department for Santa Fe County for 16 years, I did a number of things that, at first, caused some difficulties with my staff. First, I forbade the use of the term “sense of place”. Ironically, this was a term first used by landscape architect, J.B. Jackson, who lived in the small village of La Cienega in Santa Fe County. The reason I did this was to emphasize that the work that we were doing in the 15 or so small, unincorporated places in the county, was about creating real places, or rather continuing to evolve real places as most of these communities have been around for several hundred years. I also believe that this was really Mr. Jackson’s intent. I would further explain that creating a “sense of place” was more like creating a movie set….something that looked like a place but wasn’t really a place. Over the years, my staff and I worked very hard on three main ideas about “placemaking”: 1) centering – the great places of the world all basically have a plaza/square, mainstreet, crossroads or meandering roadway…in some form or other; 2) they “embrace” – the geometry and architecture wrap their designed arms around you, the aromas, sounds and visuals entice you, and 3) they have “purpose” — everyone of the small communities in Santa Fe County was created for a specific use having to do with religion, protection or commerce, or some combination of the three. The city of Santa Fe is an example of one that has all three of these elements. A sub-category under purpose is connectedness…the purpose of one place connects you top the purpose of another both physically and visually.
So many of the new planning ideas and efforts forget these ideas and concepts and simply try to “create” places that do not adhere to usefulness. I suppose one could put up a statue of the developer in the middle of a plaza and think that might work. Look what we have done as planners and elected officials over the years….require “open space” that is usually the most undesirable space in the project or community…the open space should be the most important element, not the least important. We don’t plan for connections, we plan for isolated places designed as architectural exercises (I agree with Fred Kent on this point!).
We need to rethink the planning process and our local and national attitudes toward it. Currently, we have no national planning policy! When did we have one?? We are letting our cities decay and dwindle away before our very eyes. We need to rekindle the desire to evolve our existing places and create new ones that vibe with realness.
For me, when I reach these points of planning frustration, I pull out my favorite book, A Pattern Language, and read a few chapters.
Thanks for the great article.
Jonathan R says
I walk by the corner of 218th and Broadway, where the fitness center lies, fairly often on Saturday afternoon, and I would humbly like to dispute Mr. Russell’s finding of “jazzy life” there. Whatever excitement lies at that intersection is the result of the doughnut shop on the southwest corner.
Not to mention that it’s impossible to see the fitness-center building from the sidewalk because of the fencing and angles.
David Proffitt says
Can we please, please, stop bemoaning how public participation in urban design is stifling the poor, misunderstood architect? “Artists” who take responsibility for spendings tens of millions in public funds have a responsibility to listen to their clients: the public. It’s worth noting that all the examples of “good” places cited in this article are individual projects (parks or buildings), while the “bad” examples and the single mixed example are urban districts. I point this out because the article doesn’t seem to be making fair comparisons. Placemaking – and planning in general – operates on a larger scale than architecture and therefore has different benchmarks for success. Planners don’t design individual buildings; rather, we try to create the conditions whereby great architecture and design can contribute to something even greater: great cities. Not every building can be a masterpiece. Most are in fact just so-so at best. Therefore the benchmarks of success for peacemaking are very different from the benchmarks for the design of a single project, be it a building or a park. Many great streets and squares are composed of mediocre buildings. Think of most any back street in the great neighborhoods of, say, Paris, San Francisco, even Boston or Seattle. The buildings themselves are often forgettable, but it’s the way they work together that make the place inviting and livable. This is precisely the goal of peacemaking, and precisely why it’s unfair and inaccurate to compare single projects to districts and neighborhoods. Millennium Park is great, but it was the planning process – a very public one, at that – in Chicago that created the opportunity for it to be so before the architect ever got involved. And if the buildings of South Lake Union or the spaces of the Rose Kennedy Greenway are uninspired, how is this the fault of public involvement process? Before we get too enamored of the need for a singular, architect-focused design process constructed to please even Howard Roark, let’s lay the blame for the less desirable aspects of South Lake Union and Rose Kennedy Greenway where they belong: at the feet of the architects who failed to deliver great buildings or great spaces. After all, even Louis Kahn and Richard Haag needed a little advice now and then, even if it just gave them something to argue against.
Lance Jay Brown says
Bravo to all! Thank you James for the provocation, thank you PPS for absorbing the blows, and thanks to all for engaging the very worthwhile and always timely debate. It is fairly obvious that matters of the public realm, the place, the space the spirit, the function,the economics, the culture, the type, and the design of it at all scales and locations is fundamentally a key moral and ethical debate of the 21st century. As with all things moral and ethical it is the exploration and debate of the issue(s) that informs our actions as players, lay or professional. The proliferation of public, private, professional, and non-profit institutions and organizations and books, pamphlets, articles, blogs, and sites that began 60 years ago and has intensified ever since is evidence of the importance we are now placing on the role of public space in ensuring social and environmental resilience on our ever more intensely urbanizing planet.
Chuck Wolfe says
A fascinating comment chain full of positional, dialectical statements by friends and many whom I have read and admired. Mr. Russell, your points are interesting, yet overly focused on PPS as the culprit, when in reality the placemaking concepts are prosecuted now by tactical urbanists, CNU, City staffs, and APA members, the latter of whom just spent several giddy days in my hometown, where you cite the alleged best and worst of thoughtful, contextual site design by Rich v. the Vulcan/Amazon approaches in South Lake Union, where you overlook some very fine examples that are not just check-the-box. But, I am a lawyer—and an ecumenical sort, who sees the best in all of this, and will continue to try and figure it all out and inspire with my own writing. I took on Urbanism Without Effort (Island Press, 2013) to try and get to the roots of fundamental principles of the everyday (with due review of some commenters above) and why context matters. I am working on a follow up that, while not architectural scholarship, will continue to examine the role of the generic versus contextual, and the role they play in successful projects. Fight the good fight, everyone. You all own a piece of the truth.
Paul Nodwell says
What a load of bunk. Place making is little more than an attitude that the designer brings to the problem at hand. It is an attitude that mandates that a site/project respond to its social, environmental and physical context. Sometimes it is done successfully and sometimes not. But to suggest that the failures are evidence of a failed ethic is a load of hooey.
Peter Drey says
Designers: Though Perkins + Will designed the completed parts of the beltline, HDR designed the Old Fourth Ward Park. Wood Partners did the second phase.
James Russell says
I appreciate that comments have continued to show up on this post. I did not understand that I was stirring up quite such a hornets’ nest. I will return to the topic soon, hoping to advance the argument.
Paul Nodwell says
In re-reading all of this, I think your issue here is not with place-making. I think you understand the value of that design attitude. I think your issue is with the nonprofit Projects for Public Spaces, (who I know nothing about). It sounds like perhaps they have mis-appropriated the term place-making and that is what has resulted in your knotted knickers. Maybe?
Tigran Haas says
I think finally we need to (from the Academia) clarify and structurally expose the concept of Placemaking and trace it’s origins in architecture, planning and urban design. A lot of things will be easier to talk about when we get the vocabulary straightened out and when we deal with real concepts, categories, postulates – i.e. scientific language. In all of this, nothing will work without the engagement and involvement of the academics, professionals and real estate sector – and of course citizens. Think otherwise would be the utmost naivety. I would agree with Chuck: ” You all own a piece of the truth”, but I would probably favor the Logical truth and scientific reasoning and use this great definition of placemaking: “The Art of Placemaking – A Humanistic Process Defined by Reality”. – DeReus Architects
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Yep, that’s true – some confuse space planning, urban design and creative placemaking. Really appreciate what some designers are doing with respect to office spaces in London. In Shoreditch there are so many places which were abandoned but now thanks to placemaking ideas, they are actually reopening as offices. Cheers.
Only in a small community where people have real reasons to get to know each other (feed store, grocery store, post offices where people need to use PO Boxes) are there real public spaces. In large anonymous areas with large populations these fake public spaces are not “placemaking” which is a made up fake concept. So I agree.
And I forgot to add yes, in a small exercise gym as in your photo–the architecture is insignificant to the real purpose and benefit derived by people from what is in a building or place. Meeting others while there creates the fabric of society.
Last one, I promise–taking it even farther we could say that our culture is derived from our agriculture. The further we are removed from our agriculture, the further our society erodes. In small agricultural communities there are good general moral standards and trust among residents. Persons who do not keep up their property are on view for all to see and are thus avoided while persons who thrive and increase their property appearance and value are on view for all to see and admire and probably trust. There is too much anonymity in “edge cities” and the culture of automobiles will eventually come to a close someday. Done.
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