Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bringing Place-Making into the Conversation

After more than six months of thrice-weekly blog posts, I still have urbanist concepts to introduce.  Which speaks to the multi-faceted character of urbanism.  Or to my ineptitude as a tour guide.  Your choice.

Today, the topic will be place-making, the creation of successful public places.  Once we’ve found homes for many in an urban core, or within walkable distance of the core, and encouraged them to spend free time enjoying the life of the city, we should provide more than restaurants, coffee shops, pubs, museums, libraries, and shopping for those public hours.

Parks, plazas, transit stations, public markets, even extra-wide sidewalks.  All have the potential to be successful public places. 

Although I remain on the lookout for new candidates, my favorite public place is Place Jacque-Cartier in Montreal.  A broad avenue running from the Hotel de Ville de Montreal (the historic City Hall) past the Quebec version of Nelson’s Column to the St. Lawrence riverside, Place Jacque-Cartier provides a place for Montreal’s citizens to gather and to enjoy life.  A few years ago, I had the good fortune to be on Place Jacque-Cartier on the first warm Sunday of spring.  I don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by more people in a more convivial mood.

The Project for Public Spaces is one of the better online resources for current thinking on place-making.  They recently put forth their list of the top ten movies in which public places played an essential role.  After their readers commented on the list, including the Twitter character @UrbanismAvenger making the reasonable argument that most movies include urbanism themes, PPS issued a further list of another eight movies.  Thinking how the settings figure into the listed movies is a good introduction to place-making.

If place-making has a Jane Jacobs, it would be William Whyte.  Tasked by the New York City to discover why some public places thrived and others were deserted, he studied public places throughout the city.  He assembled his findings and summarized his conclusions in The Social Life of Small Urban Places”. 

One point he made is that public places succeed or fail on small details.  Sometimes it’s nothing more than a configuration that allows people to impose their individual use on the place, such as seats that can be moved or corners that can be occupied for private conversation.  Plans that look grand and impressive on paper may not function well on the ground.  I’ve shared with professional colleagues the phrase “It’d look good from a balloon” to describe a proposed public place that may not translate well to daily use.

To illustrate this dichotomy between pretty on paper and well-used on the ground, I’ll share a story about a design review hearing from several years ago.  The project under review had a courtyard that wasn’t open to the general public, but would serve as a public place for condominium owners.  The design board decided that the courtyard fell within their purview.

The development team, on which I was the civil engineer, had labored to make courtyard successful.  We had movable chairs.  We had conversation nooks.  We made one end of the courtyard active and the other passive.   We were pleased by the plan that we put forth for the committee to review.

The committee systematically dismantled what we had created.  The character that we had added was stripped away.  The development manager, needing to secure committee approval, made only token arguments.  When the committee finished, one committee member said,”This is fine.  It’s a good looking plan, although I doubt anyone will use it.”  I managed to keep my sigh inaudible.

I introduced place-making today because there are a couple of place-making opportunities being discussed in Petaluma.  I’ll describe one in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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