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Public Space at the Crossroads of Everything

"The urban community has become lost in strategic planning, master-planning, zoning and landscaping… All these have their own purposes, of course—but they don't address the principal question, which is the relationship in a city between public space and buildable space."

— Dr. Joan Clos, Executive Director, UN-Habitat

Public space is inherently multidimensional. As the forerunners of the placemaking movement observed over half a century ago, successful and genuinely public spaces are used by many different people for many different purposes at many different times of the day and the year. However, because public spaces harbor so many uses and users—or fail to do so—they also impact a staggering cross-section of local and global issues.

Oslo Waterfront

The waterfront of Oslo, Norway—a place overflowing with uses and users.

Public space is for negotiating the interface between our homes, our businesses, our institutions, and the broader world. Public space is how we get to work, how we do our errands, and how we get back home. Public space is where nearly half of violent crimes happen—or all of them, if you count abutting spaces (and you should). Public space is for buying and selling, or for meeting, playing, and bumping into one another unexpectedly. Public space is where water management happens (or doesn't), where miles driven become CO2 burned (or doesn't), and where ecosystems of urban flora and fauna thrive (or don't). Public space is for conveying our outrage and our highest aspirations, as well as for laying the most mundane utilities and infrastructure. And when we let it, public space can be a medium for creativity, expression, and experimentation.

In short, public space is where so many tragedies and triumphs of the commons play out. And that's why getting it right matters.

At PPS we believe that to get it right, the design and management of multidimensional public spaces requires a collaborative process that harnesses the equally varied knowledge and skills of many stakeholders. It requires placemaking. But we know from experience that the opposite is also true: The seemingly differing agendas of many stakeholders can be accomplished together through placemaking.


All Roads Lead to Place


This September, we invite you to join us at the Placemaking Leadership Forum in Vancouver to learn how practitioners from around the world are magnifying their impact, making the most of limited resources, and building surprising coalitions across disciplines and sectors by putting place first. This event will revolve around the following ten Transformative Agendas, focusing on the shared value they can create when they come together in public space:

  • Architecture and design: Good design involves much more than making "bold" and "innovative" aesthetic expressions; through an Architecture of Place, design helps us achieve solutions to today's major urban issues, from environmental destruction to economic decline and social alienation.
  • Arts and culture: Creative Placemaking is an integrative approach to urban planning and community building that stimulates local economies and leads to increased innovation, cultural diversity, and civic engagement.
  • Equity and inclusion: Great places benefit everyone; they connect existing residents of a community, instead of dividing, alienating, or displacing them.
  • Governance reform: Communities are increasingly adopting holistic and participatory models of Place Governance that breaks down silos between city departments and disciplines.
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship: The lively entrepreneurial hubs that are emerging in today's cities—like innovation districts, public markets, or arts and culture clusters—are forging new models of place-led economic development.
  • Local food systems: By linking food with place, urban public market systems—Market Cities—can be vital centers of community exchange, and places that anchor local culture and social life for all residents.
  • Public health: Sprawl and poorly planned growth results in uneven access to resources, poor air quality, and streets that are unsafe for walking or bicycling; how we design and plan our public spaces has a direct impact on the physical, mental, and social health of individuals and communities.
  • Rural communities: Residents of small towns face unique challenges, and placemaking is a key component of broad-based strategies for maintaining long-term community vitality and economic growth in local communities.
  • Streets and transportation: The decisions that designers and engineers make—about sidewalk widths, the presence of street trees, walking and biking infrastructure, traffic speeds, etc.—have a huge influence on Streets as Places in their own right that are safe, comfortable, inviting, and accessible.
  • Sustainability and resilience: In addressing the proven and urgent threats to our natural environment, we need to drive change and innovation by creating dynamic places that can produce not only environmental benefits, but broad social and economic returns as well.

These ten topics all converge in our public spaces, and that's why placemaking can serve as a common means for achieving diverse ends. The many silos that divide and shackle our governments, businesses, universities, and nonprofits do have common ground—and it's all around us.

At the Placemaking Leadership Forum this fall, we want to hear how you make public space into a triumph of the commons. See you in Vancouver!

Learn More & Register