Alamo Plaza bustles thanks to a temporary market during Team Better Block's last San Antonio project / Photo: Better Block

Places in the Making highlights the importance of people in defining place, a critical aspect that is all too often forgotten / Photo: Better Block

Today marks an important occasion in the evolution of the Placemaking movement. When the foundational work for what we call Placemaking today was taking place, back in the 1960s, pioneers like Holly Whyte and Jane Jacobs were on the outside of the castle walls, shouting to be heard. “Expert” urban planners were razing finely-grained neighborhoods and building lifeless housing developments and parking lots, tangled up in endless gray ribbons of expressway. Streets and squares known as places for commerce and social interaction were being sacrificed, left and right, on the altar of “efficiency,” and our cities, decades later, are still struggling to recover.

Today, though, Placemaking is being recognized, through the release of a groundbreaking new white paper, by no less than the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the world’s foremost educational institution for urban planning and design. The paper, Places in the Making, casts aside the idea of the monolithic expert, and argues clearly and cohesively for the importance of Placemaking as a vital part of community-building, rather than a fuzzy “extra.” It is a project, launched at the inaugural meeting of the Placemaking Leadership Council this past spring and made possible through the generous support of Southwest Airlines, in which we’ve been thrilled to be involved, and are even more excited to share with you today.

Authored by Susan Silberberg, along with Katie Lorrah, Rebecca Disbrow, Anna Meussig, and Aaron Naparstek, Places in the Making highlights the importance of people in defining place, a critical aspect that is all too often forgotten by those in architecture, planning, and other related disciplines. “The intense focus on place has caused us to miss the opportunity to discuss community, process, and the act of making,” the paper asserts. “The importance of the Placemaking process itself is a key factor that has often been overlooked in working toward many of these noble goals. As illustrated by the ten cases highlighted here, the most successful Placemaking initiatives transcend the ‘place’ to forefront the ‘making.’”

It is the making of a place that defines a community. When the people who use a space are left out of the process of its shaping, everyone suffers. The people who live and work in a given area are left without a place to interact in a casual, comfortable environment, and the people who visit or pass through miss out on the opportunity to experience the unique sense of place that would come to the fore had the community been more involved. Each lifeless, underutilized place is a missed opportunity to challenge and delight, and more importantly, to inspire people with a passion for place that they might carry back to their own neighborhoods.

MIT's marked the release of the white paper with a panel featuring PPS President Fred Kent / Photo: PPS

MIT’s marked the release of the white paper with a panel, moderated by the Wall Street Journal’s Laura Kusisto, featuring (L to R) Aaron Naparstek of MIT, Wendy Jackson of the Kresge Foundation, PPS President Fred Kent, Better Block co-founder Andrew Howard, and MIT’s Susan Silberberg / Photo: PPS

Conversely, a great place makes everyone–resident, worker, visitor–feel welcome. It gives people an opportunity to learn about each other through observation, and through casual interaction. Great places have a visceral effect; they cause us to pay closer attention to the world around us. Who hasn’t had the experience of visiting a great place and coming home afterward with a more finely tuned attention to the strengths and weaknesses of their own community? Great places beget more great places, because they stir us in a way that we carry with us long after we’ve left their bounds.

This leads us to perhaps the key phrase coined in Places in the Making: what Silberberg and her team call the “virtuous cycle of Placemaking,” which provides multiple entry points. Inclusive, iterative Placemaking processes, when coupled with Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper style programming that allows people to achieve ‘quick wins’ and build momentum, knit communities together, and create a social infrastructure around a public space that will last far longer than any design process ever could.

In breaking down barriers to participation, cities can set this virtuous cycle in motion. When people return to their communities fired up by an experience with a great place somewhere else, there must be ways for them to dig in in their own backyards. “The relationships that grow out of the ‘making’ are equal to, if not more important than, the places that result,” writes the MIT team. “The relationship of places and their communities is not linear, but cyclical, and mutually influential. Places grow out of the needs and actions of their formational communities, and in turn shape the way these communities behave and grow.”

Today, Placemakers around the world have access to a vital new resource that acts as both a practical guide to the practice of creating great places through community involvement. We also have a reason to celebrate; we are no longer shouting over the walls. After decades of passion, hard work, and dedication, we find ourselves at a very special moment. Minds are changing, even within the most hallowed halls of the planning establishment. The connection between people and place is stronger than it has been in a half century. There is still much work left to be done, but there are ever more people who want to roll up their sleeves and get involved. And since Placemaking is all about the doing, this is right about when things should start to get really interesting.

Today, in short, is a pretty great day. Don’t you agree?