Urban development: nurturing health, happiness, and wellbeing in cities

Placemaking‘ brings back life to urban centers, removing cars, and creating cultural capital, preserving memories and places for people to meet each other. The Project for Public Spaces operate using a bottom-up consultative approach. An example might be, find an under-performing city center, go talk to all the locals, capture visions and ideas for how the center ‘could be’. Having everyone on-board means funding comes easily from local businesses and government. Invest in the place and revitalize it.

What PPS has accomplished over the past 30 years–and what we have grown to become as an organization–is remarkably more complex and interesting than anything we imagined possible in 1975.

We didn’t realize at that time how enormous the task before us really was. Our core belief was simple: When you focus on Place, you do everything differently. This means when you look first at local communities’ assets and aspirations, you create public spaces that will nurture people’s health, happiness, and wellbeing. We quickly discovered, however, that this approach ran against the deeply ingrained habits of most design professionals, traffic engineers, developers, and public policymakers.

By the mid-1990s PPS had acquired a long record of accomplishments and a national reputation, but our original goal of revolutionizing the design and management of public spaces remained largely unfulfilled. But it was around this time that we began to notice some remarkable changes–small at first, but steadily building into a shift of historic proportions: Institutions with enormous influence over shaping the built environment were coming around to our way of thinking.

Departments of Transportation in several states wanted PPS to teach them how to design streets as places that balanced the needs of people, transit, and cars. The General Services Administration, the branch of the U.S. government in charge of federal buildings, enlisted us to transform public properties into vital places throughout the country. The Federal Highway Administration tapped us to create on online resource center to boost the adoption of Context Sensitive Solutions, which take communities into account in transportation planning, for all 50 states. Without compromising our values, we had found a new and receptive audience for the ideas of Placemaking among key decision-makers.

Today, even as obstacles that once seemed insurmountable begin to fall, unexpected challenges arise and old struggles persist. Thirty years ago, for instance, we could never have foreseen the havoc that big-box retailers would wreak on downtowns and local economies. And we still have a long way to go before our nation’s parks, streets, and public buildings are designed and managed as places that actually serve the public. As we embark on our next thirty years by tackling the challenges before us, we know from our past work that nothing is out of reach. Casey Stengel said it best: “I always heard it couldn’t be done, but sometimes that don’t work out.

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