Idea of the Year

Reprinted from MyTime Magazine, April 1, 2017

Idea of the Year

Placemaking: The quiet revolution that’s changing the face of American communities–and the world.

It seems hard to believe now, but the phrase Placemaking–this year’s bonanza buzzword, heard everywhere from corporate boardrooms to the White House to the cop walking the beat on your street–was hardly known ten years ago. Now it’s become a North American obsession as neighborhoods everywhere from Bangor to Bellingham, Saskatoon to Sarasota, embrace its core belief: when you focus on creating a strong sense of place, you do everything better. 

This idea once posed an uncomfortable challenge to the conventional wisdom in many quarters: urban planning, the retail industry, transportation, economic development, real estate, and law enforcement, but now mainstream professionals in these fields and more are clambering aboard the Placemaking bandwagon. Indeed, Placemaking has been embraced as conventional wisdom by parties who seldom agree on anything else: neighborhood activists and big-time developers, utopian planners and nuts-and-bolts bureaucrats, social justice advocates and Wall Street.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Jun-Li Fernandez, dean of the influential Vaclav Havel School of Civic Affairs at Notre Dame University. “You have to go back in history to the 1960s, when the environmental movement popped out of nowhere, or the emergence of the internet in the 1990s, to find a parallel example of a social movement suddenly exerting so much impact upon global culture as a whole. I was visiting my grandmother last week, way out in the boonies of Szechuan province [China] and she was all excited about the Placemaking seminars held each week at the local grade school.”

Placemaking success stories are easy to find. Just take a walk around your neighborhood and you’re likely to come across a few. But here are some of the most noteworthy:

TURNING AROUND DOWNTOWN TOPEKA

Once a lackluster place, where it seemed they really did roll up the sidewalks at 5 p.m., the Kansas state capital now pulses with an energy more reminiscent of midtown Manhattan than Manhattan, Kansas. By focusing on public spaces rather than the usual obsession on shopping, offices and accommodating autos, civic leaders have made this place a magnet for $6.7 billion of new investment in the past 10 months alone. The biggest surprise: NASA fled its longtime base in Houston for offices overlooking the parkways and playgrounds along the Kansas River. Former planning director Sandy Pan, appointed last month as the first Secretary of Neighborhoods in the presidential cabinet, says two things got it all started: “ripping out all those god-awful surface parking lots and creating a year-round farmers market.”

NEW JERSEY: NO LONGER A PUNCHLINE

Even more surprising has been the wholesale transformation–there’s no other word for it–of a state almost lost to runaway sprawl. Beginning in the offices of the Department of Transportation, a new ethic of putting people and places first has swept through every level of the state–from the Trenton Housing Authority to the Bergen County Chamber of Commerce to the Pine Barrens Arts Council. The biggest victory: When Money magazine rated Hoboken the best place to live in America last fall, with Red Bank ranked 4th, Perth Amboy 9th, and Newark at 19th. New Jersey governor Cynthia Nikitin says, “It was simple, we trained all our designers and engineers, and everyone who worked for us on contract, to think of themselves as talented professionals who carry out the citizens’ vision.”

SWEET HOME SUBURBIA: PUTTING “THERE” WHERE IT NEVER WAS BEFORE

From Gwinnett County, Georgia to Route 128 outside Boston, to Schaumburg, Illinois, to Plano, Texas and even to the birthplace of the suburban dream, Orange County, California, suburb dwellers have given up their love affair with automobiles, shopping malls and ever-bigger houses. In subdivision after subdivision, people have rolled up their sleeves and raised their voices to insist that their neighborhoods become more walkable places with local businesses, affordable housing, transit, and high quality public spaces. Lakeeta Freeman, a strip mall developer turned public space advocate in Hollywood, Florida, says, “Without a sense of community, nothing else matters.”

A WORLDWIDE REVOLUTION: COLOMBIA, ARMENIA, MOZAMBIQUE AND THAILAND

While the term was coined in the U.S., the most advanced Placemaking efforts are happening elsewhere in the world. Colombia has made remarkable progress for a country once associated more with cocaine and kidnappings than with the world’s most efficient transit systems and best network of parks. Not far behind are Armenia, with a market square at the heart of every town with more than 200 inhabitants; Mozambique, with 160,000 km of bike trails and 1200 new libraries; and Thailand, home to the world’s most densely-settled settled cities which are famous for their elegant and lively plazas. The tourist industry has been turned upside-down as Americans flock to these spots for ideas about how to improve their own communities. Last year, for instance, more than 1200 specially designated “Placemaking cruise” vessels landed at the port of Cartagena on Colombia’s north coast.

Ben Fried in New York, with Bureau Reports from Washington, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Bogota, Bangkok, Maputo, and Yerevan.

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