A Conversation With Fred Kent, Leader in Revitalizing City Spaces

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For someone who makes a living revitalizing city spaces, Fred Kent has an interesting take on professional urban designers: he thinks they're overrated. The real urban design experts, he says, are the ordinary people who actually live and work within a community. And with his nonprofit organization, Project for Public Spaces (PPS), Kent is doing his best to empower them.

Founded in 1975, Project for Public Spaces helps community members design, plan, and manage public spaces by considering their own needs and values. Kent calls this process Placemaking, and he has used it to transform popular landmarks around the world, including Detroit's historic Eastern Market, Houston's Discovery Green park, and New York City's Times Square. Here, he discusses the difference between Placemaking and traditional design, how public spaces can foster stronger communities, and why ordinary people make the best urban planners.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

We use a different approach to designing and planning cities -- not a top-down approach, but a community-led approach that focuses on places. We see it as a sacred duty to help people create good places for themselves. To achieve that, we talk to the people who live, work, and play in a particular space. We ask them questions. We listen to them. We find out what they need and what they aspire to. Then we take that information and create a vision, which can evolve quickly into a strategy for implementing change. The transformation of a place can begin with small-scale, doable improvements that bring immediate benefits to public spaces and the people who use them.

In over 35 years we have worked with 3,000 communities in 42 countries, allowing people to define and create places that become the soul of their neighborhoods, cities, towns, regions, and even their countries. Our process delivers results that increasingly reflect concerns such as sustainability, health, and economic development.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the urban design?

We call what we do 'Placemaking.' I'm going to stay with that because I think that's what's missing from urban design, which is a discipline that can get pulled in different directions. Sometimes urban design is about community, but all too often it is just about design with the word 'urban' attached for credibility.

Placemaking, on the other hand, requires the community members to be at the center of planning. The outcome has to be theirs. Urban designers who respect community wisdom can be enormous assets is they are willing to leave behind their egos and help communities achieve their goals.

Design is a small but significant part of Placemaking. Managing and programming the space is the most critical. Great places are about what people do in them, and how they feel, use, and 'own' those places.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

Placemaking is profoundly different from the normal design process. We say, 'When you focus on place, you do everything differently.' We bring attention to the particular place and its dynamic within the existing community. Then we focus the community's ideas to build on that dynamic. The result? A plan emerges that is theirs, and which they can improve as it evolves.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the urban design world?

One example is our Placemaking tool called "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper," which aims to transform places for the better starting right away -- and without huge sums of money. People in the community go together to visit a place they want to improve. They spend time there, studying and discussing. Three hours after completing an evaluation, they create a vision and an implementation plan to turn the derelict space into a healthy, functioning part of their community. Then, often within a few days, the community can begin to change their place. If all the many aspects of Placemaking are fully applied, it takes longer to redo an entire community (maybe two years) or a medium-size city (five years).

Take the example of Buffalo, New York, where a community was recently able to transform a desolate section of waterfront into a destination by adding 100 painted Adirondack chairs, inviting food vendors, and scheduling hundreds of events, including an Elvis Costello concert, a children's puppet show, and Zumba classes.

The obsolete are everywhere, though. Someone said to us after a meeting in Buffalo, "You have to turn everything upside down to get it right-side up." A few years ago that idea would have been too hard to accept, but today people know what they want and they know what it will take to transform their communities into livable, healthy, sustainable engines for economic change -- defined and driven by their special talents. People may not be trained in design, but intuitively they know what they like and what they don't; where they will spend time and where they won't. And increasingly they know how to get what they want.

What's a design trend that you wish would go away?

I'll give you two: iconic architecture and landscape urbanism. These two very small subsets of important design disciplines deliver a narrow agenda, or brand, rather than focusing first on positive community outcomes. They represent a limited set of skills and solutions that greatly narrow the potential functions of public spaces or civic institutions. They also tend to be extremely expensive, often tapping into limited private funds and leading to a kind of privatization and exclusion. These projects say 'Look at me, appreciate me,' but they give little back to the surrounding streetscape.

Take Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which succeeds spectacularly as an iconic structure, but fails miserably as a public space. Contrast that to Balboa Park in San Diego, which gets 10 million visitors per year without any trendy buildings or fancy design gimmicks. It's just a great park that offers people the activities and amenities they actually want.

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Samantha Michaels, a recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, is beginning a fellowship at The Jakarta Globe. She has also written for Condé Nast Traveler and PoliticsDaily.com.

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