A Conversation With Fred Kent, Leader in Revitalizing City Spaces

The Green Report

Our view is that if people believe they need to bring in experts or starchitects to transform their communities, they will never discover their own abilities or identities. They'll lose respect for themselves and their own instincts. It's the same as bringing in a shopping-mall developer: The local hardware store owner is the one who really knows what people need, just as we think people know what they need for their public destinations. And we have never been disappointed. To us, the community is the expert, so long as they are asked for their input.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I always thought the most effective way to promote Placemaking was through the environmental movement. Because of my environmental background, I saw environmentalism as a very holistic field that could embrace the human part of our world as it did the natural part. I was wrong. I have felt so disenchanted for people 30 years about how distant environmentalism has become to pressing issues around cities.

Who are three people that you would put in an urban design Hall of Fame?

William "Holly" Whyte was our main mentor. He was exceptionally wise in a time when massive change was happening, the 1960s and '70s. After writing a book called The Organization Man, he got involved in studying the sprawl that was consuming gross amounts of very productive farmland. Then he focused on cities, researching and writing The Social Life of Small Urban Space. I started working with him in 1970s. His work observing the way that people actually use public spaces is a guiding light for us at PPS.

Then there's Jane Jacobs, who worked with Whyte as Fortune magazine. That's where she got the inspiration to write her great book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs and Whyte, along with cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead were seminal thinkers who espoused a very commonsense approach to the future of cities.

But rather than nominating a third person, I would choose instead a powerful group of people who have the power to transform urban design today. We call them 'zealous nuts,' a name that is our highest compliment for the community leaders on the ground who make Placemaking happen. These are the real urban designers, because they aren't defined by any particular discipline. They know what will make their communities work. And the more they succeed, the more they realize the power and wisdom of their intuition. A community cannot become great without these amazing people, who are everywhere. Some people are zealous nuts without even realizing it. It is really fun finding them.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I was seriously thinking of going into development economics. In 1968, I helped start a street academy in upper Manhattan called ABLE (Academy for Black and Latin Education). Then I was the coordinator for the first Earth Day in New York City. I was 27 years old then, and the world was open to me.

I went to graduate school at Columbia University and studied geography, which has a soft (human) side and a hard (scientific) side. Because the field was so all encompassing, I was able to study anthropology with Margaret Mead, development economics with Lady Jackson (Barbara Ward), and soil science and oceanography. I was also able to work part-time with Holly Whyte and the Street Life Project.

It was through all these mentors and my work in the real world that I became passionate about the role of public spaces in community life. I remember taking an environmental law class and the professor asked each student what we would be doing in 25 years. I had a vision that working on the public realm of cities could change communities everywhere. It has been, and continues to be, an amazing journey.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

We've been doing some exciting digital work at PPS, developing apps to crowdsource the evaluations and envisioning of public spaces around the country. This is new technology, but it is very much an organic evolution of the work we've always done. It's a way to hear more voices, and get more ideas from the real experts -- the people who live in the places where we work. We've launched these apps in Baltimore; Tupelo, Mississippi; New York; San Antonio, Texas; and now Denver, Colorado.

And, of course, I'm a big fan of our own website. It's packed with information about the world's best squares, waterfronts, parks, markets, and civic districts. We've got profiles of people who have made real change in their communities, and articles about projects that have transformed towns and cities around the globe. We like to think of the website as a town square for Placemaking -- a venue where people can gather, exchange ideas, and be inspired by seeing what is possible.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Cecilia" by Simon & Garfunkel. There's a story there. We've just started a collaboration with UN HABITAT. The director of their New York office, Cecilia Martinez, was at our home in Brooklyn for dinner. As we started to prepare the meal, I turned on my iPod -- which has almost seven days' worth of music on it -- and the first song that came up was "Cecilia." Sometimes things happen because they were meant to.

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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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