Cities are rich in character, with historical landmarks, parks, plazas, courtyards, civic buildings, rivers, lakes, and parks that give urban spaces personality and serve as gathering spots for the public. By investing in these assets and adding to them—for example, through reclamation of dormant and empty spaces such as the tens of thousands of vacant lots in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Cape Town, and other municipalities worldwide—cities can create attractive places that advance civic pride and unity and create a strong sense of community. This cultivation of public spaces is known as “urban placemaking.” 1
Placemaking is linked to the pedestrianization of city life: public spaces are best located within walking distance of a resident’s home or workplace.
Placemaking is linked to the pedestrianization of city life: public spaces are best located within walking distance of a resident’s home or workplace. Each should be easily accessible and serve multiple purposes, becoming known and appreciated by large numbers of citizens. In this way, placemaking activity can be a driving force for the creation of a strong civic culture. The city of Pickering, Canada, in its advice for placemaking activity, urges participants continually to ask: Is it beautiful? Is it comfortable? Is it welcoming and accessible to all? Do people want to use the space? 2
When Medellín, Colombia, built its aerial tram to link poor hillside neighborhoods with the central metro system, it leveraged the project to maximize its development impact. (See Chapter 18.) The city employed a strategy called “social urbanism,” part of which refers to compensating the poor for a “historic debt to them” through the construction of high-quality infrastructure and impressive architecture—a sharp departure from development projects that often feature inferior materials and construction. The aspiration was to build, “a new ‘social contract’ through the provision of spaces of citizenship, places for democracy and environments of conviviality,” according to scholars who have studied the project. 3
As part of the project, the areas around giant pylons that support the tram were made into plazas that feature food vendors, benches, and landscaping, while parks, schools, and libraries were built or upgraded a short walk away. New lighting, pedestrian bridges, and street paths also were built. The libraries included a great many community services in addition to provision of books: information technology, training courses, cultural activities, social programs, and support for the creation of micro-businesses, to name a few. 4
Not only did the Metrocable give poor hillside residents access to the city’s metro, but it brought many social benefits as well. Local labor was used in construction, a stimulus to impoverished neighborhoods in the area. Residents had a voice in the disposition of 5 percent of project funds, an effort to change longstanding patterns of patron-client politics. Area improvements, especially better lighting, also likely helped lower crime rates: homicides in neighborhoods served by the Metrocable dropped by 66 percent more than in nearby neighborhoods that did not receive Metrocable-related investments. 5
Bryant Park, New York
In the late 1970s, Bryant Park, in the heart of Manhattan, was a dirty, crime-ridden, and drug-infested space. To clean up the area, a nonprofit organization, the Bryant Park Corporation (BPC), contracted with the City of New York to manage the park and invested some $18 million over 10 years in restoration efforts, raising capital from grants, business improvement district assessments, bond funds, city capital funds, and private capital. The investments paid for new landscaping, renovated restrooms, and 2,000 lawn chairs, in addition to revenue-generating initiatives including two restaurants and six kiosks selling specialty items from coffee to ice cream. The BPC operates with a staff of 55 persons in the summer who manage security, landscaping, and special events, including fashion shows, jazz festivals, and Monday-night films. Other pastimes, such as chess and bocce, as well as ice skating in the winter, are also part of life in the park. 6
Bryant Park now records some 6 million visitors annually and is credited with helping to revitalize midtown Manhattan. In the two years following its rehabilitation, rental activity in the area increased by 60 percent and crime fell: 150 robberies were recorded in the park the year before BPC moved in, compared with just a single robbery since 1980. The turnaround is an example of a highly successful public-private partnership for placemaking. Although its success would be difficult to replicate in a city without the investment funds and disposable income found in Manhattan, the example of Bryant Park gives a sense of what is possible when citizens and city officials pull together to advance the public interest through creative placemaking. 7
〉〉 Next: Centers of Well-being
Gary Gardner is director of publications at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director and contributing author of the State of the World project.
Read more in State of the World: Can a City Be Sustainable?