The Future of Places: Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Prosperity

The Future of Places: Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Prosperity
Introduction to Academic Session Synthesis Report

Michael Mehaffy, Academic Committee Chair

It seems to me this conference series is circling around a very important idea: Cities, when they function well, and when they maintain equity, have an astonishing inherent capacity, a structural dynamic, that can promote the capacity and capability of their residents – all residents – to secure and to enrich their quality of life, both individually and in common. But there are very specific structural requirements for that process – requirements that exist at the level of streets and sidewalks, and other human places.

By the way, I think that was the real point of Jane Jacobs’ marvelous work, and I suspect she would have considered the topic of racism to be another much larger issue that was beyond her core concern – any more than issues of ageism, or sexism, or anti-semitism, or other social ills that impinge on public spatial issues, but also comprise other enormous broad subjects. But I think the focus, for her and for us, is this: what are the inherent dynamics of an open and equitable city, and how can we put those dynamics to work? And yes, power is part of the issue – how it is distributed, how it occurs spatially, how it is democratic and equitable. How it occurs, and is created, in specific places. And we can see that those dynamics produce astonishing benefits, including economic, health and well-being.

I think this is the core idea behind the broad concept of “placemaking” – creating networks of places, or more accurately empowering the capacity of citizens to create, modify and evolve their own spaces. I suggest this is in fact a new agenda in many ways – in practice, in education and in policy.

But — if that term “placemaking” is not to be dangerously vague, I think we have to define, in concrete terms, the actual structural characteristics of these capacity-building places, the different groups and their dynamics of power, control and interaction, how they operate spatially and as adjacencies, and what we need to do to tap this remarkable power of urban “place networks.” And a special burden is on us, as professionals or academics – and as reformers – to provide agenda-driving evidence that these urban places will in fact be more productive, equitable, diverse, and sustainable.

Luckily for us, there is a rich body of research emerging in many fields that can help us to do precisely that. These fields include sociology, public health, economics, environmental psychology, network science, mathematics, and a number of others — in addition, of course to the design professions. And this body of research is just what yesterday’s academic sessions were designed to explore, and to begin to gather together.

At a time when the globe is urbanizing at an unprecedented pace, when we are poised to create more urban fabric in the next fifty years than we have in all of human history – think about that! – and when we also face unprecedented threats from resource depletion, climate change and systems collapse, these issues take on unprecedented urgency. Cities can be enormous contributors to the problems we face – to the potential catastrophes we face – but they can also be powerful contributors to the solutions.

However, if we are to see this happen, I think we have to confront the disastrous professional mistakes we have collectively made in recent decades, and are still making – the responsibility for the drastic changes in urban settlements around the world, in many ways driven by us in the privileged upper middle class, thanks to the models we and our leaders created. And this is still going on, whatever our aspirations about political change. So I think we have to determine the pragmatic structural steps needed to learn from those mistakes, as a civilization, and to adapt to the rapid changes that we now face. It seems to me that this urgent agenda is very much at the core of this conference series.

So in that light my hard-working colleagues who moderated the academic sessions yesterday will help me to make a brief overview of each presentation. They comprise a remarkable collection of twenty-seven papers, spanning a wide variety of topics of place-making, but with a focus on the role of streets as public places. These papers are all available on your thumb drive on your badge, so if you have not seen it, I heartily encourage you to do so!

The session was divided into four complementary topics, covering new placemaking tools and teaching approaches; the patterns and forms of placemaking; placemaking as a political and economic process; and new theoretical insights into placemaking. Each presenter was asked to express, through its moderator, the key conclusions and agenda issues that, as the attendees felt, should be agenda items for the wider conference – that is, issues urgently needing policy changes, or educational changes, or further research.

Speaking for my colleagues, it was safe to say that in these sessions there was clear evidence of a growing movement and a growing body of evidence behind an agenda for professional and policy and educational reform – for streets as public places, and for placemaking more generally. I hope this conference series can play a useful role in pushing that urgent agenda forward. If we are going to meet the challenges of the future, we must employ a pragmatic, shareable, evidence-based approach to making successful public places for human beings.


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