Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What If We Built Our Cities Around Places?

PPS's Great Cities Initiative proposes a place-based approach to revitalizing our towns, cities, and regions.

One of the joys for all of us working at PPS is learning from people all around the world about how they'd like to make their communities better. No two answers are the same, but listen long enough and the degree to which people share similar desires is remarkable. "Downtown would be a better place if I felt comfortable walking there," is a common sentiment. Or we'll often hear someone tell us, "There should be a place close to home where I can take my kids to play." Though the specifics vary, a steady current runs beneath the surface of what people say. It's the same desire for shared, public places that has shaped human settlements since the first cities were built.
Small steps to enliven streets, parks, and other public spaces are the building blocks of a thriving city.

The architect and author Christopher Alexander coined a phrase (and authored a book by the same name), "The Timeless Way of Building," that touches on these common yearnings and how people have intuitively used them to build congenial places to live. The process of building cities today has become so institutionalized, however, that people seldom have an outlet to put their intuition to use anymore. At PPS, we believe this timeless way of building can be reinvigorated, and we offer a common-sense way to do it: by empowering people to initiate improvements to their local neighborhoods place by place. These small steps to enliven streets, parks, and other public spaces are the building blocks of a thriving city.

Volunteerism is a sure sign that a neighborhood is heading in the right direction.

That is the idea at the heart of PPS's newly launched Great Cities Initiative (more on that below). The vitality of any city depends on citizen action such as neighborhood groups reclaiming their local parks and small businesses recharging commercial streets. Many times, communities need just a little nudge in the right direction to set this process of revitalization in motion. And in a short time, the entire neighborhood has undergone a turnaround as residents take comfort and pride in their public spaces.

What sort of "nudge" are we talking about? Imagine, for example, a neighborhood park bordered on one side by a commercial street and on another by a public library. These urban elements work together to form a single place, yet in a typical city that area would likely be managed by a number of public entities, each operating independently of the others. Instead of a unified approach to improving the place, we likely end up with atomized spheres of influence. The Department of Transportation promotes fast traffic on the roadway with little concern for pedestrians, park users, or patrons of local businesses. Park officials don't factor in library patrons or local shoppers when programming activities. You wind up with a park without popular activities, a street where people don't feel comfortable walking to the park or library, and local institutions cut off from the surrounding neighborhood.

Atomized spheres of influence: This street, bus stop, and library in San Antonio have no relation to each other except for a shared sense of emptiness.

But if we look upon these elements as interrelated components of a single place, we create more opportunities for local people to collaborate and jointly create a vision of what's best for the community. How can the street, park, library, and businesses support and strengthen each other? What do business owners, library employees, and nearby residents envision for the area? By simply observing and listening to the people who live or work or play in the area, the solution to what the place needs will become apparent.

This library in Riverside, California hosts concerts and markets, serving as a civic square for the city.

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