Build Back Better, Together: 11 Transformative Agendas to Restore Social Life in Your Community

Saving the planet depends on reclaiming our communities.

Build Back Better, Together:  11 Transformative Agendas to Restore Social Life in Your Community

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 We Need to Turn Everything Upside Down

             to Get it Right Side Up...

                    To Get from Inadequate to Extraordinary

With the pandemic receding behind us, we are all looking for a new beginning. Our future is ahead of us, right in front of our noses...if only we will look.

Editors note: Updated July 2021. This article is a "living" set of ideas that will continue to evolve.  

The past year brought about many of our shared challenges, from systemic racism to a global pandemic to an increasingly urgent climate crisis. Over the course of 2020, these issues and their interconnections became more apparent than ever and impossible to ignore. We know that a turn of the calendar page or a change in governance does not necessarily translate to meaningful action, which requires organizing and sustained engagement with our leaders and one another. But it's hard to shake the feeling that many of the changes we need to make feel more possible now than they have for some time.

We see a role for public spaces, placemaking and place governance in all of this change. We know that when we center our communities and the spaces they comprise, real and lasting change usually follows.

You know a great place when you see one—it’s where people naturally want to gather. But it’s shocking how many times our public spaces miss the mark—becoming drab, ugly, boring, uncomfortable, or forgettable spots where no one wants to go.

The surest way to make great public spaces is Placemaking—the conscious act of fostering communities that allow everyone to thrive, prosper, and enjoy themselves in inspiring settings.

A shaded square, part of the Grand Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia

An ever-increasing body of research proves that walkable, convivial places are healthier for residents, more sustainable for the planet, and simply more fun for all of us. The practices and principles of Placemaking are now being recognized as a key element of overcoming the climate emergency and widening inequity.

Improving our shared places is the way to transform a neighborhood, town, or city—and a critical step in reversing climate change, addressing inequity, and defining our future in a world we were all deeply impacted by COVID-19.

This is all to say that we are looking for a new beginning.  Now is the time to prepare for the future: ideally, one in which Placemaking and its growing networks of cities, regions, and continents will play a role in achieving our shared goals. So, where exactly does Placemaking and the importance of social life plug into this; a moment that feels full of urgent possibility?

These transformative agendas can be a foundation for the future and a roadmap for communities to improve the "places" that help us to do well by one another:

1. Bringing Back the Public Square

Historically, public squares were common ground where people connected as friends and neighbors. Today, we need to reinvent these community anchors to rouse vital public interaction. The best squares—which can take the form of parks, markets, even shopping streets or plazas—become sources of civic pride, sites of protest and conversation, and social hubs. Harvard University and Detroit's Campus Martius are just two such squares:

Harvard University Transformation - Common Spaces Program

Changes to our public squares don't have to be drawn-out or costly. In fact, Harvard Yard, built in 1720, changed fundamentally in a single day when movable chairs were introduced as part of a University-wide push to upgrade public spaces for students, staff, and Cambridge residents.

Previously under-activated spaces next to Harvard Yard were completely transformed though a placemaking vision that we implemented on the fly through LQC (Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper) activations,quickly becoming the main campus gathering space for the Harvard community and local residents. This collection of activated places in the heart of Harvard soon stood in contrast to other nearby spaces, and the changes spread further across the larger Harvard Square: Now this transformation stands as a model of successful activation that can be applied in nearly any community.

Detroit's Campus Martius

Detroit offers another story of the importance of public squares. In the early 1900s, Detroit was considered home to the most vibrant downtown in North America. At the center, a crucial space called Campus Martius served as the transportation and crossroads. By 1999, Campus Martius had been completely taken over by car traffic, leaving only the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the center of the space as the sole reminder of Detroit's former glory.

Campus Martius is the new heart of Detroit..

Beginning in 2002, Detroit helped resurrect its downtown area through the lens of a single public space, returning Campus Martius to serve locals as a public square. Local leaders, led by Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, we did a Placemaking Vision that was implemented in a short 4 months by making use of easily achievable "LQC" (Lighter, Cheaper, Quicker) activations. Starting with a beach and a beer garden the results were immediate and transformative.

Since then, placemaking has changed the downtown area of Detroit entirely! The key was that local leaders kept the momentum going after they saw Campus Martius transform, encouraged to create an ever-changing (and ever-improving) city center.

2. Using Markets to Bring Social Life Back Everywhere  

Destination markets like Pike Place in Seattle attract local residents and visitors, alike. That's partially thanks to the fact that markets are the foundation of social life for cities everywhere. It follows that building networks of them across cities and regions both maintains local market cultures and preserves a way of life.

Pike Place Market is a special community within the heart of Seattle’s downtown neighborhood comprised of hundreds of farmers, craftspeople, small businesses and residents. It serves as an incubator and supporter of farmers, artisans and small businesses.

The Pike Place Market community looks after its own through a dynamic web of organizations, social service agencies, residential advocates, and by providing affordable and low-income housing, which creates a safety net for those in our community who are the most vulnerable—low-income seniors, the differently abled, and the unhoused.

These services are supported by the Pike Place Market Foundation and its mascot, Rachel the Piggy Bank, a life-size bronze piggy bank located under the Market clock and sign. Established in 1982, The Market Foundation is a non-profit organization that supports housing and services for low-income neighbors by fundraising, advocacy, and community building.

This all goes to show that markets, in Seattle and beyond, can be a crucial part of the way we interact with our neighbors, food systems, and local economies.

3. Starting with Sidewalks is the Key to Creating the Streets We Want

If a community focuses on accommodating car traffic, they will get even more of it. That’s why it is crucial to think beyond the windshield. Focusing on sidewalks by repurposing space for people in intersections, street corners, and entire city blocks brings more social and local economic life to communities. Sidewalks are key to making our streets lively places that promote connection, commerce, and conviviality.

Paris is a city defined by sidewalks where all sorts of social activities draw people morning, noon, and night.  Its' the sidewalks where you shop or sit and observe in a cafe that makes the experience...it is not a sidewalk with shops along the side.

Who owns the intersection? Is it defined by cars and traffic or is it a distinct part of the neighborhood. Buenos Aires and London examples show how impactful an intersection defining a community can create a welcome alternative.

4. Turning Buildings Inside Out: Architecture of Place

Rather than creating settings that look good in a skyline photo but are inhospitable in real life, the talents of designers can be better used to create great places where communities come together.

By designing our buildings differently, we can blur the lines between indoor and outdoor life. We can make the street-facing parts of buildings reach out, rather than close themselves off like fortresses. This connection between our buildings and our streets will encourage all manner of institutions, from businesses to governmental and cultural institutions, to take on bigger roles in fostering a vivid social life in the spaces around them. Imagine top architects breathing life into buildings like schoolyards, branch libraries, shopping districts, or city halls—all by seeing the spaces outside their walls as valuable opportunities.

With a Life Size model of Humphrey Bogart sitting in a Pontiac in front of the legendary Park Central Hotel

Ocean Drive in Miami Beach’s South Beach district is famous for its Art Deco Architecture and bustling street life. Visitors "walk" their fancy cars, stroll along the sidewalks to put on a "show." It is the focus of international tourism in Florida.

5. Creating New Community Hubs

Today's community hubs are changing: Now, college campuses, entertainment zones, cultural districts, hospital complexes, neighborhood commercial centers, and large-scale developments such as innovation districts can become important hubs of social interaction.

The Cultural Centre in Perth, Australia was once widely derided as boring by local residents. But after a dramatic activation powered by a short-term placemaking plan, opinions quickly changed and people began to flock to the area.

Perth is an example of using placemaking to enhance a cultural hub. Perhaps most important to remember is that these types of places should complement, rather than compete with traditional city centers.

6. Capitalizing on the Appeal of Waterfronts

The best waterfronts showcase a city’s rich history and offer diverse activities. Waterfronts can tap into their unique qualities to create a dynamic place to live, work, and play. With one-of-a-kind commercial spaces, entertainment venues, parks, plazas, or markets, waterfronts frequently serve as a city’s living room and highlight its connection to the water. Bergen and Porto are two historic waterfront that represent two of the best. Paris below shows how in a relatively few years two entire waterfronts (the Seine and Bassin de la Villette) can be transformed.

Waterfronts in Paris

Paris has also played host to multiple waterfront placemaking experiments, and in so doing, created the world's greatest waterfront city. And all in under 20 years! Riverside activations like a seasonal beach (the "Paris Plage") have created space for public art, play, and relaxation in the heart of the city. Both the right and left banks of the Seine and Bassin de la Villette have become a summer time resource for citizens and visitors.

7. Expanding Cultural Destinations to Spark Imagination

More than storehouses of artifacts, museums and other cultural institutions are fast becoming cultural hubs that enrich the imaginations of people of all ages, incomes, and walks of life. This is easily done by extending their presence into the community itself, breaking down the walls through in-person and digital engagement. This type of outreach can give a distinct identity to the entire neighborhood surrounding a cultural venue.

The legendary Musee D’Orsay mounts art exhibitions right on the riverfront just below the museum. Elsewhere in Paris, cultural institutions like the Louvre Museum and the Paris Public library have a presence along the Seine river. With outdoor reading rooms, displays, and seating, these institutions reach more people in more places than perhaps ever before.

The bold idea of Paris Plage was to replace a high-speed road with a beach and other attractions to serve residents who could not afford a seaside vacation. This dramatically increased use of the city’s riverfront by local residents starting in 2007‌‌.

8. Strengthening Assets that Express a City’s Character

It is often out of the tiniest details that people form their memories of a place, and it is through these seemingly "small" things that the potential for enlivening a city lies. Features like murals, water fountains, sculptures, play structures, games, kiosks, and bus stops may seem like "nice-to-haves," but together they add up to give a place a real and vital sense of character.

The details of a city, whether where one lives or is passing through as a visitor, are often the stuff of both personal landmarks and shared legends: They appeal to us because they spark our imaginations and add a sense of charm or a story to a given place. They are often the very core of our memories of a place.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen

Fun times at Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen

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9. Highlighting a Community’s Identity by Creating Great Amenities

Serving the the needs of residents and visitors alike is important to creating and maintaining great places. Paris has achieved the "Gold Standard" in this category, by placing amenities like seating, water features, public art, and bollards throughout the city. These features serve local populations as well as the many tourists who flock to the City of Light every year.

But Paris isn't alone in seeing the benefit to things like chairs and tables open to public use—the results are fairly obvious. If there are places to sit, people will sit. And the more comfortable and accessible a space, the more public life it attracts.

But compared to seating, things like bollards might pass unseen as far as amenities go. Happily, "practical" items like bollards often serve purposes beyond what was intended as part of their initial design: They go beyond their safety-related purposes to become something to lean on while chatting with a friend, or stand on for a photo opportunity.

10. Creating Social Life for All

Public space provides us with not only the imperative to do better on issues of social justice, but also the platform to make it happen. We can make our cities more just, accessible, and equitable places through the lens of public spaces. This is where the deep value of meaningful inclusion and accessibility comes into play: for people of all ages, races, abilities, gender expressions, nationalities, and migration backgrounds.

Making sure that all people are able to safely and comfortably visit a place, and to have a restful and fulfilling time there, is the absolute foundation to public spaces. Provisions for physical accessibility, as well as the elimination of social phenomena that might discourage people from spending time in a particular public space (i.e. law enforcement presence, prohibitive rules), are a place to start.

11. Having Fun

Placemaking is meaningless without the idea of fun at its center. Why put in all this work to making public spaces better, unless the definition of  "Building it Better" also means that these spaces bring joy to our lives?

The process of placemaking involves the hard work of outreach and visioning and community involvement—but if it's working right, all of this co-creation should also be fun and invigorating! After all, what could be better than re-imagining the ways that our public realm can enhance our lives and connections to one another?

Open Call

Taking all these agendas and using them to help shape communities around the world is our goal. This is Round 1. We are starting by mining our own resources, sifting through photos from having traveled around the world, working and exploring—and being "Flaneurs." What comes next is your contribution! We see this as a first step to becoming a network of people adding their stories to build a shared global collection.

How can you help us? This is an open call for image-driven placemaking stories from your community! We want to expand our range of storytelling, and to do that, we'd love to have your input. You can also stay up to date by signing up for our newsletter to receive future articles. We hope that 2021 brings us opportunities to put these transformative agendas into action, and we hope that you'll join us in that journey by sharing your own placemaking stories with us.

How can we help you?  We are shaping the next steps of the Social Life Project. Let us know how we can use our talents and resources to build capacity for placemaking in your community...creating campaigns or leading catalytic projects with local teams by bringing in PlacemakingX leaders from around the world. Let's make this happen!  

Share with others, comment, add to the discussion. This post will continue to evolve. hello@placemakingfund.org

The mission of Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection around the globe. It is an initiative of of The Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of activists and community champions propelling the movement forward.

Please contact Fred Kent at fred@sociallifeproject.org with your needs, ideas, and suggestions.