Using Local Networks, Placemaking Campaigns, and Catalytic Projects as a Force for Community and Global Change

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."  

Margaret Mead

Imagine if the places where we live were walkable and shaped for, and from, our social lives, re-imagined to make it easy for us to gather, shop, have fun, eat together, and be around people different from us. With this mindset, we would fundamentally change our communities, and collectively have an impact on the health of our planet.

This is not a dream.  This vision has actually been achieved in many cities around the world as placemaking has become a global movement.  Still, although we are seeing huge growth in placemaking as a field, we are not at the level of investment that we think is both possible and, indeed, necessary for the future of our cities and planet.

The challenges of our time — climate change and resilience, health, equity and inclusion — are indeed global in scale.   But the most effective and catalytic solutions can often be found on the local level. That's why we strive to support and expand placemaking as a catalytic investment in our future.  

Tweet by Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UNHABITAT

How we got here, from public spaces to Placemaking: 1970 to Today

1970-1975: “The Golden Age of Public Life Research”

  • This era began with the foundation of William “Holly” Whyte, Jane Jacobs, Margaret Mead, Alan Jacobs, and others forming what we call, “The Golden Age of Public life Research.” This research on the social life of public spaces became our building blocks for our work and  highlighted the crucial importance of public spaces and the ways that people use and benefit from them,
  • In 1975, we founded Project for Public Spaces to apply the work of Holly Whyte in real communities, and get public spaces planned as if people mattered. We began a series of what have proven to be catalytic projects in NYC, including Bryant Park, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which had fallen into an era of urban dysfunction and decay.

1990s - 2000s: Placemaking is born

  • In the 1990s, we transitioned from “public spaces” to “placemaking” as a major idea for creating stronger communities.  We continued our catalytic work, but also provided tools for communities based on our 11 Principles for Creating Great Places, which featured long-lived advice like: “The community is the expert;” “You are creating a place, not just a design;” “You can’t do it alone;” and “If they say it can’t be done, it doesn’t always work out that way.”
  • Because this approach was the opposite of widespread but narrowly focused planning, as defined by professional disciplines and siloed government agencies, we launched new programs, training workshops, an expanded website, and conferences. This allowed us to change the status quo and create holistic visions for transportation, parks, markets, and other types of public spaces.
  • We continued to lead some of the most catalytic public space projects in the world, and tell the story of their transformation in the 2018 edition of How to Turn a Place Around.  Projects included: Campus Martius, Detroit; Harvard’s Science Plaza; Market Square,  Pittsburgh; Discovery Green, Houston; Flint Farmers Market, Flint, MI; and Perth Cultural Center, to name a few.

2013 - 2018: Placemaking Networks Emerge

  • In 2013, we hosted the first meeting of the Placemaking Leadership Council in Detroit. The Council soon grew to include more than 1,500 members.  With increasing global interest, Placemaking networks began to emerge in different regions around the world.
  • In 2013 we partnered with UN-Habitat and the Axson Johnson Foundation in Stockholm to create the Future of Places, a successful effort to make public space and placemaking a global cause with recognition in the 2016 New Urban Agenda.

2018 - Today: The Placemaking Fund

  • In 2018, we formed a new nonprofit(501c3) organization, the Placemaking Fund, and soon launched two programs:
  • PlacemakingX is a global network of thought leaders, public space activists, regional network leaders, and professionals who together accelerate placemaking as a way to create healthy, inclusive, and beloved communities. Led by its own global advisory board of placemaking leaders, PlacemakingX seeks to lead global campaigns around the world. Currently, PlacemakingX is formed by 100+ leaders and 1,300+ advocates from 80+ countries around the world and has spawned 18+ regional placemaking networks.
  • The Social Life Project’s mission is to incite a renaissance of community connections by highlighting what makes public spaces thrive. By telling the stories of communities that have done outstanding Placemaking work, along with campaigns like the 11 Transformative Agendas to Restore Social Life in Your Community, we can create fundamental change in cities and communities around the globe.
  • All of this is leading Placemaking forward as a locally-led global effort. It demonstrates a meaningful step by the Placemaking Movement to link public space interventions with innovative and inclusive solutions to some of our biggest shared challenges.
Social Life, How Can it Help Shape the Future of our Communities?
With people today longing to bond again with friends and family, it is becoming clearer that the foundation of our happiness and fulfillment is a rich social life. Reflections of Jay Walljasper.

The Next Stage

With the above as the basic foundation, The Placemaking Fund and its two core programs are now poised to impact our ultimate goal of a healthy, sustainable, and resilient planet. The next logical stage in our evolution is to launch city-level or regional campaigns and catalytic projects framed by the 11 Transformative Agendas and strategically connected with other global networks and movements:

  • As we emerge from the global pandemic, during which time public spaces have taken on new importance, we need to align our two programs with like-minded partners who are also looking to accelerate the adoption of Placemaking as a fundamental force in cities:
  • The next stage of Placemaking X and its network is to launch, partner, and lead Placemaking Catalytic Campaigns & Catalytic Projects to accelerate the impact of the movement.
  • The next stage of the Social Life Project is to foster, celebrate, and curate those efforts into broad global agendas, and to tell the stories of catalytic Placemaking projects to a broader audience.
  • Programmatically and thematically, campaigns should support one or more of our Transformative Agendas to Restore Social Life in Communities:

11 Transformative Agendas  

How Placemaking and Social Life are Helping Win the Climate War - 11 Ways
When it comes to addressing climate change in a way that actually moves the needle, the creativity and community-orientation that always defined the global Placemaking movement can be the foundation for the future of communities everywhere--and for our planet.

These transformative agendas can be a foundation for the future and a roadmap for communities seeking to launch placemaking campaigns:

  1. Bringing Back the Public Square
  2. Putting Markets at the Center of Neighborhood Social Life
  3. Starting with the Sidewalks to Create the Streets We Want
  4. Turning buildings inside-out: Architecture of Place
  5. Supporting Multi-Use Community Hubs
  6. Capitalizing on the appeal of waterfronts
  7. Strengthening Assests that Express a Cities Character
  8. Highlighting a Community's Identity by Creating Great Amenities
  9. Creating social life for all
  10. Having Fun
  11. Making it Happen: Forums that Spark the Imagination

Broader Impacts of Placemaking

At the same time, we must leverage the multiple impacts of these local catalytic projects and campaigns to become models for and to advance progress of our most critical global challenges:

  • Climate change
  • Health
  • Equity and Inclusion
  • Community-led local Economies
  • Sustainability
  • Resilience

Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper

Placemaking can also greatly accelerate the impact of infrastructure that often takes years to plan and implement. Short-term, low-cost improvements can act as stepping stones to larger more substantial investments while achieving immediate results.  These “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” interventions also enable experimentation with design changes before they are permanently constructed.

Catalytic Placemaking Initiative

The Catalytic Placemaking Initiative is an opportunity to:

  1. Leverage anticipated infrastructure investments, on both national and global scales, to meet the rapidly growing need for public spaces as we emerge from global pandemic.
  2. At the same time, address pressing global challenges such as climate change and resilience, public health, and equity and inclusion through a local placemaking strategy.

Catalytic Placemaking projects can potentially include:

  • Transformation of a single, major public space in a city;
  • Multiple placemaking projects in a single city district;
  • City/region-wide campaigns of connected placemaking initiatives; and
  • Suburban and/or small-town versions of the above.

To implement this initiative, we will:

  • Draw on all of the tools, resources, and experience of the leadership of the Placemaking Fund to build the capacity of local leaders to make catalytic efforts;
  • Leverage the knowledge and experience of our network of Placemaking leaders, who have successfully undertaken transformative projects and programs, and can work with local partners to inspire, mentor, advise, and motivate them to implement Placemaking campaigns;
  • Create a pool of local leaders and change agents to launch these approaches to Placemaking in their cities and communities, and provide ongoing support in securing funding for these local projects. A cohort of new and emerging local Placemaking leaders can also share experiences, learn from each other, and create a powerful voice for Placemaking;
  • Engage funders who want to leverage the Placemaking Fund’s substantial investments in building a global Placemaking network by providing the support necessary to bring this network together, create resources, communicate approaches, and implement projects locally;
  • Set up ongoing measurement systems to incorporate a data-driven approach to understanding the social, environmental, and economic impacts of Placemaking campaigns; and
  • Share lessons and experience broadly and in collaboration with global organizations and movements.

Action Plan:

  • Seek partners: create partnerships and collaborations with organizations with complementary missions at the state, national, and global levels;
  • Launch pilot efforts: identify and work with partners  to test this new approach around different contexts and agendas, including Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper activations[
  • Seek funding: accelerate opportunities to expand pilot efforts in collaboration with partners;
  • Communicate: spread the lessons learned to a broader, global audience; and
  • Expand: create a multi-year strategy to broaden participation through Placemaking networks and other global organizations and movements.

Funding and Partnerships: Join us!

The Placemaking Fund is currently supporting its two inaugural programs which will be integrally involved in the Catalytic Projects and Campaign efforts. We are seeking partners to help us leverage this investment towards the development and implementation of this program. This is a program that will require a significant investment that can leverage even more funding.

We can easily see how this effort could reach literally hundreds of millions in total infrastructure investment for design, construction, and management from both local, national, and global sources and become the model for the future of cities and communities everywhere.

To Save the Planet, Start With the Social Life of Sidewalks
Rich street life is no frill. It is an expression of the most ancient function of a city—a place for people to come together, all kinds of people, face-to-face. — William “Holly” Whyte
Top Ideas - Social Life Project
Imagine if the places where we live were walkable and shaped for, and from, our social lives, re-imagined to make it easy for us to gather, shop, have fun, eat together, and be around all kinds of people of all ages and backgrounds. With this mindset, we would fundamentally change our communities, a…

The mission of the Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection in public spaces around the globe. Through our online publication, presentations, campaigns, and catalytic projects, we can create transformative impact on communities everywhere. Our work grows out of more than 50 years devoted to building the global placemaking movement. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of leaders who together accelerate placemaking as a way to create healthy, inclusive, and beloved communities. We gladly accept donations to advance our work.

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