The Power of Placemaking: An Interview with Ethan Kent
by Julia Bronson
Placemaking Week has arrived in Vancouver and delegates from around the world are gathering to share in the placemaking fervour. Throughout the week, the city will light up with conferences and activities to celebrate public places and the potential they hold to create strong and resilient communities.
What is Placemaking?
Placemaking is the act (and art) of designing public spaces that serve the needs of a community while inspiring strong connections and collaboration. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is the organization behind Vancouver’s Placemaking Week and is a leader in the placemaking movement. PPS is a non-profit planning and design organization that specializes in placemaking, and has worked with over 3000 communities on placemaking projects.
To understand how placemaking can be practiced in Vancouver, we spoke with Ethan Kent, the Senior Vice President of PPS. We asked him how Vancouver can enact placemaking to address the city’s livability issues.
Advice for city planners – focus on making places fun.
Although PPS is based in New York City, Ethan is familiar with Vancouver’s placemaking past. Having worked with the City of Vancouver in training sessions on the subject, he knows the ins and outs of the challenges the city has faced. When asked about the sessions, he emphasized that the training focused on making places fun for people to experience.
“Although Vancouver has done a better job of planning than almost any city, there weren’t that many places that people loved...Even with good planning principles, you can forget [to include] good places and those good places can help create demand for, and enable, the application of good planning” he said.
City planners need to address function and purpose when designing places, but Kent is suggesting that focusing on fun aspects is just as important. If people are drawn to an area by attractive and fun qualities, they are more likely to spend time there, while making connections and discovering the area.
Public space in the hands of developers.
Focusing on fun destinations during city planning is one way to enhance placemaking, but before that can happen, those spaces must be protected for public use. The issue of developers buying up public space has come to light recently. For instance, the Cadillac Fairview Corporation has proposed a redevelopment at the Pacific Centre Plaza that will turn the space into a three-storey addition to the mall. We asked Ethan what we can do to convince developers to have a vested interest in keeping spaces like the plaza public.
“We’re actually able to convince developers fairly easily that leading with public places, places that are truly public...[is] a way to drive demand for development in the context of that community. We’re increasingly able to show that the developments that drive value for developers, but also for those communities, are ones that are anchored by good public spaces” he said.
Ethan’s recommendation for developers to protect public space takes on an economic standpoint. If spaces like the Pacific Centre Plaza are kept public, with comfortable places to relax in, visitors will improve the local economy with purchases and by utilizing services in the area.
“Social isolation is one of the biggest crises of our time”
Ethan concluded that placemaking has the power to transform places and people. “Social isolation is one of the biggest crises of our time…and connecting people to the process of improving their places is a powerful means to address social isolation”, he said. Placemaking has the ability to bring people together, over an issue of how a place should be developed, or by re-designing the places that are already there.
Placemaking Week has several events that aim to connect people and help them rediscover places in Vancouver. Our event on Thursday evening, #POPCrawl, will send participants on a choose your own adventure exploration of forgotten public space in downtown Vancouver. The event will connect you with fellow participants and new places with activities scattered throughout the downtown core. We hope to see you there!
This free event will kick off at the #POPCrawl Launch Party from 5PM to 6:30PM at the 800 Block of Robson Street (south plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery) with food trucks, music, surprise activities and welcoming speeches at 6PM.
Julia is the Program Assistant at SFU Public Square. She is a graduate of SFU’s Semester in Dialogue program with a BA in Communication.