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WC Book: Placemaking Groups
Sarah Rich, 19 Dec 05

We're plugging away on the Worldchanging book, and since you guys always have great ideas, we're coming to you again for some tips and suggestions.

One section of the book covers placemaking in cities, including the creation of great public spaces. We've covered a lot of these ideas before. We know a lot about what governments have done to encourage the emergence of great places.

What we're looking for now, specifically, are grassroots examples of groups who have created neighborhood places through a combination of community cooperation and citizen action on urban design. What group in your city has taken an unloved or underutilized space and through hard work and advocacy made it a place people love to be in? What did they do? How did they do it? Or what resources might you recommend for other local groups looking to make their communities more welcoming, walkable, beautiful and enjoyable?

We're eager to hear your thoughts!

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I remember reading something about Soweto shanty township (!?) being fairly successful in terms of layout. I will need to go trawling through some back issues of New Scientist, or Scientific American for the exact reference (it was used as example of the goemetric factors that govern town planning)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 19 Dec 05

"...grassroots examples of groups who have created neighborhood places through a combination of community cooperation and citizen action on urban design."

Two words: Burning Man. I haven't been to one yet myself, but from what I've read the event fufills the criteria stated above (with the possible exception of urban design), and also serves as a breeding ground for novel forms of art, culture, and activism.

"What group in your city has taken an unloved or underutilized space and through hard work and advocacy made it a place people love to be in?"

The first example in Seattle that comes to mind would be the P-Patch gardens sprinkled around the city. The basic idea is that vacant lots are turned into community run gardens, that yield 7-10 tons of organic produce per year for the city's food banks. More at:

"Or what resources might you recommend for other local groups looking to make their communities more welcoming, walkable, beautiful and enjoyable?"

Well, I think ther are a couple basic rules for making a city more enjoyable.

Rule #1: Fight gentrification. Nothing robs a city of its personaity and lovable idiosyncracies like a homogenous landscape. Support your local independent businesses, and boycott the corporate ones that pop up on every corner (*cough* Starbucks! *cough*). And if some new bright and shiny corporate store wants to move into your neighborhood, protest it. Seriously. Because if you think Walmart is the only corporation that ruins communities, you've got another thing coming.

Rule #2: Greener is better. One of the things I always hated about living in Chicago was the monliths of cement and steel everywhere and the horrendous parks system.

A playground and sporting facilities spotted with a handful of trees is not a park.

A pointless gigantic metal bean and video wall fountain, with a smattering of trees is not a park.

What is a park? Come to Seattle and you'll find out (they don't call it the Emerald City for nothing). The parks here are big and BEAUTIFUL. There are trees everywhere, many of them quite old and reaching to towering heights. My favorite by far is Volunteer Park, as in addition to the above it also has a couple of lily ponds (which I find very relaxing), an observation tower, conservatory, and is home to the Asian Art Museum. Culture, relaxation, and natural beauty. You really can't ask for more from a park.

Posted by: Justin Minich on 20 Dec 05

City Repair's Village Building Convergence is by far the best example I've seen. They started in Portland, OR and are spreading like wildfire. Here in Oakland, CA we have our own brand of placemaking.

So much fun and evolutionary to boot!

Posted by: Katherine Steele on 20 Dec 05

Sounds like City Repair in Portland, Oregon fits the bill. CR is a grassroots organization that does small projects together, such as creating a neighborhood square from an intersection.

Posted by: Cat on 20 Dec 05

you might want to look at an local association called "urbanisme et democratie" ( in paris.

it started in the early 1990s as a reaction to the city's decision to build big buildings in an area of paris which had been set aside since the late 1970s to eventually become a green space due to the lack of public green spaces in that neighborhood.

after actively mobilizing the residents of the neighborhood, the association won the case (first time in paris i believe) and a block party spontaneously took place in the neighborhood.

ever since, this association has kept working on counter-propositions regarding local urbanism. the block parties have also become a tradition.

if you want more info, i can help you translate the history described on their website ( and put you in contact with people from the association.

Posted by: mamato on 20 Dec 05

If you have not already done so, you should check out the city repair project in Portland, OR. They do some great projects, including organizing the Village Building Convergence (VBC) every year in PDX.

Here is some info from their website:

The City Repair Project is group of citizen activists creating public gathering places and helping others to creatively transform the places where they live.

With a mostly volunteer staff and the help of hundreds of volunteer citizen activists, our many projects:

* educate people about why most American neighborhoods are socially isolating and culturally inactive, and how we can transform them from the grassroots,
* inspire people to both understand themselves as part of a larger community and fulfill their own creative potential, and
* activate people to be part of the communities around them, as well as part of the decision-making that shapes the future of their communities.

A neighbor presents a proposal at the Division Street placemaking workshop, July 2001 at the Red and Black Cafe. City Repair was formed in Portland, Oregon in 1996 by citizen activists who wanted a more community-oriented and ecologically sustainable society. Born out of a successful grassroots neighborhood initiative that converted a residential street intersection into a neighborhood public square, City Repair began its work with the idea that localization (of culture, of economy, of decision-making) is a necessary foundation of sustainability. By reclaiming urban spaces to create community-oriented places, we plant the seeds for greater neighborhood communication, empower our communities and nurture our local culture.

Posted by: Daniel Etra on 20 Dec 05

You may want to have a look at Eco Quartier program running in Montreal, Quebec.

The program is about engaging people in their neighbourhoods for environmental and social goals.

The program has good connections to the Velo Quebec program, who have developed a Green Cycle route throughout Montreal, and south of the city.

Posted by: Christopher on 20 Dec 05

Great suggestions. Thanks. Keep 'em coming!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 20 Dec 05

The Intervale in Burlington, Vermont.

Not directly an answer to your question, but you might want to look at the book, "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" by the late William Whyte.

Posted by: David Foley on 20 Dec 05

I live in the general vicinity of the CERES community environment park in Brunswick, Melbourne (Australia). This may serve as a pertinent example of a grassroots community transforming an urban space.



Posted by: AJ on 20 Dec 05

Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, have done a lot to enhance urban placemaking over the years, and are a great resource.

A few interesting examples of successful placemaking, completed or proposed, that come to mind are:

* The Viaduc des Arts/Promenade Plantée in Paris, a disused rail viaduct that became an urban greenway. The Westside High Line in New York, featured in this month's Metropolis Magazine, proposes a similar re-use of an elevated viaduct as a somewhat wilder linear park.

* A few cities have torn down freeways and re-used the rights-of-way for public space, housing, and parks. We have three examples in San Francisco, including the Octavia Boulevard and Hayes Green where the Central Freeway used to be, the Embarcadero roadway where the Embarcadero Freeway used to be, and the Giants baseball park where the stub end of interstate 280 used to be. New York's Hudson River parkway and Boston's Rose Kennedy Greenway are former elevated freeway sites converted to parks and public open spaces. Milwaukee and Seattle have also explored the idea of removing elevated freeways and create surface boulevards with new park spaces.

* San Francisco Beautiful gives awards each year on inspiring urban placemaking projects, usually initated by residents. Seattle's office of neighborhoods used to fund grassroots greening and placemaking projects when Jim Diers ran the program.

* Many European cities have pedestrianized their historic cores; Copenhagen is one of the best, and architect Jan Gehl deserves a lot of the credit. His book, The Space Between Buildings, is a good placemaking resource. Barcelona's creative parks and boulevards are also inspiring. Mr. Gehl recently did a plan for Transport for London with strategies for turning central London, freed from gridlock by the congestion charge, into a great walking city. The Trafalgar Square renovation designed by Norman Foster's firm is a good start. Alvaro Siza has a plan for greening the Paseo del Prado, but I haven't been able to find good online resources about it. Paris's weekend street closures, including the frontage roads on the Seine, create spaces for walking and cycling, and are a great example of how to temporarily reclaim road space for recreation.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 21 Dec 05

Check out the work of Evergreen in Canada.

Taken right frmo our website: Evergreen envisions a sustainable society where individuals live in harmony with and contribute meaningfully to their local environment. Evergreen will be at the forefront of the movement to create this society, by empowering communities, by creating innovative resources and by transforming educational values.

Futhermore: [Evergreen's] mission is to bring communities and nature together for the benefit of both. We engage people in creating and sustaining healthy, dynamic outdoor spaces - in our schools, our communities and our homes. We believe that local stewardship creates vibrant neighbourhoods, a healthy natural environment and a sustainable society for all.

Check out the work we are doing with Learning Grounds, Common Grounds, and the Don Valley BrickWorks in Toronto.

Jeremy Kirouac

Posted by: Jeremy Kirouac on 21 Dec 05

The PBS series Edens Lost and Found examines how activists are restoring urban environments by connecting people with their communities.

Posted by: Enrique on 22 Dec 05

Here in Seattle, we've started a process that is engaging non-profits, businesses, citizens and governmental leaders to envision how our public/open spaces might look in 100 years. Basically, we are taking our existing stock of Olmsted Brothers designed spaces and retrofitting it to a network of green runnning in, around and through the city.It is getting a lot of support from community groups and other orgs. We'd love to have anyone on the list join our Green Futures charrette. Check us out at

Posted by: Brice on 22 Dec 05

A project involving the historic red light district of the harbor of Antwerp has just received a prestigious price for public involvement in urban projects. The people of the neighborhood wanted to get rid of the bad name and unpleasant atmosphere of the quartier, and turned it into a public landmark, through a deep participatory process of debating and consulting with a multitude of stake-holders.

Please find it here:

The neighborhood is now hip with artists, hot with tourists (the ordinary ones), and safe and nice for the s_ex workers (se_x work is a legal business in Belgium). The old typical inhabitants of the quarter now feel revived and integrated in the city again.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 22 Dec 05



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