In 1970, I had the opportunity to coordinate New York City’s first Earth Day demonstration. It was an experience that changed my life, and one that continues to impact the work that I do, and the way I see the world, today. The environmental movement has become a very top-down affair in the ensuing years, but the first Earth Day actually was billed as a “national teach-in.” Every community across the country was encouraged to create its own event tackling local issues and concerns under the larger umbrella of environmentalism.
It was that openness that was the day’s greatest strength; the event’s leaders came to New York once to check in, but they let us–the people on the ground, working for change in the city–lead our own initiative. Earth Day came at a unique moment in time, when various forces were converging around the idea of environmentalism. Its distributed, empowering approach was critical to its success in bringing many different interest groups and constituencies together, and still serves as a model for mass organizing.
Today, after decades of wrongheaded development, people are coming to realize that their communities are not set up to support health, happiness, peace, and prosperity. They are seeing, once again, the need for a convergence, a coming-together of myriad interests and constituencies. The Placemaking Leadership Council was created as a direct response to that growing sense of opportunity for transformative change, and after our inaugural meeting on April 11-13 in Detroit [full program here], I can tell you that things are headed in the right direction. I believe that we are at a moment when the Placemaking movement is ready for its Earth Day.
The 300+ Placemakers who gathered in Detroit came from all walks of life, and from all across the world: more than a dozen different countries, and 25 states. The group was made up of government employees, teachers, artists, journalists, developers, community organizers, architects, authors, and activists. Some came from communities of privilege, while others came from neighborhoods where struggle is a daily fact of life. What they all shared was an understanding of the power of place to serve as a connector of people (both to each other and to their environment), and a facilitator for revitalization and renewal.
We are living at a time when people are more disconnected from participating in the shaping of their world than ever before. What the members of the Placemaking Leadership Council have realized–each in their own way–is that this time is also brimming with possibility. It used to be that, when I would go somewhere and talk about ‘turning everything upside down to get it right side up,’ people would respond with trepidation. Today, that same phrase often puts people at ease. They nod in agreement, because they understand that we can only go up from here. The world is ready to change, and it will do so not in one great shift, but in a billion little actions. The pot is boiling over.
While we have only just begun sifting through the wealth of ideas generated at the Council’s meeting, there are clear themes that are already emerging. There is no doubt in my mind that a group as dynamic and diverse as the one that gathered in Detroit will continue to evolve, but I wanted to share some of the core beliefs that the Council identified together, as well as several functions that this new group will likely serve:
1.) Everyone has the right to live in a great place. Discussions about the importance of Placemaking came back, time and again, to the need to empower individuals to take charge of their public spaces. Council members are keen to utilize Placemaking to inspire people from many different backgrounds to become “Place Champions” and maximize the potential of public space to connect people and build community.
2.) There is a pressing need for better resources. Multiple break-out groups identified the Council as a potential body for developing and disseminating better data and flexible tools that help make the Placemaking process more accessible, and its benefits more readily understandable, for a broad audience. Visual communication was identified as a priority.
3.) Re-orient policymaking through a place-based approach. Or, as one break-out put it during a report back to the larger group on the meeting’s second day, “we need to decode place so policymakers understand it, and decode policy so Placemakers understand it.” Places are idiosyncratic, and people often get caught up in the particular details of a particular location when discussing Placemaking. We need to re-focus attention on the benefits of the process overall in order to create a common shared language and present a united front when dealing with the bureaucratic systems that currently exist at many levels.
The Placemaking Leadership Council will serve to create a stronger framework for the important efforts already underway in cities all over the world. There is a clear and present need for the movement to find ways to bring more people on-board, and communicate more effectively about why this work is so critical. We need to be able to illustrate, clearly and quickly, how place connects many different disciplines, helping communities to develop more holistic solutions. Personally, I cannot wait to work with this fantastic, energetic group of people to take this on.
More than four decades after the first Earth Day, our planet still faces grave challenges. We are social creatures, and we all need to work together to find solutions to those challenges, working from the neighborhood up. Placemaking, the collaborative re-shaping of public spaces, is a tangible, accessible way for people to participate in that process, and we must all do what we can to push this critical agenda forward. Everyone has the right to live in a great place. More importantly, everyone has the right to contribute to making the place where they already live great.