Fred Kent: Prophet and craftsman of quality public spaces

Fred Kent leads a global movement focused on creating public spaces that are planned for and inspired by people. (Project for Public Spaces photo)

In a world packed with ever more urban thinkers, designers and theoreticians, Fred Kent stands out. Forty years ago, he formed a nonprofit, the Project for Public Spaces, with a singular vision. He aimed to help communities develop their neighborhoods and city centers, their public markets, their seafronts, libraries and all the places where people meet and mingle, into truly welcoming places through the power of citizen-inspired design.

The vision wasn’t entirely Kent’s invention. He was following the lead of William (Holly) White, the legendary advocate of people-oriented public spaces and author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. But by engaging communities across the United States, and more recently across the entire world, Kent has sparked a still-expanding movement to reject sterile city designs and instead focus on public spaces that are planned for and inspired by people.

I was lucky enough to get to know Kent when his project was still young. A column I wrote in 1978 syndicated through the Washington Post Writers Group began:

New York — Tucked away in a nondescript Rockefeller Center office, filled with charts on traffic and people movements, dark-room equipment and movie projectors, works a small band of operatives whose unorthodox techniques could remake the face of hundreds of main streets in the years ahead.

The technique is disarmingly simple: a small team, on invitation from a government, a foundation, or merchant’s group, moves into an area and watches how people actually use the place — how they move about, go to work, wait for buses, window shop, dodge vehicles, sun themselves or congregate in groups for talk or recreation. Based on these observations, suggestions are then made on how a street or park can be redesigned to be not just an open space, but a lively, livable place where people will want to be.

Then I noted that Kent’s Project for Public Spaces wasn’t just a pedestrian lobby but also “a thorn in the side of specialists —  traffic engineers, designers of cold architectural monuments, imperious city bureaucrats — who so often put their own professional predilection ahead of the interests of the man and woman and child on the street.”

Fast forward to 2015. The Project for Public Spaces reports it has completed projects in more than 3,000 communities in 43 countries and all 50 U. S. states. A conference on public markets, which it sponsored in Barcelona in March, drew 400 attendees from 60 countries. A “Future of Places” meeting in Stockholm last June drew even more and concluded with a set of place-related priorities designed to feed into deliberations at Habitat III, the UN’s once-every-20 years conference on cities to take place next year. In a recent victory, Kent and his colleagues succeeded — despite original roadblocks — in getting language supportive of “placemaking” and “place governance” inserted into preparatory documents for Habitat III.

On the support and alliance side, PPS recently established a working relationship with Southwest Airlines aimed at improving public spaces in cities the airline serves. The group is also collaborating with the Brookings Institution on an initiative aimed at fostering “cross-disciplinary approaches to urban growth and development.”

Global reach

Today, at the International Downtown Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco —  a meeting specifically targeted at “how innovation, inclusion, and inspiration bridge common issues facing downtowns” — Kent will receive the association’s Dan E. Sweat, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award (named after an illustrious Atlanta civic leader).

As the event neared, Citiscope asked Kent to elaborate on the focus of PPS’ mission as it has evolved over the years.

It’s still an exciting opportunity, Kent said, to advocate people- and place-based approaches to planning and improving public spaces. Political leaders, he notes, still typically hope for a “silver bullet” for city improvement. “But silver bullets,” he insists, “very rarely deliver.” Rather, city leaders are starting to recognize that “they can get 100 silver bullets if the community is actually taking charge, defining what the development outcomes should be.”

There remains major opposition, Kent says, to turning design and place decisions over to communities. Professions such as formal planning, architecture and engineering, he asserts, “are not about this — in fact they can’t be because they lose their control and their purpose — and that’s very hard for them.” And it’s a real fear, he asserts, “because we’re going right at the jugular for a lot of these professions because they have not been delivering” in terms of livable, welcoming urban environments.

An important feature of placemaking, Kent asserts, “is that it’s something you do right away. You don’t do a lot of planning and design, you do what we call ‘lighter, quicker, cheaper’ — and no one is against that. Getting people to latch onto something and to be part of it is eye-opening and builds a constituency of people who will really drive for change in their community.” Plus, it works for the poor — because it’s intuitive, and “they have enormous creativity.”

In addition, Kent argues, “communities are better at spending money than governments — it’s planning for less money, with more tangible results.”

Despite the fact that the word “placemaking” doesn’t translate easily into some languages, Kent says the PPS approach works in multiple cultures worldwide. He gives the example of Amsterdam, where his organization started working in multi-cultural areas with significant Moroccan and Turkish populations. “Other people came to watch us do that,” he says, and then all of a sudden the chief planning officer of Amsterdam “says that everything they do in the future has to be placemaking.” The city, he continues, “now has community managers, and they are all learning how to do it — a major paradigm shift.”

Such breakthroughs, Kent argues, are not unique — recent converts to the approach, he reports, have ranged from Detroit to Santa Fe, Stockholm to Perth. “We even have a partnership with the mayor of Seoul, South Korea. India is red-hot for this approach, and Scandinavia as well.”

As time moves on, Kent says placemaking will expand because “it fulfills an innate need that we all feel — it’s going to change fundamentally how we live, where where we live, and who we live with.” He continues: “It is such a deep need that people are finding, and this is the way out of the jail (of scattered, unfocused development). Public space is anyplace but home or office. We’re not nature types or open-space types. Our focus is on people, and having them feel healthy and  good in the places they live. That’s why you have the millennials leading the movement — a transformation in which people aren’t buying cars, they’re living in smaller spaces, they’re living in cities, they’re connecting to people. It’s amazing to watch how in our lifetime that’s changed.”

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