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Place capital: Re-connecting economy with community

At Cleveland’s Market Square Park, local residents, businesses, and leaders have invested heavily in Place Capital. / Photo: PPS

“We’ve been wrong for the last 67 years,” Mark Gorton, founder of OpenPlans, announced in his closing address at last month’s Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place (PWPB) conference. “Ok. Time to admit it, and move on! We have completely screwed up transportation in this country. We can never expect to see the legislative or policy change until people understand the fundamental underlying problem. Asking for 20% more bike lanes is not enough.”

The following week, at the 8th International Public Markets Conference in Cleveland, the same attitude was present. In her opening remarks to the gathering of market managers and advocates assembled at the Renaissance Hotel, USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan stated that “We’re all here because we recognize that markets can be far more than places just to buy food. We’re looking at markets as venues for revitalizing their communities.”

These statements capture a sentiment that permeated the discussion at both of the conferences that PPS organized this fall: that reform—of transportation, food systems, and so many aspects of the way we live—is no longer about adding bike lanes or buying veggies from a local farmer; the time has come to re-focus on large-scale culture change. Advocates from different movements are reaching across aisles to form broader coalitions. While we all fight for different causes that stir our individual passions, many change agents are recognizing that it is the common ground we share—both physically and philosophically—that brings us together, reinforces the basic truths of our human rights, and engenders the sense of belonging and community that leads to true solidarity.

Even when we disagree with our neighbors, we still share at least one thing with them: place. Our public spaces—from our parks to our markets to our streets—are where we learn about each other, and take part in the interactions, exchanges, and rituals that together comprise local culture. Speaking at PWPB, Copenhagenize.com founder Mikael Colville-Andersen made this point more poetically when he said that “The Little Mermaid statue isn’t Copenhagen’s best monument. I think the greatest monument that we’ve ever erected is our bicycle infrastructure: a human-powered monument.”

“I think the greatest monument that we’ve ever erected is our bicycle infrastructure: a human-powered monument.” / Photo: Spacing Magazine via Flickr

Our public spaces reflect the community that we live in, and are thus the best places for us to begin modeling a new way of thinking and living. We can all play a more active role in the cultural change that is starting to occur by making sure that our actions match our values—specifically those actions that we take in public places. At PWPB, April Economides offered a simple suggestion for softening business owners’ resistance to bicycle-friendly business districts: tell the proprietors of businesses that you frequent that you arrived on a bike. At another PWPB session on social media, Alissa Walker advocated for users of popular geo-locative social media platforms like FourSquare to start “treating buses and sidewalks as destinations,” and ‘checking in’ to let friends know that they’re out traveling the city by foot, and on transit.

And of course, when trying to change your behavior, you often need to change your frame of mind. At the Markets Conference, Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman recalled the efforts that were required to change the way that vendors at the West Side Market thought about their role within the local community when the market decided to remain open for more days each week. While many vendors didn’t need to be open extra days, Cimperman helped to re-frame things: “[I asked people to consider:] Who are we here for? We’re not here for ourselves. We’re here for the citizens of Cleveland.”

Individual action is invaluable, but when working to spark large-scale culture change, it is even more critical to develop an overarching strategy. Putting forth a constructive vision, along with clearly-stated goals that people can relate to, provides the framework that helps to guide the individual decisions that people within a movement make as they work to change the culture on the ground. To put public space at the heart of public discourse where it belongs, we should focus on changing the way that folks talk about the issue that’s already on everyone’s mind: the economy. Bikenomics blogger Elly Blue was succinct in her explanation of why tying culture change to economics is a particularly fruitful path in today’s adversarial political climate: “We can shift the paradigm of how we build our cities; thinking about economics is a great way to do that because it cuts through the political divide.”

Great places foster human interaction & economic opportunity / Photo: Fred Kent

Across the political spectrum most of us, after years of economic hardship (and decades of wayward leadership), have learned to react to things like “growth” and “job creation” with an automatic thumbs-up. We too rarely ask questions like “What are we growing into?” and “What kind of jobs are we creating?” This brings us to the concept of Place Capital, which posits that the economic value of a robust, dynamic place is much more than the sum of its parts. Great places are created through many “investments” in Place Capital–everything from individual actions that together build a welcoming sense of place, all the way up to major physical changes that make a space usable and accessible. Strong networks of streets and destinations are better at fostering human interaction, leading to social networks that connect people with opportunities, and cities where economies match the skills and interests of the people who live there. Public spaces that are rich in Place Capital are where we see ourselves as co-creators of the most tangible elements of our shared social wealth, connecting us more directly with the decisions that shape our economic system.

At its core, Place Capital is about re-connecting economy and community. Today’s economy is largely driven by products: the stuff we make, the ideas we trademark, the things that we buy (whether we need them or not). It’s a system that supports the status quo by funneling more and more money into fewer and fewer hands. Leadership in this system is exclusively top-down; even small business owners today must respond to shifts in global markets that serve only to grow financial capital for investors, without any connection to the communities where their customers actually live. (For evidence of this, consider the fact that food in the average American home travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles from farm to table, turning local droughts and floods into worldwide price fluctuations).

Through our own Placemaking work, we’ve found that public space projects and the governance structures that produce them tend to fall into one of four types of development, along a spectrum. On one end there are spaces that come out of project-driven processes; top-down, bureaucratic leadership is often behind these projects, which value on-time, under-budget delivery above all else. Project-driven processes generally lead to places that follow a general protocol without any consideration for local needs or desires. Next, there are spaces created through a design-led process. These spaces are of higher quality and value, and are more photogenic, but their reliance on the singular vision of professional designers and other siloed disciplines can often make for spaces that are lovely as objects, but not terribly functional as public gathering places. More and more, we’re seeing people taking the third kind of approach: that which is place-sensitive. Here, designers and architects are still leading the process, but there is concerted effort to gather community input and ensure that the final design responds to the community that lives, works, and plays around the space.

Finally, there are spaces that are created through a place-led approach, which relies not on community input, but on a unified focus on place outcomes built on community engagement. The people who participate in a place-led development process feel invested in the resulting public space, and are more likely to serve as stewards. They make sure that the sidewalks are clean, the gardens tended, and their neighbors in good spirits. They are involved meaningfully throughout the process—the key word here being “they,” plural. Place-led processes turn proximity into purpose, using the planning and management of shared public spaces into a group activity that builds social capital and reinforces local societal and cultural values.

After participating in the discussions at PWPB and the Markets Conference this fall, we believe that the concept of Place Capital is ideally-suited to guide the cooperation of so many individual movements that are looking for ways to work together to change the world for the better. Place Capital employs the Placemaking process to help us outline clear economic goals that re-frame the way that people think not only about public space but, by extension, about the public good in general. If we re-build our communities around places that put us face-to-face with our neighbors more often, we are more likely to know each other, and to want to help each other to thrive.

“It’s because our public spaces got so bad that we have led the world in developing ways to make them great,” argued Eastern Market director Dan Carmody at the Markets Conference, explaining the surge of interest in Placemaking in the United States over the past few decades. We have momentum on our side; if we focus on creating Place Capital, we can continue to build on that forward motion, and bring together many different voices into a chorus.

Like capital attracts capital, people attract people. As Placemakers, we all need to be out in our communities modeling the kind of values that we want to re-build local culture around. Our actions in public space—everything from saying hello to our neighbors on the street to organizing large groups to advocate for major social changes—are investments in Place Capital. Great places and strong economies can only exist when people choose to participate in creating them; they are human-powered monuments. So let’s get to work.

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