Fred Kent on Innovative Placemaking, Public Spaces and Community Well-Being

How to make cities livable and healthy, and urban spaces attractive? How to nurture and strengthen community identity?

Fred Kent and Kathy Madden, Founders of The Placemaking Fund, along with Steve Davies work towards reshaping cities by transforming communities. In this interview, Fred explains how placemaking can help build better places for people to gather, socialise, and boost community-building, which in turn can help to foster local economic growth. Fred and Kathy also run the Social Life Project, highlighting the importance of developing neighbourhoods in a way so communities can enjoy the outdoors, benefiting from the vitality of living spaces.

Fred, you are a leading voice globally advocating for strong citizen communities and sustainable urban development, from the bottom-up. Do you remember what got you interested in the sustainable development and management of cities or neighbourhoods?

I am basically a community organizer with a special interest in human ecosystems and how they can support the social and economic life in communities. 

I got that interest after organizing Earth Day in New York City in 1970. After this I went back to graduate school to study geography and anthropology. Margaret Meade was my anthropology professor. Barbara Ward, known as Lady Jackson, was my development professor. I then fell into a group of people I call the Golden Age on the Study of Community Life. Jane Jacobs, Alan Jacobs, Donald Appleyard, William “Holly” Whyte, Margaret Meade were leaders in that work during the late 1960s into the mid-1970s.

To your mind, how is economic development connected to placemaking – and how do the two terms relate to the concept of place branding?

They are totally woven together. A good place naturally breeds innovations. Squares, markets, active social streets naturally create an atmosphere for local improvisation.

The current pandemic has exposed serious shortcomings in areas such as healthcare facilities, economic disparity, and the resilience of local businesses. What strategies are needed to make communities more resilient with regards to the likely event of future pandemics?

Placemaking naturally creates places where people come together. Where they share their lives, create friendships, and find ways to support their community.

Do you think the current changes in how we live and work – triggered by the coronavirus pandemic – will affect placemaking practice?

Hopefully, people will get a sense of what they have been missing in their lives. Clearly, the future will be different because of the need to be outside, practising safe distancing.

From drive-in music concerts to Vilnius turning into a vast open-air café – cities have come up with imaginative ideas to let people enjoy the outdoors and yet adhere to physical distancing rules. Are these trends supporting the Transformative Agenda in placemaking?

The entire explosion of cafes and outdoor markets has unearthed a strong desire to buy locally, fundamentally changing the way we design our streets and buildings.

The Social Life Project aims to boost social cohesion by developing public spaces like promenades and parks, encouraging walking, cycling, cafe culture on sidewalks, etc. In your experience, which are the biggest obstacles, in terms of bringing this to life?

Professionals who have designed their discipline around their own agendas. The outcomes often fail to support natural human activity. Traffic engineering and design professionals are some of the biggest problems. They have become their “own audience” with requirements to adhere to their narrowly defined discipline. 

Which neighborhoods or cities in North America have been particularly imaginative with their placemaking and urban development recently?

Detroit is the global example where placemaking became the redevelopment agenda.

What will it take for cities in the future to become or remain attractive for mobile talent and discerning visitors?

Create ongoing evaluations to keep growing spaces using improvisation as a tool for local entrepreneurs. It’s public spaces that create opportunities for growth.

Reflecting on your long and distinguished career – which are the key lessons learned? Is there anything you’d do differently, given the chance to turn back time?

You are never finished and the “community is the expert”. I should have focused more on a PR campaign. Change has been so difficult. We need more advocates to bring about the change we need.

Thank you, Fred.

Connect with Fred Kent on LinkedIn and find out more about The Placemaking Fund here.

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