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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Is placemaking a "new environmentalism"?

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 23, 2012

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  Russell Square, London (by: jah_maya, creative commons license)

Can placemaking - in short, the building or strengthing of physical community fabric to create great human habitat - be a “new environmentalism”?  The question is posed by a provocative short essay, which I first discovered last summer.  Written by Ethan Kent of the Project for Public Spaces, the article has recently resurfaced, perhaps in honor of yesterday’s celebration of Earth Day.  The essay influenced my own writing last year (“The importance of place to sustainability”), and I’m returning to it today because the issues Ethan has raised continue to be important.

My answer, by the way, is a qualified yes:  creating the right kinds of places for people, particularly at the neighborhood scale, has indeed become a new approach to environmentalism and one to which I am deeply committed.  But I qualify my answer because placemaking is by no means the only important aspect of today’s environmentalism (not that Ethan suggested that).  In addition, I think the physcal building of community can become even stronger as an environmental tool by becoming somewhat more explicitly environmental in its content.  I’ll get into all that in a minute.

First, though, I want to explore the phrase “new environmentalism” a bit.  A decade ago, the well-known urbanist Andres Duany was kind enough to write a cover blurb for NRDC’s then-new book about smart growth, Solving Sprawl.  Andres wrote, “Finally, here is a book on the environment that includes the human habitat as part of nature.  This may be the first text of a ‘New Environmentalism’.”  I was quite honThornton Place, Seattle (by: Thornton Place)ored by the flattery that our book was being considered important and new, and by the parallel language to “new urbanism,” bestowed by one of that movement’s pillars.  Might our way of thinking – advocacy for smart, green “people habitat,” if you will – be earning its way to an impact on the environmental movement as significant as that brought by the new urbanists to architecture and planning?

I’ll let others judge the extent to which that has come to pass, and quite immediately proclaim that, to the extent it may have, the philosophy expressed in Solving Sprawl was neither all “ours” nor all “new.”  (New urbanism wasn’t really new, either.)  In discussing the recent death of the great American singer/drummer Levon Helm, my friend Geoff opined that all music is derivative; he’s right about that, and the same can be said for the school of environmental thought that came to be known as smart growth.  Its tenets evolved from precedent, and one hopes they are evolving still.

All that said, there was indeed something new about the environmentalism that developed in the 1990s and continues so far in this century, in that now what we are for is every bit as important as what we wish (and need) to stop.  I detailed my personal version of that transition (“NIMBY to YIMBY”) in an Earth Day essay written two years ago.  And people habitat – neighborhoods, cities, metropolitan regions – is every bit as important to the environment as natural habitat and wilderness.  Indeed, making cities great should be seen as a key strategy for protecting wilderness

Today’s environmentalism incorporates the truth that, yes, we do need to build things.  We need homes, workplaces, shops, schools, streets, factories, warehouses, ports, mobility, sources of energy.  We need sustenance and we need commerce.  proposed downtown plaza, El Paso (by: Dover Kohl & Partners for Plan El Paso)To me, the excitement in environmentalism today is in making all that as good and as sustainable as possible.  While there are still far too many things we absolutely must say “no” to, I’ve lost patience with the old environmental approach of saying no without a clear sense of the preferable alternative.  It’s OK to be idealistic, if you must (I’m more of a pragmatist, myself), but please do have a vision if you want my personal support. 

So that brings me back to Ethan’s essay about placemaking, which is eloquent on the subject:  “Having less impact is noble, but aspiring to have a big impact, to create the world we want starting in the place where we live, work and play, is a transformative agenda.”   And so it is, because placemaking is an affirmative act, fundamentally about creating something:  quite literally, “making” a “place.”  At the Project for Public Spaces, where Ethan is vice president, the focus is on our public realm – our streets, our plazas and squares, our waterfronts, our parks, our markets and so on. 

These are incredibly important aspects of our people environment and, by placing them in cities and walkable neighborhoods, they become incredibly important to our natural environment as well.  To the extent we use great public spaces to anchor compact people habitat, we reduce the spread of environmental harm.  I would argue that the shaping of the private realm is also an important aspect of placemaking, and that we must get that part of our community fabric right, too.

I wouldn’t stop with the physical shaping of places, though.  If the affirmative making of great places may define an important part of 21st-century environmentalism, making those places greener could strengthen the role of public spaces and urbanism in the environmental movement.  Bryant Park, NYC (by: Ed Yourdon, creative commons license)In other words, let's not just make a public square that works for people and call it good enough:  let's make it of locally sourced, sustainably harvested materials; in environments where it rains a lot, let's incorporate green infrastructure to filter stormwater.  If there’s a fountain – and I love fountains – let's make sure it recycles its water; if there is lighting, let's make it energy-efficient.  Let's take advantage of opportunities to bring more nature into neighborhoods, with plantings of native species.  And so on.

I am not suggesting, by the way, that these things are not being pursued.  In fact, I am confident that in many cases it is the Project for Public Spaces that is leading the way for greener urbanism.  What I am suggesting is that, if our approach to environmentalism is and should be "new," so should our approach to urbanism.  As in so many matters relating to the environment, the greatest power lies in synergy:  the more we learn from each other, the better both our people habitat and our natural habitat will be.

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Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channel.

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Max A. van BalgooyApr 23 2012 09:51 AM

I love the direction you're headed: environmentalism should also include making great places for people in cities, towns, and neighborhoods. I'd like to include historic and older buildings in that mix, too. Not only do we conserve resources by reusing existing buildings, but they also add an emotional depth to places, especially if those buildings have historical significance. Most placemaking today involves scraping the land clean to start fresh, which is analogous to a self-inflicted lobotomy. Instead, I'd suggest as much thought be put into examining and evaluating existing resources (both natural and manmade) before putting plans on paper. You may find that some of the ingredients for making a great place are already there.

Jon ReedsApr 23 2012 10:31 AM

I wholeheartedly that agree place making is a vital ingredient in the smart growth approach but, like everything else, there is good place making and bad place making. Here in the UK we've seen plenty of megalomaniac shopping centre and comprehensive redevelopment proposals billed as place making, which it is - in a bad way.
So Max van Balgooy (above) is spot on when he says you must look at what's there first. Great place making may sometimes involve just leaving most of it alone and fixing what's broken. Other times it will involve much more.
You're quite right to say we have to look at many aspects to achieve great place making. And we mustn't lose sight of fundamental principles when swept along by enthusiastic proponents of development.
I'm not sure our urbanism or our environmentalism always needs to be new. Sometimes it's best just to learn the lessons of the past.

PhiPlanetApr 23 2012 01:11 PM

I am very pleased by the current social ecology campaign for sustainable communities. Whether reading Timothy Beatley or "The Ecological City" edited by Platt et al., I get extremely optimistic about how can achieve a environmentally-conscious population through evolving valuations of nature and localities.
I attribute my "green" demeanor to my childhood in rural Oregon, and now in Portland, OR and its brimming sense of place, I've found something worth saving.
I agree whole-heartedly with Max van Balgooey. Dr. Kent C Ryden, the cultural geographer provides wonderful arguments for historical/cultural preservation in the creation of place in his book, "Mapping the Invisible Landscape." Place is far beyond the built environment - a living history is an indisputable piece of geographical reference. (also historical preservation saves on the invested energy of older buildings.)

AllthinkApr 24 2012 01:18 PM

There are cities where adopting placemaking strategies are easier than others, due to climate. What would you propose in Las Vegas besides ridding the whole thing?

neil21Apr 25 2012 04:22 PM

Bravo! This is exactly where my head has arrived recently. Walkable is not about sidewalks on the side of freeways, density is not about towers and low carbon is not about EVs. Lets have nice places to walk along and to walk to, please!

Gerardo AlvaradoApr 25 2012 09:17 PM

I agree with Max in that evaluating the existing resources is a key first step. I believe some areas in which "place making" is most critical are low income neighborhoods. I particularly appreciate the pioneering work that the Groundwork USA network and its local affiliates are doing in this field. Groundwork focuses on "placemaking" in low income urban communities that want to revitalize their neighborhoods by making their public spaces livable again. Depending on the location, this could mean waterways, parks, alleys, vacant lots, or the main square. I also appreciate how their model is driven by the local community, including businesses, residents, youth, etc. because I think it provides a sense of ownership that can give longevity to these efforts. A true model for the "new environmentalism" the article talks about.

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