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    Why I’m Hopeful We Can Create Better Places

    By Matt Carmichael on September 14, 2014 at 11:00 pm EDT

    The new protected bike lanes were installed outside Pittsburgh’s convention center just in time for the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place Conference last week. Mayor Bill Peduto, speaking to conference attendees, says he wants his city to be one of the most bike-friendly in the nation.

    My cabbies weren’t having any of it. “We’re not a biking city,” one told me. “We have lousy weather six months of the year,” another says. “Honestly, it’s probably more than six months.” They cited the common litanies against urban cycling: traffic, weather, hills, inconvenience. Mostly, they pointed to a lack of demand overall, and the idea that bikers are all traffic nuisances.

    “Sometimes I’ll see one who actually stopped at a red light, and I’ll roll down my window and congratulate them,” snarks a third cabbie.

    It illustrates a broader point in the growing movement we call placemaking. Those who know the term placemaking get it and tend to also know its benefits. It’s a growing movement, and one that is gaining momentum. But whether it tips or runs into stiffer opposition remains to be seen.

    Many of the “zealous nuts” who preach the gospel gathered ahead of the awkwardly named PW/PB/PC conference for a group called the Placemaking Leadership Council.

    We understand how creating better places can make us happier, healthier, more prosperous. We understand how good infrastructure can speed us all to our destination no matter how many wheels (or rails) are beneath us as we try to get there. We understand that often it doesn’t take much time or effort or money to impact a community. We can be lighter, quicker and cheaper. We understand that lighter, quicker and cheaper can often also be better.

    Everyone else, on the other hand, treats placemaking much like spell-check does. They look at that word and mentally underline it with little squiggly lines of red. “What is that?”

    How can you have a movement that doesn’t pass the spell-check test?

    The conference itself was an impressive gathering. We gathered to be inspired. There were about 100 folks, drawn together by Fred Kent and his team at the Project for Public Spaces, who organized the event. The self-selecting members of the leadership council included government officials from both city and federal levels, nonprofits, for-profits, planners, consultants, academics, dreamers, doers, leaders and this journalist.

    We learned about what cities from Detroit to Adelaide and back are doing. We learned about what citizens like a librarian in Wallkill, N.Y., are doing to make a difference in their communities. We heard examples from the density of Times Square to the rural areas of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

    We brainstormed: how can we better sell the idea to our various constituents and the leaders at all levels above us in both the public and private sector. Those gathered expressed some exasperation at having to start every conversation by trying to define “placemaking.”

    I saw next to zero spandex at the PW/PB/PC conference. It wasn’t a bunch of mustachioed fixie-riding hipsters – although there were some of those, too. It was a lot of people who are interested in creating better places to live, one intersection at a time. And by a lot I mean a lot. This is clearly a growing movement, one that feels like its gaining momentum and picking up steam.

    What I did see were representatives from for-profit and nonprofit organizations outside of the placemaking world – from transportation, retail and real estate, and health care – who see the need for placemaking want to help support the movement and spread the word.

    That’s the part that gives me hope. It’s not that more and more cities are buying into the principals of placemaking. It’s not that the conferences are growing in attendance. It’s not that the number of zealous nuts is increasing. Although, all of those things are certainly positive signs.

    But if we can get this movement outside of itself. If we can get private industry and leadership from other sectors to start buying in, then we have a chance.

    All we need now is the cabbies to buy in, and we’ll really have something.

    Stay tuned.

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