Blessed are the place makers…


When asked about what I do for a living by new friends and neighbors, I will start with “urban designer,” then drift towards “city planner,” and usually end up with, “sort of like architecture…” Or, during one those late Sunday evening angst moments while contemplating just what in the heck am I doing on this earth, I like to tell myself that I’m a maker of great places. Then Sunday’s infinite theoretical possibilities and dreams butt up against Monday’s unforgiving reality*, and I’m back to selling traditional neighborhood developments, form-based codes, consecutive-day charrettes, and mixed-use, walkable, urbanism to anyone willing to listen, which I enjoy immensely.

“I’m a PlaceMaker…”

That was a true statement for several years as the Director of Planning with the great PlaceMakers company. We delivered high quality traditional neighborhood developments, form-based codes, consecutive-day charrettes and mixed-use, walkable, urbanism to cities and towns across North America. It was Nathan Norris, working with Steve Mouzon, who coined the company name, Tom Weigel gave us his website, which is how I first heard it. Use of the name has grown due to the efforts of Fred Kent and his influential Project for Public Spaces group.

“I’m a place maker…”

Fred says that “Placemaking is a sacred community process.” In a web search I found a 1995 book, Placemaking: The Art and Practice of Building Communities, by Lynda Schneekloth and Robert Shibley, who define Placemaking as,” …the way in which all human beings transform the places they find themselves into the places where they live.” Which then led me to Fred’s iconic mentor, William H. Whyte and his studies on how humans inhabited New York’s various public spaces. Wikipedia’s definition states that it is both a process and a philosophy. How do I explain that to my patient neighbor?

“I’m a Place Shaker…”

A few years ago I was collaborating with the talented Beryl Forman when we figured out that an element of Placemaking goes beyond PlaceMakers’ visioning, coding and implementation services. A Place Shaker was something of a public relations, community organizer who focussed on neighborhood revitalization necessary to engage, connect, and collaborate with those who live/work/play on the street. Very smart elucidator, Scott Doyon, dug deeper into these distinctions and concluded that Placemaking was a constructive political act that physically changes our built environment and Placeshaking was the actions that build political will that sets the stage for real change, such as Park(ing) Day and Tactical Urbanism efforts.

“I make places…”

Indeed, I would agree that my job is both a process and a philosophy, as well as a professional practice, a life’s pursuit, daily grind, and a career of acres and acres of places only imagined… plus pocked marked along the way with a few built places that people enjoy (see my resume link above if interested in seeing pictures of a few nuggets). Today I work for Michael Baker International’s San Diego office, leading a new Urban Design Studio, which is an evolution of my profession as it seems every planning, design, and engineering firm now offers expertise and services in building mixed-use, walkable urbanism. It has been enjoyable watching the New Urbanism‘s advocacy for mixed-use, walkable urbanism also evolve over the past 20+ years from Quixotic idealism to matter-of-fact reality.

“This too shall pass…”

I find the evolution of these terms interesting too. As Placemaking, Sustainability, and Urbanism are now considered overused buzzwords and losing their meaning. Which is disappointing as my neighbor seemed to be just starting to understand what I did all day.

4 thoughts on “Blessed are the place makers…

  1. Wow, this takes me back, Howard! Really good read. One clarification: PlaceMakers was actually Nathan’s idea. I was lobbying for PlaceCrafters, but from today’s view, he was spot-on. Almost nobody talks about place-crafting today; everyone talks place-making.

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