Placemaking and the promise of the New Urban Agenda

The priority given to place and public space in the Habitat III strategy marks an important shift for the global development community. But the New Urban Agenda is still playing catch-up to how communities, practitioners are mobilizing on this issue.

People shop and hang out at a night market in central Kathmandu, Nepal, May 2014. (Dibrova/Shutterstock)

When the Habitat III Secretariat announced the final agreement of the New Urban Agenda draft last month, Project for Public Spaces was making its final preparations for the Placemaking Leadership Forum — an international conference in Vancouver dedicated to advancing the work of public-space practitioners.

It was fitting that we were in Vancouver — the site of the first U. N. Conference on Human Settlements, in 1976, which provided the foundation for the United Nations’ agency now known as UN-Habitat. During this time, as development projects were driving large populations into urban areas that lacked adequate infrastructure and resources, governments were beginning to take seriously the future of their cities.

As then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau described in his inauguration of the summit: “Human settlements are linked so closely to existence itself, represent such a concrete and widespread reality, are so complex and demanding, so laden with questions of rights and desires, with needs and aspirations, so racked with injustices and deficiencies, that the subject cannot be approached with the leisurely detachment of the solitary theoretician.”

In 1976, Project for Public Spaces (PPS) also was thinking about cities in new ways. The organization, founded by Fred Kent as a way to expand on the work of urbanist William (Holly) Whyte, had just celebrated its first year. Building, too, on the work of mentors Jane Jacobs and Margaret Mead (both of whom were also in attendance at Habitat ‘76 in Vancouver), Kent’s vision for the nonprofit revolved around helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. In doing this, over the past 40 years the organization has developed and refined a unique approach to placemaking and has completed projects in more that 3,000 communities in 43 countries.

[See: Toward a global action plan for public space]

Over the past three years, PPS, with many crucial partners including UN-Habitat and the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, has been advocating for the centrality of public space and placemaking in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2015, world leaders included a standalone goal (SDG 11) to make cities “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

We have also been engaged in global campaigns for a New Urban Agenda, the 20-year vision on urbanization that will be adopted this month at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. That the critical role of place and public space has also been given priority in the New Urban Agenda marks an important shift in the mindset of the international development community.

Turning point

It’s no surprise that the challenges facing 21st-century cities — from health and equity to resilience and housing — are quite different, and more complex, than they were 40 or even 20 years ago. At the time of Habitat I, just over a third of the world’s population was made up of urban dwellers. Today this number is more than half; and by 2050, two-thirds of the global population will live in cities.

“That the critical role of place and public space has also been given priority in the New Urban Agenda marks an important shift in the mindset of the international development community.”

On the one hand, along with this unprecedented urban growth, we face escalating global pressures of climate change, fears around safety and security, and massive displacement into urban areas as a result of war and natural disasters. Further, given the staggering fact that 1 percent of today’s population owns half of the world’s wealth, it’s clear that without significant efforts to implement sustainable development policies at the national and local level, the city of the future will bear massive social and economic inequalities.

On the other hand, what’s exciting about the upcoming negotiations in Quito, and about the New Urban Agenda in particular, is the way that it frames our contemporary urban “crisis”. Rather than referring solely to a moment of intense danger or impending calamity, the word itself, from the Greek “krīsis”, literally means “turning point” — a temporal rupture in which important changes can take place.

As Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat and secretary general of Habitat III, describes: “The urban landscape is changing and with it, the pressing need for a cohesive and realistic approach to urbanization. A New Urban Agenda is required to effectively address the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities offered by urbanization.”

[See: A Clos-up view on urbanization]

Implicit in Clos’s remarks is the idea that urbanization is not just a problem to be solved — as it was described in the Vancouver Declaration of 1976, which depicts the process as a negative force leading to “overcrowding, pollution, deterioration and psychological tensions.”

But Clos’s comments, which reflect the tone of the New Urban Agenda document as a whole, recognize that urbanization also can be a generative force. It can bring new opportunities such as social mobility and economic productivity at large, along with greater access to health, education, transportation and other services.

The Habitat Agenda adopted following Habitat II (held in Istanbul in 1996) began to recognize the productive capacity of cities. Yet even in the two decades since, cities have redefined themselves as crucial economic platforms and hubs of innovation.


As PPS prepares for next week’s Habitat III conference, we also have been reflecting on what our time in Vancouver told us about this moment of crisis and promise. This year’s Placemaking Leadership Forum reaffirmed our belief in the power of both public space and local communities to address the great challenges and opportunities of our time.

“Although parts of the New Urban Agenda may appear to promise that public space can be all things to all people … it points to the potential of our shared places to radically disrupt inequality in cities — especially when guided by a collaborative placemaking process.”

The New Urban Agenda is not the cutting edge of urban problem solving. In fact, it is playing catch-up with the shared values of many communities and the public-space practitioners that help try to make their visions a reality. Concerns about health, sustainability, equity and economic development have long been hallmarks of the placemaking movement, and last month’s gathering in Vancouver provided an exciting opportunity to hear about how practitioners are working to realize these ideals on the ground.

[See: Public space: Integrating urban ‘living rooms’ into global development]

Placemakers often choose public space as their realm of action because it affects their everyday lives and that of so many others. Public space is how we get to work, how we do our errands and how we get back home. It is for buying and selling, for meeting, playing and bumping into one another unexpectedly. In the United States, it is where nearly half of violent crimes happen — or all of them, if you count abutting spaces (and you should).

Public space is for conveying our outrage and our highest aspirations, as well as for laying the most mundane utilities and infrastructure. It is the medium of economic spillovers that drive innovation and prosperity. It is the front line of our carbon footprint, our water management, our social resilience and the habitat of countless urban species. And when we let it, public space can be a medium for creativity, expression and experimentation.

In other words, no place in any human settlement is single-purpose. Every place contributes to public health, sustainability, equity and economic development — or fails to. No wonder, then, that Clos regularly makes the point that what defines the character of a city is its public space, not its private space.

This convergence of concerns around public space is at the very heart of the New Urban Agenda’s 23-page final draft. Among its “Transformative Commitments for Sustainable Urban Development” section, for example, is the following pledge:

We will support the provision of well-designed networks of safe, inclusive for all inhabitants, accessible, green, and quality public spaces and streets, free from crime and violence, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence, considering the human-scale and measures that allow for the best possible commercial use of street-level floors, fostering local markets and commerce, both formal and informal, as well as not-for-profit community initiatives, bringing people into the public spaces, promoting walkability and cycling towards improving health and well-being.

Although this goal may appear to promise that public space can be all things to all people, with the level of eloquence to be expected from any committee-driven process, it points to the potential of our shared places to radically disrupt inequality in cities — especially when guided by a collaborative placemaking process.

[See: What Mexico City learned by devoting an office to designing public spaces]

However, to implement the New Urban Agenda by leveraging this convergence of outcomes in public space, we must break down the silos that divide our governments and professions. Parks are the responsibility not only of the parks department, nor streets the sole responsibility of traffic engineers.

To ensure these spaces are functioning their best in order to achieve our collective aspirations, they must be approached as the holistic, multi-use places that they truly are. Luckily for us all, this multi-disciplinary, multi-sector approach to implementing the New Urban Agenda has already begun — if politicians and policymakers only listen to what is currently happening at the grass roots in the places they govern.

Story of place

If nothing else, the New Urban Agenda should be understood as a much-needed call for national governments and their international peers to pay attention to the efforts of communities working at the hyper-local level to do their part in achieving global change.

Saskia Sassen, who spoke at last year’s Future of Places conference in Stockholm, has described the city as “the space in which powerless people can make a story.” This insight comes closest to the way PPS defines place and placemaking.

[See: Fred Kent: Prophet and craftsman of quality public spaces]

“Place” is an environment in which people have invested meaning over time. A place has its own history — a unique cultural and social identity that is defined by how it is used and the people who use it. Placemaking, then, is the community-driven process by which a physical environment is made meaningful.

The success of the New Urban Agenda will depend on the degree to which every member of our settlements — regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, ability or income — is empowered to shape the places in which they live and, in the process, create their own story.

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Annah MacKenzie

Dr. Annah MacKenzie is vice president and editor at Project for Public Spaces.

Nathan Storring

Nathan Storring is communications associate at Project for Public Spaces and co-editor of Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs (available 11 October).