Since mid-2015, the relationship between Historic Preservation and Placemaking has been one of my favorite topics of study. I have found that the greatest challenge is to imagine historic districts that preserve their identity and spirit, their coffee shops, small businesses and places of contemplation, while accommodating the needs of the 21st century and the conditions for Economic Development.

If we act with the conviction that the mission of our profession is to improve lives, we can make better cities with the help of those who will use them. By sourcing ideas from the community, it is certain that creativity and a wealth of knowledge will inform the implementation and governance will come easily.

Even the conversation of contemporary buildings with historic districts has the potential of unleashing rich urban processes and adding value to their neighborhoods. I’m thinking of the work of Alberto Campo Baeza in Zamora, that of Carlo Scarpa in Verona, or that of Renzo Piano in Paris (no, not the Pompidou Centre but the Atelier Brancusi, mind you). Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim would make this list. And now, The new Boston Public Library, which is among the 2017 CNU Charter Award winners. This year’s Charter Awards focused on preservation at many levels, and seen from many angles. As a side note, it’s worth a look here.

Successful interventions in historic areas have in common features that are reproduced over and over again. Architectural thinker Christopher Alexander found that successful spaces, buildings and cities had several elements in common. Alexander isolated these elements and found that they were composed of combinations of objects. A door, its weight and materials, the treatment of the wall that frames it and the difference of light on each side of the threshold make an “entrance” pattern, A patio, the vegetation it contains, the seating spaces, the shade and its relationship with the walls that surround it and its interior make a pattern of “outside stay”. Together, these patterns make up a language that has a structure and communicates a message.

The conservation strategy of heritage areas must take into account that buildings are sets of patterns that converse – or not – with the larger patterns of the neighborhood and the city. Conservation decisions should not only be about technical, constructive and material isues, but mainly about context and the impact of conservation projects on urban life. Hence the immense relief you feel as you walk around a corner where a nuisance has been demolished and experience a city that enhances the historical experience, connects to its context and allows for vistas that were obscured by concrete and bricks. Such is the case with Ellis Square in Savannah.

Contemporaneity forces us to see heritage as a useful asset and as part of a lively, open and multicultural city. The built environment is made not solely of buildings but of patterns, and these are, in turn, composed of smaller scale patterns. It is thus appropriate to imagine the conservation of historical areas as the rehabilitation of historical patterns and experience, and not just isolated buildings. This enormous shift in focus could allow cities to perpetuate their character and identity, and continue to enhance the user experience. The possibilities become infinite when we move from the linear thought process of conserving, restoring, rehabilitating or adapting a building, to an exponential one, where creative conservation processes focused on patterns, intangible heritage and urban experience preserve history beyond bricks and mortar.

The search for patterns to recover experiences over the focus on saving specific buildings is what I call “Creative Conservation”.

Advertisements

Big-box retailers belong downtown. Scale and frontage treatment are critical, as the Kress Supermarket demonstrates. Its big space needs does not distupt the scale of the fabric in downtown Seattle, but rather accomodates to it, pushing the large footprint underground and keeping the rhythm of successive, narrow storefronts in the ground floor. 

Setbacks generally create voids that fail to enhance the experience. And are often turned to parking. But sometimes they allow for creating wonderful places like this garden in Wynwood. 

The success of the Placemaking movement has expanded its reach and popularity around the World. Participatory planning processes and collaborative creation of better cities and towns have revolutionized the way we experience public spaces in countries as diverse as Ecuador, Lebanon or Australia. The legacy of visionaries like William “Holly” Whyte has inspired young entrepreneurs, urbanists and activists from Mexico to Chile and made Latin America one of the most interesting areas to realize the power of Public Space.

During the Habitat III conference that took place in Quito, we were able to strengthen the network and learn from the innovative approaches that enrich the movement from Sweden to the United States. The conversation was open, enticing and engaging. As Placemaking moved to the center of the New Urban Agenda, for some of us that week was a journey of discovery. As I dug deep into the reasons for the absence of a landmark contribution from my country to the global dialogue, a few notable findings emerged.

The quantity and quality of events and the high level talks that went on motivated a search for the missing piece of the puzzle. Turns out Placemaking had been a part of Andean culture for centuries and we didn’t even know it. If we harness the lessons from history, our contribution could be enormous. The creative economy, the diversity of the movement and urban development strategies would benefit.

The Minga, or as I like to call it, Ancestral Placemaking, has been in practice in the Andean highlands of Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia for hundreds of years. It is a voluntary, collaborative effort in which townspeople of all ages and genders contribute with their work, their motivation, their knowledge or their wit to finish a project of collective interest. Whether it’s a new irrigation waterway, a road, a fence or a corral, everyone partakes of the festive event. It is based on trust and all contributions are received with gratitude, regardless of their size. Contemporary iterations of this time-honored tradition have brought different and more complex forms of adherence. For example, better-off tradespeople in the community often contribute with monetary contributions.

Mingas are still the preferred strategy for completing small works in rural communities. In later years, urban neighborhoods with strong presence of immigrants from the countryside have also recurred to this practice. In some cases, the Minga has been the counterpart component that communities contribute with when local government provides financing for projects with a requisite of thrift.

Conventions so ingrained in the collective are easy to repurpose to focus on the creation of great places. The methodological components of a Placemaking initiative are mostly present in the Minga. My Eureka! Moment came with the realization that this was the missing piece on the question of Ecuadorian contribution to the global dialogue on Urbanism. Quito, Ecuador and South America have a lot to say and this sort of discovery presages a very successful implementation of the principles of good public space.

Concepts of community engagement are dear to Latin American cultures. A history of shared values and strong cultural markers aligned with the principles of Placemaking could ease its introduction and match it with an update of the language of the Minga to better serve the changing needs of public space in the 21st Century. Great contributions to implement the New Urban Agenda need not be in the form of megaprojects or grand schemes requiring sanctioning at government level. Massive changes can come from harnessing the power of little actions and age-old traditions.

The Minga can be a way to introduce Latin America to Placemaking. In this way, the Minga can be a tool for leveraging our cultural traditions to build better cities from the ground up. Let’s get started!
Read the original post in the Project for Public Spaces Blog. 

Three posts have called my attention this weekend. In the first one, by New York Times columnist Louis Hyman, titled The Myth of Main Street, he calls out Main Street businesses as inefficient for their lack of access to economies of scale; Main Street advocates as nostalgic types who want to go back to a rougher time that they view as more romantic but does not, in fact, exist; and customers of expensive Main Street businesses as an elitist, gentrifying and aloof crowd. Then there was a story by Travis Andrews at the Washington Post, America is ‘over-stored’ and Payless ShoeSource is the latest victim in which he puts the blame for low occupancy and closures in an overstock of built retail square footage and the pressure from online retailers. This crisis has seen thousands of store closings, traditional brands filing for Chapter 11 and many, many jobs lost.

The silver lining comes in the last post, by Steve Mouzon in his blog The Original Green, called The New Starting Point for Retail. I very much agree with Steve. Conditions have changed. The market has shifted towards more local, small stores that are, in fact, more sustainable. The millennial generation is embracing a different kind of retail culture in which store owners don’t just sell but are critical parts of the supply chain. They know their providers, their trades and their families. They make a point of working with them to improve the quality, packaging, consistency and other aspects of their products. They tend to their businesses and know and love every aspect of them. And the design of local stores, generally, tends to be very generous with the city and its immediate context. A plant, a bench, an awning are familiar fixtures that contribute to build civic values and transform storefronts into community hubs. They are the Storefront Placemakers and they add value to streets in a way no large scale plan or standardised chain store could.

Main Street might be a bit shocked by Red Tape, high operational costs and cheap Chinese goods sold for 99 cents at the nearest chain store, but it has the bones to come back in style. The future of cities is to be decided locally. We need to look at what makes businesses stumble and fix the problems, not their consequences.

The word we should be discussing is devolution.

Not all Real Estate was created equal. Some are in great streets, some have good neighbors and others have been carefully designed with visibility, productivity and attractiveness in mind. But even those are not likely to have a 100% occupation rate. There will be times when vacancy strikes and the developer’s challenge is to maintain the charm of the site. Take this shopfront in Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach. They are unoccupied and looking for their next tennant but they have given it a purpose for the time when it’s not under lease. This temporary use by a cultural institution helps to retain the street’s walk appeal, sends a message of continuity in the shopfront’s activities and of constant upkeep of the commercial frontage, while allowing for a different public to be in contact with some of what the Ballet has to offer. 

Examples of this are diverse, ranging from the one pictured, of the Miami city Ballet. I have seen cultural institutions, museums, botanical gardens, art galleries, orchestras and pop-up burger restaurants. I have read about many more. Those that have a static front and those that activate it with art, music, food or flowers and create an interactive, immersive experience. 

IMG_2545

Shopfronts are the interfaces that link the city’s commercial spaces and its public spaces. They contribute to the strength of the local economy, to the Walk Appeal and to the creation of opportunities to meet and exchange stories, wisdom, ideas and knowledge. Italian cities like Bologna have traditionally treated their streets as places and beauty has always been a high priority.