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Making cities work for everyone: 5 key take-aways from Placemaking Week, Vancouver

There has never been a more exciting time to be an urbanist. At a time when half the world lives in cities, and with the UN New Urban Agenda recently adopted, practitioners, governments and community advocates alike are hungry for deeper and more effective ways to create places where everyone thrives.

Last month I had the opportunity to attend and present at Placemaking Week in Vancouver. This global summit hosted by Project for Public Spaces, drew together over 1,500 people from 100 countries and 700 organizations to define tools and processes for the next generation of cities and public spaces.

So, what happens when you bring together urban thinkers from around the world? You get a passionate converging of ideas, geeking-out over bike lanes, an opportunity to share common challenges and forge new pathways forward for shaping resilient cities. This was not a conference for dreamers and theorists. This was a conference for problem-solvers, governments, community advocates, local business leaders, property developers and non-profits who are walking the walk.

There were many highlights, but the most exciting area for me was the emergence of a strong dialogue around equity and inclusion in placemaking, and the importance of creating (and sustaining) places that work for everyone. It seems like a no brainer but its surprisingly difficult to achieve.

Here are a few key takeaway lessons from this topic:

1. Focus on the means as well as the end.

Focusing on physical improvements to public spaces alone leaves us vastly short on issues of social inclusion and equity. It is simply not possible to create places that are welcome to people of all ages, abilities, income levels and backgrounds, if those same groups have not been involved in the process in a meaningful and long-term way. Project for Public Spaces reminded us that process of placemaking is something that we have to be actively conscious of:

“A bike lane is not Placemaking; neither is a market, a hand-painted crosswalk, public art, a parklet, or a new development. Placemaking is not the end product, but a means to an end. It is the process by which a community defines its own priorities.”

2. Use urban innovation to create opportunity, not exclusion

 With all the buzz around urban innovation, Ed Blakely from the Future Cities Collaborative in Sydney challenged us to think about who was at the table in creating and utilising innovation precincts, ensuring no one was left behind.

3. Harness the creative potential of young people.

With 50% of the world under 35, not engaging with Millennials in city-shaping initiatives is akin to not engaging women. But we need to rethink the way that young people participate in and lead city-shaping initiatives. CoDesign Studio talked about the need to stop engaging with young people, inviting them into what ‘we’ are doing, and instead starting to back local ideas and innovation. Nathaniel Canuel from Up With Hope echoed this sharing examples of how creating new public spaces helped strengthen youth leadership in the Mathare slum in Nairobi.

4. Understand the systemic issues of racism, classism and sexism that lead to exclusion in public space.

No matter how good our process is, we can’t really tackle inclusion without first looking at the underlying systemic issues. Setha Low from the Graduate Centre CUNY talked to us about ‘spatializing culture’, looking at the systemic issues that lead to exclusion in public space. While Cicely-Belle Blain from the Qmunity Resource Centre and co-founder of #blacklivesmatter Vancouver challenged us to consider the racialised nature of public space, and the importance of having spaces in the city where everyone feels safe and accepted.

5. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people (Maori proverb)

Frith Walker from Panuku Development Auckland brought it all back to what matters most: people. She demonstrated how putting people first helped transform Auckland’s industrial waterfront into a thriving place where the whole city connects, in a space of just a few years.

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