Senior Vice President
Project for Public Spaces
What do you talk about when you talk about small towns?
We work all over the world, on all different scale communities, on how communities can shape themselves to support their public spaces and how they can make public spaces that fill their local economies, their unique identity and their economic viability. In small towns, a street corner, a main street—to us they are the building blocks of good placemaking everywhere. In a way, the way people that choose to live in a small town and have built up small towns over history, that’s the best placemaking in many cases, and it reflects the ways in which people are shaping and giving love to their communities. It’s how we connect to our shared places that lead to the attachment we have—the social capital, the relationships, and ultimately our ability to continue to work together to build viable towns.
Are small towns in danger of losing public spaces and are there actions they should take to secure them?
Our public spaces are under a threat by many different things. The way transportation and roads have gone through small towns, they make it harder to cross the street or make our communities less walkable. These are definitely threats. But also, how do we make small businesses continue to be viable, and how do we get them to be places that young people continue to want to live in and see themselves be a part of in the future.
We need to make our towns places to drive to, not necessarily through as much. We want people to want to get out of their car, walk, bump into people. The best main streets we find that it’s not easy to park right in the center of it, you actually want to park outside. You plan a few things to do, then you do several more things that you didn’t plan when you go there. Many of those things are very social. We find it’s the opportunities for social engagement that drive people to want to spend time in a town to be attached there, to spend money, spend time in ways that add to the social life and vitality of the community.
Are there any practical tips that you could give to a mayor or town manager in a small town?
We think that how communities participate in creating these places collectively is really what we need to engender. It’s not what a mayor or town manager can deliver and it’s not about every town competing to have the exact same services or public space facilities, in fact it’s just the opposite. It’s how do towns create unique places and how they do it collectively that create the stronger places.
We think that public spaces and place and placemaking are a focus or a framework that mayors can use to have a conversation around what is unique about your place—how can everyone contribute to it, and how can you have a constructive debate around issues that are facing us, one that leads to action. One that leads to short-term experiments, low-cost improvement, testing ways to street space differently, to use sidewalks differently, parks, which is often done in partnership with businesses and community groups. In a short-term experimental way, we take risks, we try new things, we learn together, but creating a more collective role and how place can be a means to address all sorts of issues from economic and equity issues to making healthier communities and culturally more interesting and more vibrant communities as well.
Are there any towns that didn’t necessarily have a lot of wealth but have done some interesting or charming things that people could look up?
We have a website called the Citizens Institute on Rural Design that we manage for the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that has a whole set of resources and case studies of towns that are taking different strategies to deal with issues of tourism, of transportation, economic issues, food systems issues. We find that communities and towns that sometimes are struggling with different challenges are unique opportunities to be shaped in new ways and to allow existing people and new people to come in and add to place. We think the placemaking conversation is a way to make sure a town preserves what they like about their town and how it attaches existing people, but also invites other people in on their terms in a way that gets people to contribute to it.
They say the best way to prevent your town from changing for the worse is to have a vision of what you want it to be. And the focus on public spaces and places is the most concrete and constructive way to frame that visioning process.
Is there anything that you find that mayors or town managers of small towns don’t know or understand that you wish they did?
Probably that they don’t have to have all the answers and they don’t have to sell the solutions. They should see themselves as facilitators, informers, inspirations to community process. The more they can get the community to do the work themselves, the more credit the community gets for the success, the better.
If a mayor wanted to contact you directly, what’s your information?
The best way to get in touch with us is through our website, Project for Public Spaces (pps.org). We have lots of resources on our website that can be helpful to mayors and lots of services to support their efforts as well.