Project for Public Spaces3rd International Placemaking Week
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Conference Report

On October 1-4, 2019, the 3rd International Placemaking Week was held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA. Working with our co-host the Innovation District of Chattanooga, Project for Public Spaces brought together over 600 participants from around the world for a week full of hands-on sessions, off-site workshops, tours, public space activations, and networking events. The 3rd International Placemaking Week built upon two previous events in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in 2017 and Vancouver, BC, Canada, in 2016, by becoming a “conference without walls.” The conference theme this year was equity, which the organizers addressed not only in content, but in the local impact of the event and behind-the-scenes decision-making processes. 

As the global placemaking movement continues to grow, the International Placemaking Week conference has proven to be a vital platform to build connections and share ideas across borders, to provoke local debate and action on public space, and to experience the host city’s places, issues, and initiatives firsthand.

What did Attendees Think?

44% of attendees who responded to an evaluation rated the likelihood that they would recommend the conference as 10/10
"I was blown away by the energy of the City of Chattanooga and all of the amazing participants' earnest passion to make places better not just for all—but also by all! In the two months since, I've had multiple fruitful conversations about partnerships and collaborations that will surely live on long beyond one wonderful week we shared together in 'Gig City!'"

Mariela Alfonzo, CEO and Founder, State of Place
"Coming from Aotearoa (the land of the long white cloud) to take part International Placemaking week on what is traditional land of Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East) also known as Chattanooga was profoundly meaningful to how we define place and place defines us. In only one week, Project for Public Spaces ensured that every engagement was a diverse collection of citizens with a range of perspectives."

Boopsie Maran, Founder, Places for Good
2 in 3 attendees who responded to an evaluation rated our “conference without walls” format as 10/10
Placemaking Week 2019 was a conference without walls that forced us to interact with our host City, brilliant! Not only did I get to see friends from across the country, but I also got to experience things like the Better Block in a box, and the incredible closing party in Cooper's Alley. What better way to test the placemaking theories we were all discussing than to use them right away in Chattanooga's lovely public spaces!

—Nate Hommel
, Director of Planning and Design, University City District
"I was so impressed with the host community's evocative and emotional approach to inclusivity: African American and Native American stories of harm and healing were presented in an evocative and somber way I did not expect... I deeply enjoyed spending time with my fellow placemakers and was delighted so many of the international placemaking networks were present so we could continue to benefit from a global cache of experiences and cross-cultural learning."

Ryan Smolar, Co-Director, Long Beach Fresh
“I just loved every single moment of Placemaking Week in Chattanooga! For the time of the event Chattanooga became my home, thanks to the great effort of the organizers and the open format of the ‘conference without walls.’ The whole conference was placemaking! Thank you for everything!”

Maciej Zacher, Mobility Urbanist, Municipality of Skawina

A Conference without Walls

Taking advantage of Chattanooga’s walkable innovation district and downtown, as well as a free shuttle bus service, the city itself served as our venue for the 3rd International Placemaking, with sessions held in the public library, a historic theatre, an African American cultural center, enclosed and open-air park pavilions, private offices, and more. The beautiful Waterhouse Pavilion served as a “base camp” where attendees could relax, work, hang out, meet up, or speak to conference staff.

Attendees had the opportunity to participate in mobile workshops throughout the region on a wide variety of topics, including connecting low-income neighborhoods to the South Chickamauga Greenway; revitalizing rural communities in Athens and Cleveland, Tennessee; rebuilding a commercial corridor in the under resourced but rising neighborhood of Glass Farms; supporting alienated youth through access to the land at Lookout Mountain; developing an effective and equitable public space management organization for Cooper’s Alley (where attendees gathered later for the closing party); and co-creating community spaces in a Latinx neighborhood. These workshops offered an opportunity for local organizations and global attendees to build new relationships and to exchange knowledge by using a real-life project as a springboard.

Conference tours gave attendees a broad taste of Chattanooga’s history, culture, and current placemaking efforts. Topics included local murals and the muralists behind them; civil rights and white supremacy in the Martin Luther King Boulevard and downtown areas; “The Passage,” a public artwork celebrating the resilience of Cherokee culture and  marking the beginning of the Trail of Tears; African American-led placemaking projects at Beck Knob Cemetery and the Ancestral Roots Community Garden; and the ins and outs of the innovation district.

Chattanooga was selected partly because of its unique history of citywide placemaking efforts that reaches back to the 1970s, and also because of its quintessentially American history of inequality. From Native American displacement and persecution, to racial segregation and discrimination, to deindustrialization and gentrification—the local host committee worked with countless partners to delve into these ongoing legacies in the city, holding up a mirror for attendees facing similar challenges in their own cities and towns.

Nothing could encapsulate this complex local identity more clearly than “Bridge through Time,” a temporary artwork by artist Ricardo Morris on the city’s Walnut Street Bridge commissioned for the conference. As the sun set on the opening party of the conference, attendees were invited to cross the bridge over the Tennessee River, and experience the history of Chattanooga through the work of local performers. The work showcased the layers of Native American and settler cultures; of corporate largesse and racial violence; of blues, hip hop, and country music traditions that make Chattanooga the city it is.

As Mayor Andy Berke put it at the opening reception, “Chattanooga doesn’t want to be another city. We just want to be like us. But we do have a lot to learn from you all.” A key tenet of Placemaking Week is that it strives to not only showcase the host city, but to leave behind a public space legacy there. To that end, Project for Public Spaces also worked with the Better Block Foundation, conference sponsor Fermob USA, and local placemakers to temporarily activate Miller Park, a recently renovated public space in the heart of the city’s innovation district. This “lighter, quicker, cheaper” transformation not only demonstrated what is possible for this space, but Fermob USA generously donated its furniture to the City permanently.

But perhaps the most important legacy is the local people who hosted, attended, and participated in the event. Eighty-five Chattanooga-based placemakers attended the event, 40% of whom received a full scholarship and 20% of whom received one-day scholarships. Organizations that hosted mobile workshops have already begun thinking about how to incorporate feedback they gathered from their global peers. And the local host committee started a brave, difficult conversation about how placemaking can become more equitable in their city.

Who attended the conference?

A Focus on Equity

One of the biggest takeaways from the 3rd International Placemaking Week was that in order to effectively integrate an equity lens into our practice, placemakers think bigger and deeper about what they do.

On one hand, placemakers need a deeper commitment to emotional intelligence and labor. Many speakers shared their experiences building trust with communities that had been marginalized by planning and design in the past—a gradual process of showing up and following through, of backing up words with actions, big and small. This is especially true for sites of trauma, which are all around us. It is not only confederate monuments that carry painful memories and histories, but everyday parks, street corners, schools, churches, and courthouses. As we work with communities to introduce new meanings and uses to a public space, we must make room for existing meanings that are not always positive. As plenary speaker Jay Pitter urged attendees, we must be brave enough to talk about healing, love, pain, justice, and joy in our work.

On the other hand, placemakers need to think bigger about their role in the governance of public space and the geography of inequality. No community process—no matter how inclusive—can overcome economics, decision-making processes, and incentives that reinforce inequality. Some speakers showcased new models of how to manage public spaces that go beyond the interests of property owners and yesterday’s heavy-handed approach to public safety. Others explored how funders can lower the barriers to entry for small, unincorporated groups of residents in underserved neighborhoods to improve their own public spaces. Still others raised questions about how investments in public space can not only avoid gentrification but capture value for the existing community. As keynote speaker Wanda Webster Stansbury concluded, “We can no longer make the excuse, ‘Where are we going to find the money?’ We can no longer afford to hide behind a lack of funding. The issue, really, is the lack of will and compassion.”

Throughout both the planning of the event and the conference itself the local host committee and their partners showed a remarkable vulnerability, opening up uncomfortable conversations and always striving to think bigger and deeper about the equity of every decision.

Local Impact

According to estimates by the Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, the conference generated an economic impact of $628,319 to the Chattanooga Area Economy and supported 158 local jobs. This economic impact includes $5,000 in direct stipends to local artists and over $10,000 in payments to local organizations that hosted mobile workshops.
In partnership with green|spaces and EPB’s Solar Share program, the 3rd International Placemaking Week became the region’s first net zero carbon, net zero water, and net zero waste conference.
Green|spaces and Project for Public Spaces licensed the output of 162 solar panels, the equivalent of displacing the CO2 emissions from 12,554 lbs of coal burned. Through a pilot of the new green|light conference package, the conference diverted 124 lbs of compostable waste from landfills saved 496 gal of water.

A Growing Global Movement

During a Friday plenary, Ethan Kent introduced attendees to PlacemakingX, a global network of placemaking practitioners that is being incubated at Project for Public Spaces. Later that day, eighty participants gathered to eat pizza and hear a panel of inspiring network organizers from Europe, Latinoamérica, the Middle East and North Africa, and Tāmaki Makaurau (New Zealand) who are helping advance placemaking in their home regions. The speakers shared their experiences co-creating publications and events, sharing placemaking tools, supporting each other’s work, and advocating for policy change.

Near the end of the lunch session, Ryan Smolar, a passionate placemaker based in Santa Ana, California, and Portland, Oregon, challenged the Americans in the room to catch up with their global peers by starting a grassroots PlacemakingUS network. Armed with a photocopied signup sheet, written on lined paper, he began collecting names immediately.

“While Project for Public Spaces and PlacemakingX are social and intellectual centers for placemaking, it is now incumbent upon a wide body of North American practitioners to self-organize like other continents have done. I am deeply inspired by the European and Latin American placemaking networks and know its time that we catch-up and connect North America in a comparable way.”

Ryan Smolar, PlacemakingUS Signup Sheet

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