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.
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.
Conference parties took place at the Hunter Museum of American Art, the Chattanooga Choo Choo, and Cooper's Alley.
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.
Local artist Ricardo Morris transformed the Walnut Street Bridge into a trip through Chattanooga history.
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.
With the help of sponsors and local placemakers, Miller Park was transformed during the conference through programming and amenities.
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.
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.
The theme of equity was expressed throughout the plenaries and breakout sessions, focusing both on the human and systemic sides of the issue.
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.”
The conference took attendees throughout the city, showcasing many exciting local initiatives to connect local residents to opportunity and include marginalized voices in public space.
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.
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.
An international group of conference attendees connected through social events, collaborative learning experiences, and a session about how to organize a regional network of practitioners.
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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View the conference photos.