While space tends to be construed as passive, placemaking looks at space as an invitation for action: what can be done in a given space that would enhance its livability?

In answer to that question, the Placemaking Leadership Council, a creation of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), will convene starting today in Pittsburgh at the Westin Convention Hotel. The council is comprised of more than 600 city planners, transportation and health officials, bike organizations and neighborhood groups from across the country and including several other countries. PPS president Steve Davies says the leadership meeting is an opportunity to identify and articulate best practices in cities.

“The goal is to create a framework for a collective movement, actions we can take as a group to advance placemaking as a global phenomenon,” he says.

Pittsburgh was competing with several cities to host both events. Davies says Pittsburgh was a natural choice. “The change in administration, rethinking the role of the city, the opportunities for placemaking to advance community revitalization are quite strong,” he notes.

Roughly 40 years old, the idea of placemaking is not new. But it’s only in the last couple decades, says Davies, that placemaking has emerged as a shared knowledge base and a set of recognizable skills.

Chris Koch, Chief Executive Officer for Pittsburgh’s Design Center views placemaking as turning a space into a place people want to be.

“If you’re excited to be there, and you want to be there, and there’s an identity, I think that’s when a space turns into a place.”

Koch points to Market Square and Oakland’s Schenley Plaza as two examples of successful placemaking. The square was bifurcated by a bus route, and the plaza used to be a parking lot. Now both spaces allow for multiple uses, including serving as popular meeting places, and are loved by the community.

“Comingling is how people experience a city; people want to go out and meet each other,” Koch says. “And the thing about placemaking is you have a feeling that you’ve connected to people.”

When Pittsburgh experienced a dramatic loss of population in the 70s and 80s, Koch says many communal spaces fell into disuse.

“There’s been a decline in schools, in churches, in civic spaces and people are really wanting those places back,” she says. “So [placemaking] is a really good way to make sure they exist in communities.”

The Leadership Council meeting precedes the Pro Bike / Pro Walk / Pro Place conference taking place Monday through Thursday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. More than 1,000 attendees are expected. The goal of the conference is to increase access to walking and biking, thereby creating healthier people and communities. Davies says connecting the two events will have a catalytic impact.

“There’s a lot of crossover of attendees, and it’s a huge opportunity to learn from hundreds and hundreds of experts,” he says. “Hopefully a lot of inspiring ideas can stay home after the conference leaves.”

Patrick Roberts, principal transportation planner for Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, agrees.

“It’s an exchange of experience and knowledge that people bring to the conference. We can get used to things happening in a certain way in the city and the conference can help us to see how we could do things.”

Roberts will be presenting Pittsburgh’s transportation plan at the conference’s open house on Tuesday night from 5 to 7 pm. Community members are welcome.

Margaret J Krauss

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.