Monday, April 28, 2014

It is the people that make the place, take II

I will be joining others on a workshop that will be part of the Makeover Montgomery 2 | Moving Forward Montgomery Conference May 8-10. The workshop is titled “Civic Buildings, Civic Amenities” and will be on Saturday, May 10th 8:30 a.m. in the Silver Spring Civic Building.

For more info on the Conference:

MAY 8-10
Makeover Montgomery 2 | Moving Forward Montgomery - May 8-10
Registration Now Open 
Following the success of the original Makeover Montgomery conference in 2011, the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, the Montgomery County Planning Department and the Urban Studies and Planning Program at the University of Maryland have joined forces again to host Makeover Montgomery 2 | Moving Forward Montgomery (MM2). The three-day event is happening May 8-10, 2014 and is open to residents, business owners and anyone with an interest in moving their community forward. More info HERE. Register now HERE. 

The description of the workshop in which I will be participating (“Civic Buildings, Civic Amenities”) is as follows:

Civic Buildings. Civic Amenities.

As the paradigm switches from suburban to urban and the landscape around transit centers changes from low-density to a mixed-use hub of activity and development,
what are the challenges facing civic buildings and amenities?
How do governments cope with the change in demands and provide essential civic spaces such as libraries and schools?  This session will explore the redevelopment of the Silver Spring Library in coordination with the Purple Line, the partnership created to provide additional affordable housing in a transit district, as well as impediments to compact, efficient urban schools (and the challenges that occur when siting them).

In preparing my remarks, I am reaching out to others that might want to chime in… (Think of it as an effort to kind of ‘crowdsource’ the content.)

Here are my ‘emerging’ thoughts… I welcome yours either as a comment on this blog or as an e-mail to


[in a hyper graphic and visual world, I wonder if we’ve lost the power of the word… While a picture may be worth a thousand words, a phrase can sometimes best focus the picture.]

It is the people that make the place.

Public facilities and public spaces (i.e. “civic buildings, civic amenities”) are
·         Public assets to build community
·         Places where people connect
Spaces where people from all walks of life can bump into each other and spark community in unexpected, vibrant, and thriving ways that we as “professionals” can’t imagine, plan for, design, or program.

Points of this presentation:
[1] Begin with a critique of the current state of affairs
[2] Offer an example of what is possible (Veterans Plaza)
[3] Suggest a parading shift
Concluding thoughts


Sometimes planning and design:
·         Confines more than creates
·         Inhibits more than innovates
·         Prescribes more than placemakes

Programming top down can:
·         Exclude more than include
·         Segregate more than integrate
·         Succeed formally while failing informally

Planning  alone a place does not make
Design alone a place does not make
Programming alone a place does not make

Planning + Design + Programming = Placemaking

·         Expected and unexpected users and users
·         The usual suspects and the unusual participants
·         Those there by choice and those there by chance
·         Regulars, Occasionals, and Passer-bys


(No, we did not sit down and strategically chart this out. It was not a linear process. It was not so much planning and engineering as placemaking and engaging… Lots of it was necessitated by a changing public fiscal environment. We were dealing with a space conceptualized, designed and built in a time of prosperity; and now we had to manage it in a time of austerity. … In retrospect, we were led by certain values that got traction and seemed to be accepted and adapted by consensus, if not in the protocol of codes, certainly in the ambiguous and hard to pin down ‘cultural norm’.)

Emerging ‘cultural norms’ for Veterans Plaza’s “success”:
1.    Listen and respond to civic entrepreneurship
2.    Engage, include, and welcome the broad spectrum of community members
3.    Affirm diversity of uses and users
4.    Don’t be afraid to experiment, pilot, innovate
5.    Celebrate children and family
6.    Ensure safety and security
7.    Communicate “Do’s”, not just “Don’ts”
8.    Be fiscally responsible
9.    Pay attention to ‘little things that matter a lot’
10. Others? (Emerging…)

A critical side – but integral – note:
·         The role of participatory performing art is key to successful civic buildings and public amenities.... From face-painting to flash-mobs to playback theater:
·         Participatory performing art is key in the conceptualization, design, implementation, programming, and evaluation of civic buildings and public amenities.

Art is life. Life is art.


Civic buildings and public amenities are necessarily looked at through the prism of:
·         GIS maps
·         Planning models
·         Architectural renderings
Equally as important is to look at civic buildings and public amenities as:
populist play with audience participation where:

·         The public space is the stage
And, the community’s soul, salsa and spirit(s) offers the conversation, dialogue, music and dance


We can help set the table, suggest ingredients for the meal, even bring samples of what tastes great:

But ultimately: It is the people that make the place.

Our County Executive Ike Leggett often says that our community is not a melting pot.
Rather, we are ‘gumbo’: Where everyone comes together yet keeps their own flavor, joined by the roux, that special ingredient that binds us to a common cause, to a common purpose.

·         So, as we dialogue about civic building and civic amenities, I invite us to embrace indigenous, organic – dare we say - chaotic placemaking

Let it happen. Let it breathe. Let it come alive. Don’t over plan, design or program. Trust the users and uses. Unleash creativity and innovation. Amend, bend, and revise as necessary. Be humble. Ask. Engage. Embrace.

Ultimately: It is the people that make the place.

NOTE: the presentation will be a PowerPoint with graphics and pictures... You can see it at this link >

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