Fred Kent: The Livability Q&A

The state of placemaking, and a preview of the Pittsburgh meeting

By Matt Carmichael on August 28, 2014 at 10:36 am CDT

New York’s Times Square has been reimagined as a public place

The more you can interact with people in your neighborhood or on your street or in your town the more connected you become to local issues and the more active you become.

Fred Kent, Founder and president, Project for Public Spaces

In two weeks, placemakers from around the nation and even from other nations will descend on Pittsburgh for the 2nd annual gathering of a loosely knit group called the Placemaking Leadership Council. The meeting will overlap/piggyback another important event, the  Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place  conference. The leadership council was created by  Fred Kent  of the Project for Public Spaces. He’s been a champion of this movement for decades and can’t contain his excitement in seeing his life’s work going mainstream as well as main street. It continues to pick up steam and every time he quantifies something, you feel inclined to add a parenthetical “so far.”

The conference has a great  line-up of speaker s including  Mayor Peduto  from Pittsburgh, other mayors from around the world and thought-leaders in the places space. Livability caught up to him to get a little overview of the conference and the state of the movement.

Livability:  So what is the Project for Public Spaces?

Kent:  We are community organizers working to create place. We work through local community activists, change agents, and zealous nuts who see the possibility within their community to do something more than they have. It sort of runs up against the disciplines and silos of the government and the disciplines and even to some degree the movements because they all narrow their description of what they do to something that is ‘manageable and conversational.’

Livability:  So we need to think outside of those silos because people don’t interact with their cities in silos?

Kent:  People live holistically. They have multiple things going on and multiple ways of interacting with people spontaneously. We have taken that possibility out by the way we manage our cities, whether plans are created by traffic engineers or designers who create outcomes in their own profession. It’s democracy building in a way. The more you can interact with people in your neighborhood or on your street or in your town the more connected you become to local issues and the more active you become.

Livability:  Are your clients the city?

Kent:  We’re hired by citizens, non-profits and developers now. As you well know with Millennials and AARP types they want good places to be in. The cities do not generally hire us because they are defined by those silos. We have Southwest Airlines as one partner. They have this Heart of Communities idea that they feel that if communities are good places people will want to go there. Their mission as a company is to enhance the cities they fly to by volunteering their employees but also by helping communities become more interesting and more vital. We’ve done activations in three cities and have three or four more right on the front burner. Part of their charge to us is to have a place-making conversation in those communities.

Livability:  It seems like it’s a great time to be involved in the places and place making space. These ideas really seem to be gaining steam.

Kent:  It’s been a long time coming, but now it’s here.

Livability:  Tell me about the inaugural gathering of the leadership council in  Detroit  last year?

Kent:  They are zealous nuts in the best possible fashion. They weren’t saying, “I have all the answers.” They were saying, “I know something is better than what we have and we’ve got to figure out what it is.” People would work together to realize that they could have a big impact on their community.

Livability:  And what should we expect in Pittsburgh?

Kent:  There are a lot of people doing this kind of stuff that weren’t a year or two years ago. We’re watching this too and finding ways to support it. [With the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference especially] I think watching how that is changing from bicycle activists and spandex people to being more about community is an aspect of this. People see this as where they want to go in the future. You have to look at the overall movement that’s going on. You can’t change it now. It’s on its way. It’s launched. It’s beyond us. People had better get out of the way. It’s now to where it’s gotten to be a very strong agenda for communities.

Livability will be in Pittsburgh covering the conference. Stay tuned for more. This partial transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Matt Carmichael is a contributing editor and former editor-in-chief of He is a recognized authority on demographics, consumer trends, economic development and best places to live.

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