Abbott Square: Using a community-based approach to bring a Museum into the public sphere

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This is the fifth in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

From our previous conversations with leading placemakers in Canada, Lebanon, the UK, the US, Belgium, and more, it is clear that there is a growing need - and creative energy to support that need - to open up our public spaces both physically and psychologically. With that need comes opportunities to repurpose and reconnect assets - from libraries to greenspaces - to foster places in which we can share visions, resources, and power.

When we talk about building out the civic commons, one important piece of the puzzle are civic institutions like galleries, museums, and archives. How can these places that often take us outside of our immediate context (temporal, geographic, etc.) ground us in order to build a stronger, more connected community? How can the wealth of knowledge and ideas contained within these institutions be brought out into the communities in which they’re located?

We were lucky enough to connect with Nina Simon, museum visionary and Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, just after she was in Toronto to give a keynote at NEXT, the 2017 Canadian Association of Science Centres' annual conference. Read on to find out how the MAH is both sharing out and inviting in to expand traditional museum programming while fostering important conversations about place.

Responses are lightly adapted from our Q&A with Nina.

You state that “the MAH fundamentally has two jobs: we bring art and history out into our community, and we invite our community in”; this is a powerful statement in a world where retreating into private spheres is seen as an acceptable solution. How did this mission statement develop?

Retreating into private spheres is neither ethically acceptable nor financially sustainable. The MAH almost closed in 2011 because it was perceived in our community as closed-off and insular. Our subsequent rebirth and transformative growth was rooted in a community-based approach. We believe we exist for our community, with our community, period.

As we started doing community-based work, we built a strategic framework around it, which we call a theory of change, connecting the activities we do to the impact we seek. The impact we focus on is using art and history to build a stronger, more connected community. Our community doesn’t live solely in our building. Our work shouldn’t, either.

Relatedly, what do you see as next steps to continuing to expand your audience?

We are expanding into Abbott Square to bring the MAH experience out into our immediate downtown community. But we don’t intend to stop there. Strategically, we see growth at the MAH in the next five years as happening beyond the building. We want the museum to be the creative heart of an ever-expanding network of community connections and partnerships. These connections are both ephemeral (pop up museums, collaborative festivals) and permanent (history exhibits in bus stops, public art projects). We are investing on multiple levels to build a more connected community across our region.

The idea of bringing the community into the MAH can be connected to breaking apart the public/private space dichotomy. What have been some of the key actions involved in changing a traditional museum setting to one that is open and interactive?

The first step to being open is being open. Open to possibilities. Open to new ideas and perspectives. Open to the people who walk in your doors. We see creative and cultural assets everywhere in our community, and we think it’s our job to amplify, connect, and empower them. It’s a basic mindshift from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking.

Can you give a few examples of how you are engaging with people who may not normally enter a museum setting?

  1. We bridge people from different cultural and economic backgrounds frequently in our projects. For example, in the spring of 2017 we presented an exhibition called WE WHO WORK, pairing Hung Liu’s gorgeous portraits of ancient Chinese laborers with contemporary tools from locals who are day workers. Most day workers in our community are low-income, Latino, often exploited, often ignored. Bringing them and their labor stories into the exhibition brings them dignity and ties their struggles to those of the historic laborers in the artwork.
  2. We embrace the full spectrum of creative expression in our community. Our biggest annual event, the GLOW festival, is a digital art and fire street festival. It was started when a group of local world-famous fire artists approached the MAH and said, “we never get to show our work here in Santa Cruz County.” Their art may not hang on gallery walls, but it is powerful and worth sharing. We worked hard to showcase their work in a safe, fun, incredible festival experience that has become a signature MAH event.
  3. We make safe space for other groups to use the MAH as their cultural platform. The MAH is home to a writing tutoring center, a puppetry institute, research projects, a racial justice group, Chamber of Commerce meetings, and many, many other endeavors. We want the MAH to be seen as a convening space, and we have worked hard to say yes to as many community groups as possible who can get and bring value here.

In what ways do you measure engagement and impact?

For us, success looks like our audience reflecting the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our county. That’s our basic measuring stick. Beyond that, we measure whether people feel empowered through MAH programs and whether our programs are catalyzing new cultural bridges across divides in our community.

How do we measure these things? We survey people directly with targeted questions, and we also observe and capture stories of impact. For example, on the bridging side, we ask visitors: “Did you have a positive experience with someone from a different cultural background?” And then we also listen for the later stories of deeper bridging: an Oaxacan music group and historical association who team up on an event, a composer and a sculptor who partner on a project, a partner from a marginalized background who tells us she’s made more friends and felt more welcome because of her involvement with the MAH.

One of our thematic areas at Cities for People is strengthening the civic commons (i.e., sharing the planning, management, and use of community assets). Does this framing apply to your work in connecting spaces that were previously viewed as unrelated to one another?

Yes and no. On the one hand, because of the MAH’s impact focus on building a more connected community, we spend a lot of our time sharing / connecting / partnering / co-conspiring. We have literally thousands of local partners. We encourage MAH staff to serve on boards, volunteer for other organizations, and get involved in civic projects. We are delighted to share our knowledge and assets with others… and we learn from them too.

On the other hand, we have a heavy bias for action. We’re not willing to spend years in planning. At the MAH, we’re serious about community participation, but we’re also serious about the fact that that participation has to lead somewhere--to a powerful outcome that all our participants can take pride in. If a particular opportunity appears to be stuck in a multi-year planning loop, we move on.

The MAH seems to pay particular attention to appealing to many age groups - something which art institutions seem to struggle with. What steps have you taken to build all-ages programming into your plans?

We don’t target our programming to specific groups. Instead, we focus on bridging--making the MAH a place you come to interact with people from many different walks of life. That means that we don’t do “young adult” events or “family” events. We do community events, and we design them to appeal to many different constituencies.

For example, we found that only families with small kids would come to an event called “Family Art Day,” but people of all ages--including families with kids--would come to a “Radical Craft Night” featuring hands-on activities, blacksmithing, even a taxidermy demonstration. Bridging different cultural offerings in one space brings together people of many different ages and backgrounds.

How did the Pop-up Museum idea (a temporary exhibit created by whomever comes up with an idea) come into being?

A UW graduate student, Michelle DelCarlo, developed it as part of her master’s thesis in museology. We loved the simple, understandable, scalable format for bringing people together around objects and conversations. We worked with Michelle to adapt her model into a structure that we use in Santa Cruz County and that we share with the world via The MAH’s free Pop Up Museum toolkit has been downloaded over 12,000 times by people in 128 countries.

How did you connect with residents in neighbourhoods away from the MAH to bring the museum experience to their communities?

We’re always looking outward. Where we are interested in a particular community (whether defined by neighborhood, cultural practice, age, etc.), we seek out their events, favored places, and experiences. We are guests in their spaces, learning what they love and value. Then, we reach out, focusing on how we can amplify the incredible work they do.

Can you point to examples of civic institutions that have taken a similar approach to breaking down walls (literally or metaphorically) to integrate and connect their space with the urban fabric surrounding it? I.e., are there any comparable projects that have served as inspiration to you and your team?

Yes - many. Here are just a few...

  • The Laundromat Project in New York City, which puts artists to work in laundromats in low-income neighborhoods.
  • Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, which co-creates exhibitions with community members, putting their voices and artifacts first.
  • Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco, which uses contemporary art to catalyze new ideas about how the city can move forward.
  • Queens Museum in New York, which activates deep partnerships in Corona Plaza.

 Learn more about this transformative project:

  • Why We’re Building Abbott Square (blogpost written by Nina Simon for her blog Museum 2.0)
  • In Santa Cruz? Come visit the MAH and Abbott Square.
  • Keen to host your own Pop Up Museum? You can use MAH’s Pop Up Museum Organizer’s kit, which offers tips and step-by-step advice on hosting Pop Up Museums.

May 2017 News!

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Missed our May newsletter? Get it here.

  • What if we thought of the City as a Commons?
  • Neighbourhoods ♥ The Heart of Community
  • Jane’s Walks are coming to your city: May 5 to 7
  • The future of local communities
  • Here to Stay: Housing Solutions and Youth
  • Webinar: Piloting Basic Income in the Barcelona
  • Why would a foundation support a group of Quebecers to spend three days in Boston?


Cities as a commons: Sharing vision, resources and power

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by Alex Gillis

Uber, Airbnb and other sharing enterprises allow people to buy rides, rent homes and hire people for everyday chores, but are those initiatives really about sharing?

“They are full of the steroid of venture capital,” explained Julian Agyeman, co-author of the book Sharing Cities and professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, in the United States. “These are not sharing enterprises anymore. These are about making lots of money, and about exploiting workers and neighbourhoods.”

Last month, at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works, Agyeman spoke about true sharing enterprises, the types that involve “just sustainability,” as he puts it, a sustainability that melds human equality with environmental issues, merges social justice with ecological sustainability. He was one of four international experts at an event organized by Evergreen and the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation’s Cities for People initiative, an event that’s part of collaborations to foster inclusive, innovative and resilient cities.

“Let’s go beyond the idea of the sharing economy, to explore approaches that are more cultural than commercial, more political than economic, and that are rooted in the broad understanding of a co-created urban commons,” Agyeman said. “The urban commons is in retreat.” The Internet, for example, is a commons and is under threat. “We need net neutrality,” he argued.

The idea of the ‘commons’ is 800 years older than the internet but is as revolutionary now as it was then. ‘Commons’ refers to places and resources that are open for all people to share — a tradition that’s always been counter to privatization and commodification of places and resources. The origin of the commons can be found in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, both created in the thirteenth-century to alleviate the mass hunger and suffering created when the nobility took over forests and rivers.

Later, in the England of the 1600s, the idea of the commons was revived after commoners challenged powerful elites who had fenced huge tracts of land for private use. The bloody conflict led to the beheading of the English king and the English Civil War.

Today, the idea of the commons is enjoying a revival and means new things.

“These ‘new’ commons include knowledge commons, cultural commons, infrastructure commons, and neighbourhood commons, among others,” write Sheila R. Foster and Christian Iaione in “The City as a Commons.” In this paper, they argue that inhabitants have a ‘right to the city,’ have a right to be part of creating the city, and have a right to use tangible and intangible collective resources in the city. They list examples: streets, parks, community gardens, open spaces and business and community improvement districts.

And both authors propose new governance models to make the city the facilitator of inclusive decision-making and equitable distribution of resources to vulnerable and disenfranchised groups.

Cities need these new models to address new urban problems. Two thirds of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050, a massive increase from current levels. Migration and urban planning, along with climate change, violent conflict and gaping inequality, are important challenges of the twenty-first century.

Given these overwhelming problems, how can we create smart and sharing cities? The short answer is: urban innovation networks. Successful models in the Colombia, UK, U.S., Italy, Germany and the Netherlands provide examples for Canadian cities — models that inspired the federal government to launch the $300 million Smart Cities Challenge Fund.

Participatory City – Illustrated Guide

The Participatory City initiative in the UK is one such model. “These projects see people working together on practical ideas that make their neighborhoods more exciting and enjoyable and sustainable socially, economically and environmentally,” writes Tessy Britton, founder of Participatory City, which is in the seventh year of researching and prototyping new ways to support practical participation.

“At the heart of the city as a commons are citizens and their creativity,” she explained at the Evergreen event. “Small exchanges of friendship create networks of cooperation that are the building blocks of a sustainable future, but only if we have encouraged these on a large enough scale.” Her organization focuses on redesigning or re-structuring systems to makes it easier for people to participate on a practical, everyday level. “We are creating a commons platform,” she said.

Their next project in the UK will be in a northeast London borough with a population of 200,000. “It’s the ninth most deprived borough in the UK, with a blanket level of deprivation, unlike other areas where you have pockets of deprivation and pockets of middle class areas,” she said. The organization is hoping to raise £6 million over five years for over 300 projects.

“If you live there, you’ll have 70 opportunities each week to share or cooperate with neighbours, whether you’re cooking, growing things, learning, repairing, or participating in everyday activities.” The point is that the urban innovation networks won’t be extraordinary; they’ll be normal and a part of everyday life. “To mainstream and scale up participation, we have to make it attractive, accessible, convenient and beneficial, and every action has to benefit everybody who’s taking part in it.”

“These neighbourhoods will also be created by everyone living in them — not by heroic or extraordinary efforts — but simply by doing many of the things we do in the course of going about our daily lives together, rather than alone,” she added.

Julian Agyeman explained something similar: “There are four conditions to just sustainabilities: improving our quality of life and well-being; meeting the needs of both present and future generations; justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcomes; and, finally, living within ecosystem limits.”

Medellin, Colombia

“Reinvention and revival of sharing could enhance equity, rebuild community and dramatically cut resource use — and we could meld cyber and real space and develop platforms where equity is enabled,” he said. He pointed to Medellín, Colombia, where the city developed the urban commons — providing access to poor areas, opening library parks with free broadband access and practicing other ‘urban acupuncture’ (pinpricks of innovation around the city). Most importantly, the city uses participatory budgeting and planning, a process that contributes to a large portion of the city’s budget.

In Italy, the LABoratory for the GOVernance of Commons (or LabGov) is an organization that, each year, trains about 30 students and experts in urban-commons governance. It focuses on partnerships of citizens, NGOs, public administrations, local business and communities that share scarce resources and care for the commons, both tangible and intangible, in urban areas. LabGov is leading an initiative in the city of Bologna, Italy, to encourage development of a shared city, with urban roads used as a commons. It’s also establishing an agency for industrial and cultural commons. Phase 2 will involve citizens starting projects in the city.

In the U.S., Living Cities and Reimagining the Civic Commons include innovative concepts of the commons. Living Cities is an organization that collaborates with multidisciplinary, civic leaders in approximately 40 American cities to develop new approaches to improving the well-being of low-income people. Reimagining the Civic Commons is an initiative that counters economic and social fragmentation in cities by revitalizing public places, such as parks, plazas, trails and libraries, to bring together people from different backgrounds.

Back in Canada, the next phase of Cities for People involves working with partners to build the Future Cities Network, a collaboration to link new and existing hubs in Toronto, Montreal and other cities. This joint venture between multiple partners, including the McConnell Foundation and Evergreen, intends to pool and coordinate learning opportunities and substantial investment in the coming years. The Toronto hub of the Network — the Future Cities Centre — is already under construction at Evergreen Brick Works.


Alex Gillis

Alex Gillis is an investigative journalist and author who’s written for many of Canada’s mainstream publications. He’s also worked with community- and international-development organizations.


Learnings from The City as a Commons series

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In late March (20-28), Julian Agyeman, Tessy Britton, Gorka Espiau and Rony Jalkh joined us for The City as a Commons conference series in three Canadian cities. Throughout these two weeks of activities they participated in meetings on how to advance transformative city building and thinking.

Below are some takeaways from these gatherings:

  • To strengthen the City as a Commons, we need to incorporate multicultural thinking in our day-to-day work. This can be achieved through dialogue and reciprocal understanding between residents. Developing inclusive cultural practices will help us advance toward more inclusive cities.
  • Creating a truly participatory city means making sure that city neighbourhoods are made by everyone and for everyone. Neighbourhoods are places that can fuel social transformation; they can o
  • perate as platforms, laboratories, schools, models of sustainability and models of equality.
  • An inclusive city is one where participation has been mainstreamed (embedded in local values and beliefs) and scaled up. An inclusive city is participatory by nature.
  • Participation can be mainstreamed and scaled up if we make it attractive, accessible, and convenient - and with concrete benefits.
  • There are two different systems that work together to create a participatory city:
    i. participation opportunities that facilitate civic engagement in practical projects that align with residents’ daily lives
    ii. support systems that make it easier to maintain or grow collections of projects.
  • Placemaking is nourished by participation and trust; it encourages residents to find a place where they feel welcome. Like peacemaking, placemaking requires courage, compassion and collaboration.
  • A shared narrative has the potential to transform communities, attitudes and behaviors.
  • An understanding of a community’s social fabric and its waves of transformation is required to create a shared narrative (incorporating questions of who we are, who the neighbourhood is, what is possible and what is not). The deeper we understand the waves of transformation and the processes that happen within a community, the more the impact we can achieve through our initiatives.
  • Stories for social transformation are not controlled by a central command. They are connected in terms of value systems and the impact we wish to achieve as a collective.
  • Understanding the city as a commons involves going beyond quaint notions of the gift economy  - it requires engaging in systemic restructuring. The commons are not only about asset building but also about the processes of creating and producing together.
  • To strengthen the commons, we have to go beyond top-down and bottom-up approaches. Conversations should be framed around how citizens and institutions can work better to transform places, moving the centre of gravity out of the town hall and into neighbourhoods.

A list of practical ideas to support placemaking for social inclusion:

  1. Create places for children.
  2. Organise exhibitions and competitions where new residents can showcase their food.
  3. Support cultural and art fairs: music, fashion, dance, instruments.
  4. Conduct gatherings that foster a sense of caring among newcomers.
  5. Conduct activities for space appropriation (such as murals).
  6. Create community gardens using plants familiar and useful to newcomers.
  7. Use public spaces for book clubs and intercultural conversations.
  8. Create informal playgrounds where children can use their imagination in public spaces.
  9. Develop art therapy activities: public spaces can be used as a platform for residents to express their feelings through art. Contemplating these art expressions helps people to better understand each other.

Got any learnings to add to the mix? Please share them with us by commenting or on Twitter #civiccommons.

Participatory cities grounded in practical, everyday acts

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This is the fourth in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

Tessy Britton: Participatory City

In conversations about shaping our cities, we often talk about public participation as a crucial element of decision-making. But how does this translate to people’s day-to-day lives? Are there enough opportunities to get involved in local governance? What factors are necessary to achieve power shifts rather than tokenistic public input?

These are questions that Londoner Tessy Britton and her Participatory City initiative have had on their minds for many years. While we intrinsically know that cities should be places for all (and therefore shaped by all), it can be difficult to concretize this ideal. Tessy, through her deep work in practical participation in UK cities, has answers. Last month, we had the opportunity to chat about supporting networks of citizen-run spaces, connecting everyday acts with larger goals like social inclusion and enterprise creation, and how neighbourhoods can be created by and for everyone.

We began our discussion by sharing what our home cities - Toronto, Canada and London, UK - have in common when it comes to citizens shaping city spaces. In both cities, placemaking is happening on a micro-scale (think tool libraries, 100in1Day, laneway crawls, and myriad other examples), and though it makes a difference to the immediate community, these projects are often disparate and don’t reap the kind of measurable results that influence decision-makers. In other words, small, citizen-led initiatives certainly have localized benefits, but are not adding up to a more supportive society.

What if participating in planning your community didn’t have to involve taking time to attend a formal public meeting or filling out an online survey that doesn’t allow for communicating the nuances of lived experience? What if your regular activities, from gardening on your front porch to preparing food to repairing your bicycle, were recognized as contributing to the collective experience of folks in your neighbourhood? While these support systems exist, they tend to be exceptions to the norm, where we are connected mainly for purposes of financial transactions. In a Participatory City, decisions about place are actually structured around these everyday acts. So what does this look like? Who is involved? How can we harness the know-how, creativity, and passion of citizens into a city that takes care of its inhabitants?

Starting this year, Participatory City will transform one London neighbourhood into a Demonstration Neighborhood - of around 200,00 to 300,000 residents - that will become a model for wellbeing, sustainability and equality. Here is how this impressive initiative is taking shape:

  • It is built on an open-source environment that allows all users to share what they’re doing and collaborate with others.
  • It doesn’t have to involve a lot of new inputs; instead, it makes better use of spaces, resources, skills, and knowledge.
  • It recognizes the potential of essential, everyday acts to effect change, when connected and supported.
  • It supports an ecology of mutually dependent and supportive collections of activity in common places like cafes, schools, and gardens (the goal being 1,000 ideas to transform one’s neighbourhood).
  • It gets unlikely allies working together, resulting in more social capital and greater resilience.

Our conversation kept coming back to power and the ways in which city governments value certain assets and undervalue others. In order for our cities to become places for all, not just for those with certain powers and privileges, change must be rooted in building social capital in a way that is available to all. The Participatory City is different from one-off citizen engagement because the projects within, by their nature, attract people of different socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, and interests. Why? Because the projects are social, practical and productive”, and allow for different ways to participate, unlike many traditional volunteer or charity activities. Since they are built on activities which appeal to a variety of people, they provide easy opportunities to collaborate without much external intervention, resulting in an immediate sense of ownership, and often a tangible outcome.

This is something that we could learn from in Canadian cities. From coast to coast, there are fantastic grassroots projects that demonstrate new possibilities for using city spaces, from Montreal’s Ruelles Vertes to Open Streets projects happening yearly in several cities. However successful these 'temporary activation' projects are, it seems like momentum is slow to build, and that arguably, these projects have not yet shifted dominant practices of city building or community enterprise creation. Perhaps one solution for city governments and private funders lies in emulating what is being done with Participatory City: rather than funding localized projects and then leaving them to fend for themselves, a solution could be a more self-sustaining system of connecting, scaling up and out, and reinforcing community-driven projects and enterprises for long-term impact. Participatory City does this through a cycle of listening to people in ways that enable citizen experimentation and co-creation of projects and social enterprises.

Want to know more about Participatory City? Tessy will be sharing her work at a public discussion series, The City as a Commons, starting next week in Montreal (March 20 and 23), Toronto (March 27), and Ottawa (March 28). All events are free, but please do register.

Further reading:

 About Tessy Britton:

Tessy is the founder of Participatory City and has been developing the Participatory City practice for six years, researching and prototyping new ways to support widespread practical participation. Tessy works on a number of international projects, including supporting Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge, judging the New Radicals 2016 with Nesta and The Observer. She is also a British Council Fellow for the Hammamet Conference in Tunisia. Tessy is a guest lecturer at: Saïd Business School (Oxford), LabGov at LUISS University (Rome); Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University; Rhode Island School of Design (Providence. USA).

CIRM Lunch discussions at McGill University: March 21, 23, 24

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On March 21, 23, and 24, hear from innovators from academic, private, public and non-profit sectors, all of whom are seeking to ensure that 21st-century urban development balances economic, social and environmental concerns. These sessions will be bilingual (FR/EN), with no simultaneous translation.

March 21st, 10.00-11.30: Julian Agyeman, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning - Tufts University, Medford, USA

  • Respondent: Prof. Hoi Kong. Faculty of Law - McGill University
  • Location: 3438, rue McTavish, Room 100 (McGill University)

March 23rd, 12.00-13.30: Tessy Britton, Director – Participatory City – London, UK

  • Respondent: Prof. Pierre-Emmanuel Moyse. Faculty of Law - McGill University
  • Location: 3438, rue McTavish, Room 100 (McGill University)

March 24th, 12.00-13.30: Rony Jalkh, Visiting Fellow – Project for Public Spaces – Beirut

  • Respondent: Prof. Richard Shearmur, School of Urban Planning - McGill University
  • Location: McGill Faculty Club, 3450, rue McTavish (McGill University)

Discussions will be moderated by Gorka Espiau, J.W. McConnell Professor of Practice (McGill University).

RSVP required: (CRIEM)

What is placemaking?

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This article was originally written for the McConnell Foundation blog by Alex Gillis.

Ten years ago, if you walked along sections of the Toronto ravine system that follow the Don Valley, you’d have likely noticed an abandoned, 100-year-old brickworks, surrounded by an expanse of tangled brush and marshland. Today, thanks to the creative vision of the Evergreen Foundation, the support of three levels of government, and a host of public and private donors,  this long-neglected 40 acres has been transformed into a thriving community asset, replete with yes, brush and marshland, but also children’s gardens, hiking trails, a brick works transformed into gallery and conference space, a farmers’ market, outdoor classrooms, a LEED platinum-certified office complex, workshops, and a restaurant. Evergreen Brick Works is today a global showcase for ‘placemaking.’

With Vancouver hosting Placemaking Week, September 12 to 17, and numerous other activities and projects underway, the placemaking movement has never been more prominent in Canada.

Tiffany Commons

“Brick Works is a living laboratory now, an example of a large-scale public space that re-connects people to a civic asset that was underutilized,” says Robert Plitt, executive director of Evergreen’s CityWorks. Plitt has been involved in placemaking initiatives with Evergreen and Artscape for about 20 years, and helped to create Evergreen Brick Works along with hundreds of others who worked to realize a vision that made this place beautiful, useful and meaningful.

‘Placemaking begins with citizens working together to improve their local environment. More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution. This inclusive process emphasizes the collaborative ‘making’ that builds local capacity and leadership to empower communities.’
– Co*Lab and Project for Public Spaces

Placemaking is about reimagining and repurposing buildings and spaces whose original purpose has become redundant or obsolete. The term was coined about 40 years ago by Fred Kent, founder of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS),  a New York-based nonprofit organization. Now it is coming into vogue in cities across the US and around the world. ‘Placemaking’ sounds elementary, but the making part involves high levels of civic engagement and social innovation, and the places themselves generate surprise and delight.

Placemaking is about public spaces. “It can be privately owned, but the place is accessible to anyone,” says Mary W. Rowe, Senior Fellow with both Evergreen and PPS. She also worked with Jane Jacobs, who wrote the influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which helped to create the concept of placemaking. “Part of what you’re seeing today is a broader definition of ‘shared space,’” Rowe explains. “As a city becomes more and more privatized – private housing, private clubs, private commercial activity – there’s a push to claim back aspects of the city that were once shared and publicly owned. You see that along waterfronts, on streets and with institutions that open their doors to the public.”

You also see it in Montreal. In winter, Village au Pied-du-Courant is a site for dumping snow near a six-lane boulevard. For five months in the summer, however, it transforms into a village beach and boardwalk used by 100,000 people for concerts, family events, festivals or simply relaxing, thanks to tons of sand and a contingent of community volunteers.

Public spaces like these encourage healthy, mixed-use, culturally diverse neighbourhoods and can sometimes raise larger issues, changing city policies and budgets along the way. “In these grassroots movements, people actually have the chance to change their alleyways, vacant lots and neighbourhoods, but also to make requests to the city to change big things and urbanism itself,” says Maxim Bragoli, co-founder of Pépinière & Co., which has helped to create Village au Pied-du-Courant and other placemaking initiatives.


At its core, placemaking proposes processes and partnerships that empower communities. As Evergreen’s Plitt puts it, “How do we create equitable, creative partnerships that, in the end, contribute to health and equity and that empower citizens to be involved?”

placemakingA recent report, “Canadian Placemaking: Overview and Action,” by Halifax-based Co*Lab, nails down this idea.  Citizens become more involved in their communities, guiding professionals and municipalities to make sure that places are affordable, equitable and vibrant.

The environment is another critical part of placemaking. Transportation and housing are created to be sustainable – to decrease carbon emissions, to create green spaces, to increase access to bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly spots and anything that makes a place healthy for people and the environment. Sophia Horwitz of Co*Lab  mentions a number of such green placemakers in Nova Scotia: Morris House (a 250 year-old wooden house that was saved from destruction and turned into a community project for youth);  Common Roots Urban Farm (a community garden and park in Halifax);  and a series of annual placemaking projects support by the city and community groups in various neighbourhoods in Halifax.

“We’re seeing placemaking pop up in new venues,” says Mary Rowe of PPS, which is organizing Placemaking Week in Vancouver, September 12-17. “We see it with the re-claiming of streets. Around the world, we’re using our streets in more imaginative ways. And our waterfronts, too. And many large institutions want to transform as well. They want to knock down the walls and be more accessible.”  The convening will focus on Canada’s place in the emerging global map of the future of the placemaking.


Recipients of placemaking grants from The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation include Co*Lab in Halifax; Evergreen Brick Works; Artscape in Vancouver and Toronto; and Pépinière & Co. and Ateliers créatifs in Montreal.

Reimagining the Cities of Tomorrow

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Thanks to Social Connectedness for sharing the progress we made in Cities for People 1.0, and what our focus areas are - social inclusion being at the forefront - looking ahead!

Here's an excerpt:

According to a United Nations report, over half the world’s population live in cities. In Canada, close to 80% of Canadians live in urban areas. As cities become denser, an important question arises:  How we can make our urban spaces more livable, joyous and socially connected? Currently a pan-Canadian initiative is looking at ways to build more inclusive, innovative and resilient cities.

Cities for People is a collaborative initiative that aims to find diverse solutions to create more liveable cities. With a team of curators across Canada, Cities for People focused on innovative projects that explore four main themes during its experimental phase between January 2014 and June 2015. These pillars were art and society, new economies, cityscapes and citizen spaces. At the heart of each of these themes was social inclusion.

Jayne Engle is the National Curator for Cities for People. Engle emphasizes the importance of social inclusion,explaining that it stands as a core value in each of the organization’s activities. “It’s our feeling very much, that people living in poverty or situations of exclusion are best placed to lead the way in developing solutions. To bridge social divides, our experience tells us collaboration and working in solidarity are essential,” she says.

Cities for People originally planned on having social inclusion as a separate theme, but the team decided to integrate it as an essential element of each pillar in the experimental phase. Moving forward into Cities for People 2.0, social inclusion is deliberately highlighted. “The overarching values of inclusion, innovation and resilience are not underlying but front and centre at the same time,” Engle says about the initiative’s next steps.

Full article here.

Image from le Salon 1861.

New RECODE-Cities for People Civic Innovation Award to grant up to $50,000 to innovative collaborations

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Cities offer the scale needed for transformative change — large enough to matter, but small enough to manage. Universities and colleges are also civic actors in their own right. They are “cities within cities,” where the principles of pluralism create communities of diversity, open to the world. The relationship between post-secondary institutions and cities can serve as an engine of social and environmental sustainability.As part of its pursuit of a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient society, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has created RECODE, an initiative dedicated to catalyzing social innovation and entrepreneurship in higher education; and Cities for People, which contributes to more resilient, livable and inclusive cities.

RECODE award_with logos

The RECODE / Cities for People Civic Innovation Awards program provides grants to initiatives that position post-secondary institutions as civic actors catalyzing positive change in cities. These grants will support innovative collaborations between post-secondary institutions and community organizations or businesses that strengthen their communities.

This is a call for initiatives, products, processes, or programs that contribute to the knowledge and resources in our post-secondary campuses, community organizations, businesses and local governments. We are looking to challenge and evolve the defining routines, resources, and authority flows in our cities for the greater good.

Up to $100,000 will be awarded in amounts ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 to exemplary initiatives that meet the criteria outlined in either of the two relevant themes.

There are two themes for the Civic Innovation Awards:

Theme 1. Innovative Citizenship and Service: Enhancing capacity to engage and take action on community and city issues.

 Examples include:

  • Partnerships between post-secondary institutions and municipal governments or agencies that improve civic engagement.
  • Initiatives that support civic action by students.
  • Multisectoral collaborations that apply our collective capacity (or civic intelligence - see lexicon) to improve social and economic outcomes for marginalized populations.

Theme 2. Enhancing the Civic Commons: Re-purposing our shared city assets through innovative approaches to increase the social, cultural, economic or educational value of the civic commons.

 Examples include:

  • Initiatives that re-design and re-purpose buildings, grounds and other assets in service to the community.
  • Participatory planning and budgeting initiatives that involves municipalities, post-secondary institutions and public input.
  • Technological innovations to make for a more engaging and connected civic commons.

Full information packet: C4P/RECODE Award_EN

Click here to apply