Raising The Bar on Quality of Place

Millennium Park in Chicago is an example of how placemaking can elevate a city.

Millennium Park in Chicago is an example of how placemaking can elevate a city.

“Cities are full of overlapping memories; overlapping stories. The city is not just bricks and mortar. It’s about love; of the people for their place. It’s not possible for the master plan to answer all the questions, but we can create a robust framework that allows life to take place. Invitations to walk. To sit. To stay. A better way to cross the street. A better way to live your life.” ~David Sim, Gehl Architects

With Boca and Delray experiencing angst about development it seems that we have reached a crossroads.

We have some choices to make.

We can reach for the Xanax, give up, or begin a communitywide conversation on how this all works or doesn’t work.

In Boca, there is a major debate about tall buildings in the downtown. In Delray Beach, the debate rages over height, density, traffic and whether or not there should incentives for certain uses.

Nothing is going to change until March 10 when both cities hold municipal elections. But as soon as the dust clears, the conversation should begin. In fact, the conversation about the future growth of development of our community should never end.

So even though Delray has just adopted new LDR’s which contain some good things (preserving the scale of Atlantic Avenue, introducing green building principles etc.) and some bad things (hard density caps and a raft of technical issues raised by planners, architects and engineers and no incentives for desired uses) it doesn’t mean that this issue is settled or that the dialogue should end.

Plans and rules are not sacrosanct, the best plans live and breathe and change with the desires of the community and or the evolving realities of the marketplace. As such, switched on leaders should be keeping the conversation going, educating, elevating, measuring and engaging all the way.

The beauty of cities is that you are never done and the best led communities understand that complacency is a killer.

That’s why it’s great news that the legendary Fred Kent, founder of the Project for Public Spaces (www.pps.org) will be hosting a discussion on placemaking Wednesday, Feb. 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Arts Garage in downtown Delray Beach.

Kent, who happens to live part time in Delray, is arguably the world’s foremost expert on placemaking or the art of creating wonderful public spaces. He’s also an authority on public markets and is a regular at Delray’s Green Market, a terrific program run by Delray’s CRA.

Mayor Cary Glickstein wants to focus on making the most of Delray’s public assets, a laudable goal and something that cities worldwide are doing. Whether it’s known as “urban acupuncture”, tactical urbanism, placemaking or leveraging so-called “lazy assets”, cities large and small are taking a fresh look at what they own and trying to imagine how these places can look and feel better.

Last week, the Knight Foundation published a report called “Livable Cities” which called for communities to invest in building places for people not cars; a simple concept to understand but one that has eluded many cities for years as we promote car oriented sprawl through our zoning policies.

Human Powered Delray, a grassroots organization, gets that and is doing terrific work to raise awareness about the importance of these issues.

When we talk about building places for people, we are really about design.

Urban Land Institute Scholar Ed McMahon gives a wonderful TED Talk on the importance of design for cities.

“The image of a community is fundamentally important to its economic well -being,” says McMahon. “Decisions such as where to invest, where to work, where to retire, and where to vacation are all made based on what a community looks like.”

In today’s economy, the quality of place matters the most. “In a world where capital is footloose, if you can’t differentiate [your town] from any other, you have no competitive advantage,” he says.


Urbanist Peter Kageyama  has the same message. His wonderful book “For the Love of Cities” talks about the importance of creating places and experiences that make people fall in love with their cities.

When you fall in love, you commit, you invest and you spread the word which attracts more commitment, investment and positive buzz.  The “extras” are how cities differentiate themselves from the pack and it is how places become invaluable.

A good place to start is to look at what you already own; your town squares, right of ways, parks, beaches, cultural institutions, libraries etc.

Placemaking doesn’t have to be expensive or grand, but it does have to put people first and it has to be different and authentic.

Boca and Delray have unique assets and incredible potential. The potential is literally boundless.

Mizner Park is a nationally recognized lifestyle center anchored by a stage that hosts cultural events. Boca also has incredible parks and Palmetto Park Road in east Boca has tremendous upside.

Delray, of course, has great bones; a grid system, human scale, vibrancy and a main street that empties into an ocean. It also has some “lazy” assets that can be so much more including a tennis stadium, a downtown park and municipal parking lots that can be used to create more parking and a mix of uses.

Here’s hoping that when the dust settles on the municipal elections, we stop the pandering and get back to a serious discussion on design and how our cities can work better for people.


  1. Jeff:thank you for your article. insightful and provocative thinking about the art of Building Cities. as people become more car dependent, we, as urban planners, architects, sociologists, developers and politicians have the resposibility to stich the city fabric puzzle together with the sole purpose of making our cities congruent places for People and where the car participates at an “alley way” level. Vibrant communities are only those where people have the oportunity to interact with each other at a “forum” level.

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