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VOL. 3, NO. 1 -- DECEMBER 2000/JANUARY 2001

Fred Kent -- Returning the Power of "Places" to the People

By Karen O'Keefe

Fred Kent is a believer in the power of public space. Kent is president of the New York City-based consulting firm, Projects for Public Spaces (PPS), which brings to its clients a community-oriented approach and organizational expertise to help communities and the people in them reconnect with their public environments.

People contact PPS, said Kent, because they feel there is a dearth of places that are comfortable to use, because they are concerned the streets are too wide to cross safely, because the parks lack amenities or a city's buildings are alienating. Because, in other words, they feel a loss of community.
"Public spaces are places people view as important to community life and daily experience," said Kent. "At PPS, we believe the community should drive public space projects and not the other way around."

Kent said public spaces -- really effective, dynamic public spaces -- are extremely difficult to accomplish. "Their complexity is rarely understood."

Further complicating the situation, he charged, is the tendency of the professions whose roles interface with the public realm -- architecture, transit operation, design, transportation engineering, and others -- to have a very narrow focus on their own individual disciplines.

Said Kent, "It all boils down to common sense. It's not ego-driven, it's "place"-driven. When you concentrate on place, you're dealing with something much more important than the building."
At the heart of Kent's work is a compelling belief in the importance of people. It's that simple. "Loneliness is one of the biggest problems in this country today," he explained.

When he's at home in Brooklyn, Kent said he spends a lot of time out on his stoop. "We live in the front, and not the back, of the house," he said. "We are very much engaged in the street."

In his work with communities, Kent has traveled all over the world. PPS has amassed a collection of a half-million slides and clients throughout the globe. He has a bachelor's degree in economics but has studied transportation, planning and anthropology as well. In graduate school at Columbia University, he studied urban geography. He has also studied with brilliant American anthropologist Margaret Mead and with distinguished British economist Barbara Jackson (Baroness Jackson), whose work influenced the thinking of a generation in matters like the global environment and the plight of the world's poor.

In 1968, while working for Citibank, and with the bank's support, Kent founded the Academy for Black and Latin Education, a New York City street academy for high school dropouts. In 1970, he organized the first Earth Day in New York City, which closed Fifth Avenue to automobiles and saw over 100,000 people attend an ecology fair in Central Park. He coordinated and chaired the event again in 1990, closing 17 blocks of the Avenue of Americas to traffic so more than a million people could visit environmental exhibits there. Close to a million people joined together for an Earth Concert in Central Park.

Kent's mentor was William Hollingsworth ('Holly') Whyte who died in 1999. The former editor of Fortune Magazine, urban theorist, researcher, and author, Whyte wrote The Organization Man (1956), his best known book, as well as several books about cities and public space.

Whyte founded a grant-supported organization called the Street Life Project to study the way people occupy open space in cities. For 16 years, in New York and other cities, Whyte photographed, employed time-lapse photo techniques, and recorded written observations on the dynamics of "place." Kent was a research assistant in the Street Life Program.

According to Kent, people were fascinated by Whyte. "They appreciated his passion and respected him," he said. "They thought he was on to something -- and he was."

A lot of what Whyte and his researchers learned seems like common sense, but it never would have occurred to most of us. The problem for many is the kind of "narrowing" we have experienced: our suburban upbringing. This Whyte/Kent/PPS stuff is exactly contrary to the experience of those of us who grew up in the suburbs.

For instance, Whyte discovered that people tend to sit where there are places to sit. In order to have comfortable streets and spaces, we should give people places to be, he said.

Wait a minute! A mind raised in suburbia must now ask, "We should? Do we really want people sitting around out here?? What about the evils of "loitering," and the manifold dangers of "hanging around"?

People love to be around other people, said Whyte, and they enjoy being around strangers more when there is a little something they can control -- like a chair they can move. However, into the hapless suburban mind springs images of chains -- picnic tables and benches at the park, trash cans, all kinds of things linked up with heavy metal. They must do all that chaining for a reason, a fearful voice whispers.

People have something Whyte called a "tendency toward self-congestion" that propels us into the thick of things. In a crowd, we enjoy a little jostling and bumping as we stand talking. We have an innate urge to move toward the center of whatever space we occupy.

Hold on there a minute. What about the suburban values of independence, separation and standing alone -- the virtue of complete, total self-reliance? Not to mention the safety issue -- what if someone brushing you tried to rob you?

Walking beside a building with street-level windows is pleasurable, Whyte found, because we enjoy seeing the people inside going about their business. It gives us a sense of belonging. We even like to wave at the people inside from time to time.

Mind your own business, screams the suburban alarm system. Avert those eyes, never make eye contact. For God's sake, what if they don't wave back?

Despite such attitudes, insists Kent, untrained people are much better at seeing what a space can become.

Most of what Kent and his group have done over 25 years has been in existing communities rather than in TNDs. However, Kent said, the principles are the same. He added that while TNDs bring with them the "re-emergence of civic activity" over time, people will go back into their homes. It's important to keep re-energizing.?

Spaces evolve over time; flexibility must be built into spaces to allow for that continuous dynamic evolution, he said.

Kent quotes Whyte to distill what inspires him in his own work:

"I end in praise of small spaces. The multiplier effect is tremendous. It is not just the number of people using them, but the larger number who pass them and enjoy them vicariously, or the even larger number who feel better about the city for knowledge of them. "For a city, such places are priceless, whatever the cost. They are built of a set of basics and they are right in front of our noses if we will look."

Projects for Public Spaces, Inc. is online at Phone: 212.620.5660. Address: 153 Waverly Place, 4th Floor; NY, NY 10014.