Public-space expert has vision for the Springs

‘Placemaking,' a bottom-up method for neighborhood enhancement|

“Creating healthy, vital, interesting public spaces is not that hard,” says Ruth Snyder, a former politician, business owner and strong proponent of the public-space philosophy known as “placemaking.”

“I’ve seen amazing things happen,” she says, “things that people in power – or people who’ve been disappointed in the process of public space improvement in the past – told me would never happen. And all it took was getting everyone together in one space to dream and imagine and think and solve problems. It’s really not that hard.”

Snyder, a onetime mayor of Mill Valley in the 1980s – and a major participant when the city of Olympia, Washington underwent a process of rethinking and reinventing its downtown spaces in the early 2000s – introduced the notion of “placemaking” during a December presentation before attendees of the monthly Sonoma Springs Alliance meeting. Based on her past experience, Snyder, a resident of Oakmont, believes that the tools and philosophies of placemaking could have a major impact on the future of the Springs area.

“For a public space, of any kind, to be effective and usable,” says Snyder, “it has to feel safe, it has to feel inviting, it has to make people want to come out and socialize with others, and be part of their community. There are simple, practical ways to do that, and that’s what placemaking is all about.”

The term “placemaking” – shorthand for a process of using public spaces to foster a sense of community – first came into usage in the 1970s, originally by architects, city planners, writers and journalists. The phrase was soon adopted by Fred Kent, one of the founders of Earth Day, who launched New York City’s Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit that promotes the concepts of placemaking, consulting with cities and communities working to solve problems related to use of their public spaces. Since its formation in 1975, Project for Public Spaces has worked with an estimated 700 cities and communities all over the world.

The process uses a series of ideas and tools, including the notion of “The Power of Ten,” which holds that for a public space to fully function it needs to have at least 10 amenities, such as proper lighting, seating, fountains, stages, playgrounds, public events and the like. According to Snyder, who collaborated with Kent and Project for Public Spaces when she worked for the city of Olympia – first as a code enforcement officer, and later as a liaison between the city and local businesses – placemaking is an idea that was made for communities like the Springs.

At the heart of placemaking is the notion that such spaces develop not from the top down, though the traditional practices of city planning, but from the community up.

“You cannot have a truly viable public space without true, authentic public input,” she says. “This cannot work in a bureaucracy-down way. You have to bring in as many different stakeholder groups – the state, the police department, public works, business groups, residents, homeless advocates, artists, performers, schools, politicians -everyone who touches a public space in some way gets to have a voice in how that space is created.”

Snyder, who has been reaching out to local government and community leaders in the Springs offering to share her experience and knowledge of placemaking, explains that she has seen first-hand how the principles of placemaking can transform a community in transition.

“When I was working in Olympia, we were really struggling with the downtown area,” she says. “It was inhabited by a lot of homeless. You’d have people sleeping on the sidewalks, living in the parks. It was devastating for the business and cultural climate of downtown Olympia.”

“It just opened up my eyes,” says Snyder. “I learned that for public space to be effective, it cannot be dominated by any one group. If you allow that domination – by the homeless, or by mothers with children, or people with dogs, or any other single group – it makes the place uncomfortable and unwelcoming to any other group. Placemaking says that in order to create a comfortable, healthy, valuable and thriving public space, it has to be welcoming to all demographic groups.”

The changes that came from the placemaking process in downtown Olympia, Snyder affirms, were immediate, and highly effective, transforming the downtown area into a space that is now used by a wide array of residents and visitors.

Snyder makes clear that her offer to share her experiences is on her own, and though she has let Project for Public Places know about her proposed involvement with the Springs – and says they are supportive of her efforts – the New York nonprofit is not in any way involved in the project at the moment.

Snyder believes that with the Springs currently undergoing a number of long-delayed infrastructure improvements, and also the recipient of a major County grant aimed at improving a number of amenities in the Springs, this is a good time to introduce the concepts of placemaking.

Snyder is not alone.

“A lot of good things are happening in the Springs, and the recent work on lighting and sidewalks along Highway 12 is just the beginning,” says Rich Lee, president of the Sonoma Springs Alliance. It was he who invited Snyder to make her presentation to the Alliance. “Based on what Ruthie presented at last month’s meeting,” he says, “it appears there are definitely elements of the placemaking philosophy that could become very useful in the future.”

Another proponent of placemaking, as a potential guiding philosophy within the Springs, is Supervisor Susan Gorin.

“I think it’s a very exciting concept,” Gorin says, 1st District supervisor. “I’ve have been interested in it for a while, but I have yet to see it implemented successfully or thoroughly in Sonoma County. That said, I think the Springs is a great location to try to build in a concept like this as a tool for community participation. The Springs is a community – more than one community, actually – that have in common that they are actively trying to reinvent themselves.”

How, exactly, the concepts of placemaking will be brought to that reinvention process is still to be determined, but Snyder is confident that, with the community’s increased participation in its own future, positive changes are right around the corner.

Says Snyder: “More than anything else, placemaking is about finding ways to allow everyone in the community to have a voice in how their public spaces are used. And then acting together to make those spaces as wonderful and attractive and useable as possible.”

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