Public-space expert has vision for the Springs
“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.