Accidental Meeting Place: The Value of Placemaking
Ever had a moment where a chance encounter led to a new experience? Even if it was just for a few hours? Maybe talking out loud about finding a place to eat, a stranger points out a local gem that turned out to be the highlight of the trip? How about talking about something in a public setting you were interested in, and a chance encounter opens an opportunity you had no connection with before? Great space design, or often referred to as Place Making is meant to create these connections. In 2016 while touring downtown Sacramento, CA to learn how that community transformed the area around its Capitol into a vibrant district, they referred to it as designed to “create collisions.” The collisions being people having to slow down and interact with each other on the Street. The CityCraft® foundation, a group I met through the University of Denver calls this design idea the value of Accidental Meeting Place.
Understanding the importance of creating places these chance encounters can foster the conversations of what human habitat design should be. This is a core tenet of how a walkable community should work, the end result being a better experience for the people that live there. As we continue to evolve the communities humanity lives within, focusing on places that foster interactions between people and groups who wouldn’t necessarily interact based on their jobs or personal interests is essential to creating stronger connections in our local regions. It’s easy in social media to be connected with groups and news feeds that cater to each of our biases in thoughts and values. The ease of electronic connection to like mindedness (confirmation bias) limits the broadness of ideas we are exposed to. As humanity connects around the world, the interactions that strengthen places we live diminish. Connection through art, food, and local cultural events allow for the “accidental meetings” to materialize.
My personal goal is to be someone who creates connections for others. To continually build a network around me people can connect with to further their dreams and create opportunities. In the book, The Ultimate Question 2.0 the idea of networks is discussed in the context of business growth and influence. The idea of networking in creating opportunity cannot be understated. Networks work best when there are many connections that continue to add to themselves. The more connections, the more resiliency in the network. The connections allow, if local conditions change rapidly, a quick adaption to continue strong community growth.
Parades, festivals, community groups, and art installations are all tools to create the connection with the local culture. These social tools evolved with humans to allow us to build empathy with each other to help foster social trust. Trust being a form of social capital vital for groups of individuals to come together and allow for the survival of humans as a species. Design of space is a key component of what types of interactions are going to occur. When we design for interaction and walkability, communities and therefore people thrive.
While the term is Accidental Meeting Place, in no way is the intention of design anyway accidental, in fact it is quite the opposite. The ideas of brutalist design, intended to discourage homeless lingering destroys the opportunity for everyone to enjoy public locations. Downtown green parks become drive by scenery that eventually become slashed budget items because “no one is using the space.” The cycle of surface parking additions slowly erodes the business and housing synergy that once created vibrant downtown and neighborhood districts. Yet, many talk about wanting to go back to the golden age of these communities without realizing the zoning and push for parking everywhere is what is holding it back. It’s easy to point at a drastic conditional change effecting the daily life of people, like when a neighborhood is bulldozed. It is hard to reverse the slow creep of degradation when trying to balance use groups, parking, and safety as the primary measures of design.
My company’s focus forms around the vision of; Communities that inspire growth and encourage belonging. This mean network connections need to be continually strengthened and new ones formed in perpetuity for a community to thrive for generations. Understanding the importance of these connections becomes the foundation for design of how the physical buildings, sidewalks and roads foster the interactions it takes to create meaningful connections. The design of streets and greenways surrounding human habitat can enhance the culture of a community, or it can destroy the exchanges within these local communities. Design for moving cars causes the culture of the neighborhood to wither away. Community dies close to wide roads as the connections that held them together slowly fade away.
Many design professionals around the world are beginning to make the design for connecting people the primary focus. Some good resources are www.Gehlpeople.com and www.pps.org. There are countless other local organizations, many in your home community working on the farmers markets, art installations, building gathering spaces, and helping create business opportunities in local neighborhoods. There is a “one thing”, a secret ingredient that all great places have in common. That secret is you. It is you making the connection and finding ways to help create the connections within a place. The you, is why some places that have terrible design still find a way to thrive. The human connection is stronger than the flawed design it operates within. The next time you are out in a public spac
e, think about how you can help create an accidental meeting for someone else. If you are a community leader, how can the spaces you represent be used to foster strong connections? The more connections that occur, the more vibrant the spaces humanity calls home will be.