Lessons Learned at Chattanooga’s International Placemaking Week

By: Maura Dwyer

During the first week in October, I had the incredible opportunity to head to Chattanooga for the third annual International Placemaking Conference, hosted by Project for Public Spaces .

According to our host, Placemaking is defined as a practice that:

Inspires people to collectively re-imagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.

Keeping in mind the “cultural and social identities” of a place, below I’ll highlight a few talks and best practices throughout the week that felt in line with NDC’s Place Matters Initiative, which approaches the design of a place by preserving history and cultural legacy.

  1. African American Placemakers in Action:
    It was a joy to be hosted by James McKissic, Vice President and COO, of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga and his partner Shane Morrow to two placemaking and cultural preservation efforts led by members of Chattanooga’s local African American community.
    Our first stop was Beck Knob Cemetery, Chattanooga’s oldest African American Cemetery. Since shortly after the Civil War,  Beck Knob has been a resting place for Black Civil War soldiers, community leaders, and some of Chattanooga’s first African American settlers.  Next we visited the Ancestral Roots Community Garden, in Menlo Park, to tour a garden created by the local arts and culture organization, RISE. This garden is designed and planted with the veggies, fruits, herbs, and flowers that would have been part of a traditional African American southern garden.
  1. Chattanooga’s Riverfront: Whose story is it to tell?

You can’t have reconciliation without truth-telling. A city can and should fund memorials, signage, tours, and other educational programming to share its painful past and inform future plans – but this in no way settles the score, or allows us to move past, or even fully forgive the ways our white supremacist history has stolen from past generations. The process of healing is deeply complex and ongoing.

  1. Civil War to Civil Rights: A Different Perspective on Chattanooga’s Historic Downtown

What and who is left out? What defines an equitable memorial or monument? One takeaway that’s staying with me is the incredible community-driven process the Ed Johnson Project has undergone to remember his story in detail. What has come out of that organizing is not just a sculpture, but a living memorial in the form of a thoroughly researched website, documentary, play, and tours. This is the kind of memorial that calls to placemaking.

  1. Placekeeping: Enriching Cultural Legacy in Baltimore’s Redeveloping Communities

Every piece of land has a history and a culture that’s tied to it. In a talk given by NDC’s Executive Director, Jennifer Goold, she celebrated The Duncan Street Miracle Garden in East Baltimore while expressing that we add Placekeeping to the Placemaking conversation.  As we engage community members, gather resources, and build excitement for new developments and programming in the name of placemaking, let’s remember that sometimes it’s best for existing identities to lead the narrative, and the best strategy for placemaking may be preservation.

 

  1. When Public Spaces are Unjust: Placemaking That Promotes Livability

If we are truly doing equitable placemaking, we can’t ignore the suffering of some to prioritize the entertainment and well-being of others. How do you create a place by the people, for the people, that is comfortable, inspired, and thriving, when the people who live there aren’t thriving? How do you expect to engage residents in a co-design process to make their public space more livable when they don’t have a private space to live in? This demands a deeper, longer approach with creative partnerships to tackle overlapping issues in the public realm, speaking to the interdisciplinary nature placemaking needs in order to be successful.

  1. Placemaking for Social Inclusion: Addressing Homelessness, Mental Health, and Addiction in Public Space

We can’t claim inclusive placemaking without including folks who are already doing the work. Solutions for inclusion shared at the conference ranged from increasing funding for social services staffing on location to “meet people where they are”, to more programming that would appeal to seniors, youth, single mothers, and families (homeless or not), to training local residents to work at the parks, and installing public restrooms, showers, and lockers on site that are routinely maintained. In a nutshell, to allocate more funding in the earlier stages of the project for social service partnerships, staffing, programming, and maintenance versus infrastructure.

  1. Processing Painful Histories: Approaches for Place-Based Healing

“Pretty things will never be enough to erase ugly histories. Make sure you are considering healing strategies that aren’t triggering, allow time for people really to consent, to take breaks, and to balance this process with life-giving activities so people still feel inspired to move forward.”

International Placemaker, Jay Pitter, spoke about using a myriad of tactics to reach divided communities that have different opinions on how to address a topic – from witnessing circles, to history walks, to casual dinners, to more formal interviews.

Overall, the conference was an energizing wake up call to face a different side of community development. I was pleased to see a balance of positive, future-focused talks like “Designing For the Next Generation of Placemakers” that centered youth in the city planning process, along with the more reflective talks listed. Thanks to Project for Public Spaces for creating a thoughtful, compassionate environment for us to explore solutions to making public space serve the people!