Ethan Kent of Project for Public Spaces

We didn’t create public spaces we love because we are rich. We became rich because we created these places.

Ethan Kent is the Senior Vice President at Project for Public Spaces. Today he talks about his life with a family of four in a 900 sq ft apartment, as well as his work to make public spaces across the world better. 

Discussed in this podcast:

If you're interested in getting more involved with Project for Public Spaces, check out Placemaking Week, Sep. 12-18, 2016.

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Ethan Kent, photo from Project for Public Spaces

Ethan Kent, photo from Project for Public Spaces

(Top photo of a family dinner at the Kents' apartment in Brooklyn)


Chuck:            Hey, everybody. This is Chuck Marohn. Welcome back to the Strong Towns podcast. This week is Strong Citizens Week. We are focusing on people and ways that people can make a choice to live in a Strong Towns way. I've got on the phone with me a good friend of mine, Ethan Kent. Ethan's a senior vice president at the Project for Public Spaces. He's chatting with me from their offices in New York.


            Welcome to the podcast, Ethan.


Ethan:            Thanks so much, Chuck.


Chuck:            Hey, I love chatting with you. Last week, on Facebook, I actually posted a quote from an economist named Tamas Sedlecheck, and he said something along the lines of, we're not going to be any happier living in 4400 square foot houses than we were in 2200 square foot houses. It was amazing to me, because to me, it was a commentary on consumption, yet there was a whole bunch of people in my Facebook feed who responded, well, I live in a house this big and a house this big, and you were one of them who said, I think you have a 1000 square foot apartment, is that right?


Ethan:            Yes, maybe less than that. It's ten feet wide, and three stories, and has a stairwell down the middle, so it's 30 feet long. Depending how you count it, it's 800 or 900 square feet in Brooklyn.


Chuck:            Here is the crazy thing about yours. I didn't know the personal stories of a lot of those other people, but you've got kids. I'm a father. I've got two daughters. They spread out throughout the entire house and have taken everything over. I got to thinking, how in the world does Ethan do that with children?


Ethan:            There is four of us in the house. It's hard, especially in the winter, it's tight. They're two, very rambunctious, energetic boys, and if they get bored, they pick a fight with each other. The challenge is to get out of the house. We're lucky that the neighborhood has a lot of great public spaces and a whole range of them. They have good shops and retail and restaurants that we can go in to when it's cold as well.


Chuck:            I realize this is where you're from. This is your neighborhood.


Ethan:            Yeah.


Chuck:            Was there a decision involved here? Did you look at other options and opt for this? What was the discernment process you made to go through and say, we're going to have two kids in a small apartment and make that work.


Ethan:            I grew up in actually, Manhattan. In a way, this is sort of normal. We've been lucky to get to visit grandparents and such out of the city to be able to escape, somewhat. The neighborhood is such a neighborhood that's rich in public spaces and community life and we see it as going together. There's an event to do in the neighborhood, and the fact that a lot of people live in small houses means that a lot of people are spending more time outside on the street. Most of the buildings are three or four stories tall, but the street life is very strong. It's very likely that you're going to bump into somebody you know on the sidewalks. Going out is often a very social experience.


Chuck:            What do you think you give up, if anything, from this? I contrast that with, what do you think you gain? Obviously, very involved in your kids' lives. What are some of the positives and some of the downsides of that choice?


Ethan:            Some of the positives, we have a very low heating bill. I think we have more opportunities for food and retail and services for children within a walkable distance of our neighborhood because people are living in small apartments and it's a fairly affluent neighborhood as well. The downsides, we're on top of each other and we don't have our own space. It forces us and encourages us all to travel and that's a big part of our lives as well is seeing other places and traveling for work and combining that with pleasure as well, too. It goes with our lifestyle in that regard.


Chuck:            How would you respond to people who say, this just sounds impossible. What would you say to someone who said that?


Ethan:            It's fun to have to be efficient. I've always liked the idea of living on a boat. Everything has it's place, and everything has to be kept in order a little more than you would otherwise. Certainly, we don't need as much stuff, too. We don't need as much furniture. We can't have as many things to fill up a space so we have to be more resourceful and frugal in some ways. You adapt to the space you're given, and I think it's actually very spacious most days. We get used to our environment, I think.


Chuck:            I want to ask you a little bit about your work with the Project for Public Spaces. One of the things that I think is so compelling about the work that you do, in terms of strong citizens, is that you've in a way, I don't want to say attacked the professional monopoly, but really what you've done is you've spread out the empowerment for building places beyond just people who have a certain degree or a certain license or a certain job designation. Can you talk a little bit about that work and why the strong citizen aspect of it is such an important part?


Ethan:            Certainly. I love your idea of strong citizens and it's an inspiring concept and phrase. Our work really has been to sort of democratize the shaping of public spaces and cities to make planning accessible to everyone. We've really started to put in the [inaudible 00:06:17] the work of a man by the name if William Hollingswroth White. He was actually an editor for J and Jacobs, they got her to write the death and life of the American cities. He wrote in a way to sort of demystify a lot of planning issues and wrote in a way that people started to feel like they were experts in how cities work and sort of ramp people onto being interested in these issues and the issues of cities that have been sort of seated to experts and so forth. Our work is to take this idea and sort of really look at how to develop this concept of what we call place making, or, how can we really empower, challenge, inform people to be able to shape their environments? To be able to be constructive participants in their environments.


            The challenge we've seen is that our environments really reflect the fact that they've been shaped by a limited group of people, often for a limited set of outcomes defined by different professions. You've articulated this, as well as anybody around [inaudible 00:07:16] shaped our streets and road systems. We think that we need more professions, we need more creative professions, but we really turn upside down the process and start with communities defining places and drawing on the different disciplines to then support their efforts in doing that. We've developed many tools and processes to create a very constructive process for engaging communities but also to really build a local capacity of communities to do this themselves, to create new civic infrastructure and place governance structures. In a way, it's very much common sense. They're really how great cities, great neighborhoods, great towns were formed in the first place. These are the systems we've degraded.


Chuck:            When I've talked to different neighborhood groups, people who want to make changes in their communities, you walk around and you look at things, and you start talking to them, and one of the reactions I often get is, well, we can't do that. I'd have to go to city hall, I'd have to go get the engineers approval, and they won't do that. How much of this is stuff that we've kind of artificially erected that keeps people from doing things like you say, a few generations ago, would've been very normal for an average citizen to be engaged with.


Ethan:            The perception in some ways, the reality of shaping of cities has shifted towards big projects, big design, sort of expert realm of cities. What we find, what makes cities really work, what makes public spaces really work, are the experiences at the human scale, and the one's that actually citizens can shape. If we really turn upside down the shaping of cities to start with these places, we can have a big impact in a short time, with low costs but also a better set up the role of the expert and create larger systems of transportation, of buildings, of infrastructure that work better as well.


Chuck:            What do you think the role of the expert is, Ethan?


Ethan:            The role of the expert, ultimately, has to be to build the capacity of communities to work well themselves, to develop their own, save their own future. We're not trained, everyone is not really trained in the school to be good facilitators, to inspire people, to inform people, we're trained to have a solution and to push it through. We're trained to come up with an idea individually, and sort of use a verified language to sell that idea. Collaboration, building capacity, building networks for change, these are not the goals of [inaudible 00:09:58] professional educations. In fact, these are roles that can create more influence and more demand for professionals and the solutions that they're often rightfully helping to push.


Chuck:            Obviously, I'm a civil engineer, I'm a [inaudible 00:10:15] planter, we're often leading the solution as opposed to listening and finding the solution. I read all the marketing brochures from all the engineering companies that say we listen to you, and we do what you want, but it doesn't really tend to work that way here in the United States. How hard is it? Maybe I'm looking for places that have successfully done this too, to flip that equation around and say, okay, as an engineer, I'm going to, in a sense, observe you, the citizens of this city, or follow your lead and then work from there. Is that just too radical of a model for us?


Ethan:            It's not what professions are trained to do. Interestingly, some of the most progressive wings of these professions in engineering, landscape, architecture, design professions are actually doing it better than others, but they're often the ones that are most blocking this sort of shift. The framework, I think about this and there's this idea that most shaping of the built environment is very project led or discipline led, but the progressive wings of disciplines are doing what we call place sensitive design. They're getting some input, they're responding to culture context, environment, they're making more aesthetic and interesting and human scale and so forth. But they're sometimes blocking the development of capacity and local autonomy and self direction. Where we're trying to get is to where we're calling to the place led, where the communities are defining their vision for themselves, their story, their culture, their identity, and attracting investment design new people on their terms.


            We think public spaces are a means to which we can have constructive engagement, and have constructive, creative, immediate change as well. It's not that communities can design, should be doing all the design or doing any design themselves, necessarily, it's that they can talk about what do they want to do in their public spaces, how do they use them, how can they make them work better themselves, and then when you lead with public spaces in the program for these spaces, in what we call sort of layer quick or two bird short term low cost changes to them, that's a form of engagement, it's a form of building momentum right away. It's a form of planning, essentially. As Jason Roberts talks about, it's cheaper to do from better blocks, it's cheaper to do that kind of planning then to do renderings in some cases. These, leading with the public spaces, then attracts investment, development, and design to support that. Too often, the shaping of cities has been led with the different disciplines, or the different development with design, with aesthetics, with a narrow set of goals, not with creating places for people.


Chuck:            How does lighter, quicker, cheaper, and maybe you should take a moment to explain that a little bit too, but how does that really rely on strong citizens and the feedback of people in order to be successful?


Ethan:            I think some of the professions, perhaps, have perpetuated this myth that shaping cities is about heavier, more expensive, slower. Which, in a way, consciously or not, that's how communities have been alienated from the shaping of cities. It's the perception that it's hard to shape cities, that experts have arrived at these things and they must be right. Lighter, quicker, cheaper, in essence, is again, turning it upside down and saying, you know what, actually, everyone can help shape their public realm. The concept of experimenting in short term changes really frees people up to learn to make mistakes, to see the public realm as flexible and something we do have a responsibility for. We can't just feed to others. Experimenting is, we've been talking about the sort of key principles of place making for over 20 years now, and short term experiments has always been one of the key ideas there. For all those years, we've gotten a lot of ... We've done repainting of intersections and gotten pilot projects in New York well before [inaudible 00:14:37] or others came along. It's an idea that's been around for quite a while, and it's really exciting how it's gotten a lot of momentum under many different names in recent years.


            Our interest is to make sure people see this is not just a bunch of cute, short term changes, but part of a larger shift, a paradigm shift in how we shape cities. How does this shift governance and financing and the process through which our cities are shaped? How do we make sure it's not an end in itself, but obviously part of a longer term process that can often lead to more permanent, more design spaces? Although, that's often not always necessary, too. Sometimes keeping it low cost, informal, and evolving is the way to go.


Chuck:            Right in front of my office here, they're actually right now in the process of redoing the roadway. In fact, the road closes next week for about a month and they're going to rip the whole thing up and redo it, move curbs, the whole deal. I kind of assumed, and I shouldn't have, because there's a long track record here of bad performance. I kind of assumed, because it was so obvious, that this new design would actually include some pedestrian facilities. The side of this road has all the goat paths, where people walk back and forth. You don't have to sit here and watch long, and you see this stream of people going back and forth from a neighborhood to the south, to the commercial area in the north. Yet, I now got ahold of the plans, and they're actually putting the exact same thing back in with not only not the just minimum. I mean, I actually thought they'd put in some trees and some shade and some other things, but they're not even putting the minimum stuff in. How much of a lost opportunity do we, as design professionals, have when we don't just observe people? Is that not the first step is just observing what's going on?


Ethan:            Absolutely. One of the key ideas that our work route of, is the worker William White, that people actually reveal more by what they do than what they say, even.


Chuck:            Oh, I'm sure that there was public hearings on this where they brought people in. I'm sure that the guy with the concrete factory itself in town said make sure this is wide and has sweeping curbs so I can get my big trucks through there. The people walking up and down the streets didn't show up to that meeting, right?


Ethan:            Right. We think we really need to reframe the conversation. We've been using this phrase, streets as places, to get people to take a step back and say, well what are the greatest outcomes that this space can achieve? Yeah, it can move people through, but can it also be a destination unto itself, and can it support health? Can it get kids to learn to cross the street? Can it be a place where people meet each other and connect and preserve and create their local identity and culture? Those conversations, when they're allowed to happen, people often come to very different conclusions on their own terms. It can lead to different design outcomes, but it also ... Design of the street isn't everything either. Some of the same designed streets have different speeds based on the amount of social capital on the streets, some studies have shown. The process through which you create these streets can build that social capital, can build the connections, can get people living in the fronts of their homes more, and get people using the sidewalk differently, in ways that may actually slow traffic, it may start to inform a different street design that may get people more comfortable with parking a few blocks away because they like walking down these streets again, and they see the whole area as a destination or a district. That kind of thing.


            Leading with place, we think is the way to reframe the conversation for a more constructive dialogue and discourse, but also we're looking at streets as a series of destinations that is the ultimate goal. The goal for transportation planning isn't just to move people around, it's actually to get people to places they want to be. Therefore, we should really start transportation planning by creating places and destinations.


Chuck:            You guys work internationally a lot. I see you traveling all over the world. I want to ask an open question and let you go with it where you will. Americans, we're a very affluent country, and I've kind of been critical of the fact that it seems like we've used that affluence, often, to kind of shop out our responsibility for our places. I'm interested, around the world, in places that maybe are not as affluent as we are, if there's a different social approach or a different social expectation amongst people? Or, if people are all the same wherever they go, in this regard? What's your take on strong citizens around the world, and the way that they are embraced or not in building great places?


Ethan:            We're lucky, we have gotten to work in really most kinds of contexts all over the world, from Plumsa, Nairobi to Harvard's campus. I've gotten to work in most of the habitable continents, or all of them really. It's amazing how every part of the world is leading in someway, it's holding back in others. It's really at the scale of, this is the main street or the district, that cities fail and succeed. It's at that scale that citizens are best engaged and when citizens are feeling a sense of attachment to or connection to their places, is when they're most likely to be contributing and participating in a constructive way and this sort of lovability of the place that we think is overlooked.


            Too often, we're looking at sort of the livability, which is a goal. We need livability, but livability correlates very strongly with costs, with affordability. We think when we lead with loveability, you can actually achieve lovability and a lot of other outcomes to invest more affordably. Indeed, maybe the poorest parts of the world do achieve this through place attachment, through creating places that people love and care about. I love actually, your phrase you wrote somewhere, that we didn't create places we love in our great public spaces, because we are rich. We became rich because we created these places. I think that is a simple, powerful idea, that is really the core of what we want to get people to understand around the world. Unfortunately, I think people around the world are copying the many of the mistakes that we've made, or perceptions, at least, in the US, that we lead with development and sort of trendy, new ideas around design and aesthetics and infrastructure, not around places and people.


            Yet, if you look at those great main streets, the towns in America that are strong, that really do represent sort of the core of American culture, and civic infrastructure, and strong citizens, that is a model and a scale at which does need to be replicated around the world. You and I, last time we were together, we were at the White House, with the Rural Placemaking Summit, talking about these issues and how the scale of American main street and how when we're working with international main streets that are too advanced place making in their 1600+ communities because of this idea. It's at that scale that American culture has been created and preserved and the strong local economy are created and preserved, and your work is more important than anyone's, I think, around supporting and advancing that. That's cool.


Chuck:            It really feels to me, and I want your opinion on this too, it really feels to me like when we're talking about communities that are labeled disadvantaged or that have issues of poverty or concentrations of poverty, that the strong citizen, with the place making approach, is really not only empowering on a personal level, but is one of, I think, the key strategies to getting these places back and making them function again for everybody, and kind of sharing a broad level of prosperity. Tell me your impression on that? I feel like it is the answer. I don't want to be too narrowly focused, but I really, passionately believe that.


Ethan:            I couldn't agree more. I think there's this false perception that strong citizens get in the way of change.


Chuck:            Right.


Ethan:            In the current paradigm of shaping cities, they actually do. The only way that citizens are allowed to be strong is to oppose something, is to stand up and stop. The people that do show up to meetings are the ones that say don't do it. They're given the public input dynamic, or that where disciplines come up with a solution and show it to them. That's disempowering, and it does creates strains that allows people to be negative because that's the only way they can participate. I think the future of the cities that are going to succeed the most, the towns that are going to succeed the most are the ones that allow communities to shape them, not just consume them. We've gone through this era where the world is something to be consumed, and it's all developers are selling the live, work, play experience. The experiences are down town and the brands of cities and such, so forth.


            In some ways that stuff, we do need all of that, but that has a limited capacity and [inaudible 00:24:32] that capacity of strong citizens. I think cities like Detroit and some of the more affordable Midwestern cities are the model that they're starting to thrive with, is this idea that people who have lived there forever, people that are moving there now, can help shape them, can help create them, can be strong citizens in them. In these places, this is where creative culture is going to emerge and the culture of strong, local economies is going to be preserved as well. The biggest prices on earth is our capacity to work together to create change. It's not that we don't have the right solutions or understand the right problems, it's that we're not focused on our collective capacity, our networks, our ability to inspire and educate each other and facility change. That is most embodied in the passive, isolation of citizens, the disconnection of citizens.


            At the same time, it's not that hard to overcome. It's a common sense, it's how we want to participate with each other. It's how the great places that we love in this world, on every scale, have been created through people loving them and competing to contribute to the shared value of these places through working together. I think a lot of the innovation that's needed in the world right now is innovation, collective governance around place and the processes and the structures around which we collaborate to draw out this capacity of everyone to work together in saving their public realm first. This is an exciting time for this conversation.


Chuck:            You've been extremely kind to me and to strong towns. I've said this to you before, and I'll say it here, I think Project for Public Spaces, I think you, your father, the whole team that is assembled there, I think you guys are doing the most important work in the country. I want to thank you for that, because it is very inspiring.


Ethan:            That's nice of you to say, Chuck. Again, I think it's a network of us that is needed to figure this out and just the way citizens are sort of isolated. I think a lot of times our, even non profits, they're doing similar stuff and offering different pieces of the civic infrastructure. Sometimes that's connected. It's figuring out ways that we can all work together in creating networks of our individual networks that is key. I think no one is saying more powerfully and succinctly than you, and often [inaudible 00:27:02] digging, connecting different networks, the way you are. It's a really valuable role and coming from the context of which you're starting this conversation that's particularly important and valuable to the larger national and global conversation. I think things are changing quickly. You're a key part of it. That actually allows me to give a quick plug to this placemaking week that we're very excited to have you a part of, in Vancouver BC, in the middle of September.


Chuck:            I was going to bring that up. Is that the next time our calendars are scheduled to intersect?


Ethan:            Yeah.


Chuck:            That seems like a long ways away. We should get together quicker than that. Yeah, we're going to be in Vancouver, which I'm super excited about. Why don't you talk just briefly about that.


Ethan:            About 40 years ago, there was a conference called Habitat One, for those of you who know Enrique Penulosa, and Gill Penulosa, it was there father helped started. It helped launch what is now known as UN Habitat. A lot of the sort of urbanest movements, as they learn more and more about it, a lot of the thinking that we're just talking about today was very strong then. It somehow disappeared. 40 years later, the UN gets together, actually every 20 years. They're getting together for Habitat Three in Keto in October. The goal of this Vancouver conference is to coalesce all the people we've met and their networks in Vancouver to talk about how do we create place led cities? How do we slow down the shaping of cities to start with people and places? It's an amazing group of thinkers and leaders and it's an open conference. It's actually a series of conferences. It will build off of the first event as pro walk, pro bike, pro place, which is really the sort of the biking and walking advocates that we see as the foundation and the leading edge of a lot of this movement.


            There's something called the Future of Places, which is one we've led with you and Habitat for several years. It's included people from 100 countries, 1400 people, top public space placemaking experts from around the world that have helped to really build the case for public spaces central to what's being all the new urban agenda to be set at Habitat Three. Finally, it's going to end with the place making leadership forum which will help to set in a series of strategies and goals to really engage the sort of multi sector, all levels of leadership to sort of develop models for how we can all work together best to shape our communities. is the website. We're excited to involve Strong Towns in a big way and your networks in any way you're interested in, really.


Chuck:            We'll be linking to that on our website. If you go to and click on events, you'll get all the information. Ethan, my gosh, it's nice to hear you and nice to chat with you. Thanks so much for taking the time.


Ethan:            Thank you so much, Chuck. Any time. We appreciate it.


Chuck:            All right.


Ethan:            Good to talk to you.


Chuck:            You take care.


Ethan:            Take care, Chuck.


Chuck:            Bye bye.


Ethan:            Bye.