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“Placemaking is Profoundly Personal”by Tim Miner on January 16, 2020
Placemaking and equitable development are at the top of many Charlotte minds right now. How do we ensure that everyone has the space and opportunity to succeed, that they are heard and seen and that places of deep-rooted significance are addressed with dignity, honor and care as we grow?
These are vital questions to ask as we plot the future of Charlotte in a post-Opportunity Task Force Report world. We all know we need to do something to ensure everyone in Charlotte has opportunities, that smart development and gentrification are addressed properly and that a bright future for the Queen City illuminates all and not just some.
But, how to do that? No one knows for sure, but we do know that it’s a path that will take time, mindfulness, intention and a willingness to sit with discomfort and looking at some ugly truths.
“Every time I show up, I’m going to make you uncomfortable.”
That idea was front and center when Jay Pitter, an award-winning placemaker who leads processes around the world focused on the equitable design, programming and policy of public spaces, visited Charlotte to share her experience and perspective at “Building A Charlotte for All” at UNC-Charlotte Uptown on Jan. 11. This event was part of a multi-year community engagement series presented by Charlotte Center City Partners and the City of Charlotte. The series is supported by the Knight Foundation.
Sitting in the audience, I was at times energized, enraged and ashamed during Pitter’s 90-minute talk. It was an informative– and, often, brutally honest — talk.
As Pitter said, “Every time I show up, I’m going to make you uncomfortable.”
Who is Jay Pitter?
I confess that before I walked into the room, I had not heard of Jay Pitter. But, she had my attention immediately.
I was planning to write up her credentials for this piece, but Jonell Logan of the League of Creative Interventionists, delivered an introduction on the day of the event that Pitter said was one of the kindest she’d ever received. Here’s what Jonell said:
Jay Pitter, MES, is an award-winning placemaker and author whose practice mitigates growing divides in urban centers across North America. Recently, Jay consulted on Edmonton’s heritage plan; co-developed the City of Toronto’s new shelter design guidelines, delivered a professional development process at UN Women headquarters in New York City; and led (RE)IMAGINING CHEAPSIDE, a Confederate monument placemaking process in Lexington, Kentucky.
She is currently teaching an inclusive placemaking and planning course at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture and has been named the John Bousfield Distinguished Visitor in Planning by the University of Toronto for the 2019-2020 academic year. In the upcoming months, Jay’s HER City project will engage women in public space audits and play. Her forthcoming book, Where We Live, will be published by McClelland & Stewart in 2020.
Some of The Good Stuff
There were 200 Queen City leaders, business owners, engaged citizens and stakeholders in the audience. While Pitter was speaking, she enjoyed dead silence punctuated by moments of applause or audible reactions to her candor.
Here are some of her remarks I found particularly powerful. Each one below has kept me thinking about the work ahead in Charlotte and the right way to go about placemaking here:
- “Although placemaking happens in the public realm, it is profoundly personal. It is personal when you are talking about changing people’s neighborhoods, shaping their public parks and their squares — rebranding where they live.”
- “We need to witness the past and we also need to have the capacity to witness each other …”
- [Speaking on a session in Detroit with 25 Black women] “That is very important, as well. To support all the people who do this work [of placemaking] but to recognize that there are some of us who take additional risks … who show up the meeting and understand that if we say something there may not be another meeting for us.”
- [About telling people your are going to “empower” them.] “Do not go into neighborhoods intending to empower people. People are inherently powerful. They do not need your power.”
- [On the role of community leaders in placemaking.] “What you are doing is you are sharing space, information and — best of all — financial resources so that they can reimagine their community. And, you are walking alongside of them as a servant leader.”
- “If placemaking is done properly, we simply are building strength to strength. You’re not solving problems because people and the places that they live are not problems to be solved.”
- “Every time I show up, I’m going to make you uncomfortable.”
- “It is our job as leaders to hold that discomfort and also to create space to invite it.”
- [About the importance of placemaking to create spaces to invite all kinds of people and behaviors] “I see this happen over and over again that we don’t say it out loud, but we think that fancy building should only be inhabited by people with fancy behavior.”
- “Beautiful things will not cover up ugly history.”