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Jay Pitter - Place, Joy, and Justice: A Lecture on Urban Planning and Placemaking

May 21, 2022
Image of Jay Pitter: Placemaker, Author and Urban Planning Lecturer Image of Jay Pitter: Placemaker, Author and Urban Planning Lecturer

On Friday, September 10, 2021, Jay Pitter, an award-winning placemaker author, and urban planning lecturer, honored us with her presence in the Cornell’s Distinguished Speaker Series, an event organized by the Cornell Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP) and Baker Program in Real Estate. As a placemaker whose personal aspiration is to create inclusive cities, Ms. Pitter spoke about her firm’s practice portfolio and academic research related to discriminatory urban policies and laws, examining status-quo planning practices, while delving deeply into spatialized anti-Blackness.

Ms. Pitter initiated and led many notable public placemaking and urban design projects that specializes in public spaces design and policy, forgotten densities, equity, gender-responsive design, inclusive public engagement and healing fraught sites. She is the co-editor of City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity and will be publishing two upcoming books with McClelland and Stewart at Penguin Random House in 2022. She delivered keynote addresses for United Nations Women, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Ms. Pitter has also taught an inclusive placemaking and planning course at the University of Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture and is the former John Bousfield Distinguished Visitor in Planning at the University of Toronto.  She has shaped emotionally difficult but rewarding placemaking and development projects across numerous North American cities.

One project that caught the attention of the over 100 students that attended her lecture that day was (RE)Imagining Cheapside, a rehabilitation and redevelopment project located in Lexington, Kentucky. The local municipality and community foundation recruited Ms. Pitter’s practice to co-lead the rehabilitation of this former slave auction block and redevelopment of the adjacent historic courthouse. Together with her clients and local leaders, Ms. Pitter successfully designed and implemented a series of placemaking strategies including audits exploring spatialized anti-Blackness at various sites throughout the city, consulted on the integration of the site’s fraught cultural heritage in the newly designed tourist information center, led multiple community engagement sessions to facilitate healing across racial lines and made recommendations for equitable programming at the site. This work also included community cooking with residents, public lectures and over a dozen informal walks with various stakeholder groups.

Student and faculty in attendant had the opportunity to learn from five of Ms. Pitter’s 10 equity-based placemaking principles. The first principal Ms. Pitter highlighted was that “urban design is not neutral”. She further elaborated that “all urban design and development project either increase equity or dimmish equity”. Ms. Pitter explained that urban growth is fraught with histories of issues such as redlining and racists housing ordinances, inaccessible design, and gender biases. For example, she taught us that space is gendered and that the home, a space of child-rearing and nurturing is characterized as female and the city, a series of places and spaces characterized by economic opportunity, mobility and adventure is characterized as male. Also, these characterizations and the spaces themselves have predominantly been shaped by white, able-bodied men. For instance, public transportation wasn’t initially designed for women, which contributes to the lack of flexibility, accessibility and lack gender-responsive design approach that respond to women’s lives who are now largely represented in the workforce, while still holding the responsibility as the primary caregiver of children and elderly parents who need access to medical appointments, extracurricular events and other essential points of interest.

Ms Pitter highlighted that the starting point of embracing discomfort, within urban planning and development is by acknowledging all land use possession are connected by colonization of indigenous people and the marginalization of other racialized group which has left intergenerational scars.  To create more equitable public spaces, Ms. Pitter encouraged the audience to learn about painful and inequitable history of all the places where we live and work. She also pressed the importance of using a trauma informed placemaking approach that acknowledges pain during placemaking project, create more time and space for listening, and requires everyone to develop the capacity to be responsive to the uncomfortable truths. She stressed that practice of accountability and empathy will increase unity among various community groups to tribute to gradual healing of people who have experience place-based trauma and create a sense of belonging for all.

Another interesting principle that Ms. Pitter shared with us is that bodies are constantly regulated and perceived differently in spaces and places. For example, Black bodies, disabled bodies and womens’ bodies are often seen as inferior, threatening and/or vulnerable. Because of this, people with different identities have vastly different levels of power and experiences within the very same public space. Ms. Pitter also shared that this causes people to have different degrees of “healthy spatial entitlement” which leads to some people not taking up the same amount of space or not insisting on being provided with beautiful and safe spaces as other people with more social, racial, and economic power. Being aware of these dynamics is important for understanding how public spaces may not be democratic or safe spaces for everyone.

Lastly, Ms. Pitter talked about the fact that there are no safe spaces, only safe(r) space. She unpacked the dimensions of safety, which according to her research and practice experiences are: physical, psychological and historical. Again, she stressed that a space where one group or individual feels safe, or a sense of belonging may be extremely unsafe for another individual or group. She recommended that safety be examined through a more comprehensive framework in close collaboration with community members.  Ms. Pitter reminded that it will be difficult to fulfill a promise of a safe environment that meets all the community’s needs, nevertheless we should strive to assure a safer environment through public spaces environmental design.

Ms. Pitter’s lecture was powerful, informational, and enlightening. Many of her research ideas and sharing that day prompted students to ask new questions such as, how do we advocate to create inclusive and equitable developments within the real estate industry? We can also ask ourselves, as the future responsible developers, how do we design a site that not only increases economical value, but responses to and enhances the sense of belonging for the existing community? As a final takeaway, she urged everyone to stop empowering people as people are already powerful, even students and young professionals alike. She stressed that it is the responsibilities of this next generation to utilize that power to make sure develop and design place and spaces where communities can realize their power and potential. Her lecture was followed by roaring applause and an extensive question and answer session.

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