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Leading with place: Ethan Kent ‘98 promotes people-centered placemaking movement

February 17, 2023

Students and community members filed into Kresge Auditorium Tuesday night to learn about a campaign for better and more people-centered public spaces: the placemaking movement. Executive Director of PlacemakingX Ethan Kent ’98 delivered a lecture on this campaign entitled “Reconnecting People Through Places: Bridging Our Divides Through Public Spaces and Placemaking.”

PlacemakingX describes itself as an international group of leaders working to create inclusive and positive communities through urban planning.

Kent contextualized placemaking as a way of reimagining shared spaces to be organized around people. He noted that the placemaking process is inherently interdisciplinary, integrating factors from food access to healthcare in order to improve the quality of human life.

“[Placemaking] is a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value,” Kent said. “Places can really change patterns and culture.”

According to Kent, PlacemakingX follows the tradition of the placemaking movement that emerged around activists like Jane Jacobs and William Whyte. These early placemakers rose to prominence in response to the aggressive urban renewal policies encouraged by the federal government and embraced by American cities in the mid-twentieth century.

Despite progress, Kent explained that urban spaces still have a long way to go. He identified instances in which emphasis on design and architecture impedes people’s ability to interact with their surroundings, reminding his audience that beautiful spaces and effective placemaking can be diametrically opposed.

Kent’s activism for placemaking has taken him across the world, including to Portland, Maine, where he aided the campaign against the redevelopment of Congress Square Park in 2013. Then a representative for the Project for Public Spaces, Kent advocated for a community-based vision for the park’s future. The city later abandoned the redevelopment in favor of a plan preserving the park.

Kent emphasized placemaking’s importance not only in cities, but also in towns and on college campuses. Kent described working with the Town of Brunswick as it developed a master plan in 2011, working to maintain streets like Maine Street as “destination streets.”

Kent’s talk was sponsored by the Department of Urban Studies in honor of the 2020 debut of the urban studies minor. The McKeen Center for the Common Good, the Department of Environmental Studies and the Department of Sociology collaborated with urban studies to bring Kent to Brunswick.

Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies Jill Pearlman, who serves as part of the College’s urban studies faculty, said that an event to celebrate the minor’s launch had been in the works since 2020 and was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Assistant Professor of Sociology Theo Greene, who is also part of the urban studies faculty, said that the sentiments behind the placemaking movement discussed in Kent’s lecture reflects the College’s approach to urban studies.

“[The] urban studies minor is really thinking about people’s relationships to a variety of different structures not only in terms of cities but also in terms of the places that people occupy,” Greene said.

Pearlman said that she hopes Kent’s lecture inspired the audience to think more critically about their relationship with place and the importance of public places.

“[We] do need public places,” she said. “Maybe now more than ever, with technology that makes it so it’s all about us and our individual experiences.”

Audience member Thetis Fourli ’26 drew parallels between Kent’s lecture and the ways in which Bowdoin students transform public spaces into places, giving them character and creating social norms.

“In the first floor of [Hawthorne-Longfellow Library], people who are social and want to talk will prefer that as a place for them,” Fourli said. “The Hubbard Stacks are relevant to a different group.”

Greene was similarly struck by placemaking’s relevance to campus, particularly regarding how the College has dealt with the Covid pandemic. He noted that students had to create a sense of place despite changes to the spaces they were using and that their ability to do so indicates a broader message about people being at the center of successful placemaking.

“[The] global placemaking movements are really about people and about the ability for people to create places out of spaces that are meaningful and useful to them,” Greene said. “Bowdoin is the people that make the place special.”


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