Image courtesy Snøhetta
Urban Placemaking and Management program coordinator, David Burney, led The Times Square Reconstruction project.

Next autumn, Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute will inaugurate a unique Master of Science degree, one with a broad mandate to reimagine how designers look at public space. Called “Urban Placemaking and Management” (UPM), the four-semester, first-of-its-kind degree will fall within Pratt’s Programs for Sustainable Planning and Development (PSPD), an umbrella group that includes City and Regional Planning, Historic Preservation, and other established degrees.

Photo © Alex Weber
David Burney is the coordinator for the Pratt Institute's new Urban Placemaking and Management program.

So what exactly is “placemaking” and why build a program around it?

According to Stuart Pertz, who redesigned Pratt’s urban design program in 1984 and helped formulate the UPM curriculum, conventional urban design is a top-down mediation between planning and development, beneficently setting rules for urban growth. Urban placemaking, however, inverts that logic, explicitly taking the community as its client with bottom-up public advocacy by a design expert.

Pertz says the UPM degree will get students to “think in a way that’s not just ‘I have to build something’ but ‘I have to do something.’”

The program will incorporate long-existing schools of anthropology and urban geography that study how public space intersects with social issues such as gender bias, cultural exclusion, and public ownership. This means anything from a hospital room to refugee camp could be an area of study. Students will take a series of core courses, but can specialize with electives and take classes in other PSPD divisions, such as facilities management or sustainable environmental systems.

While the program’s scope sounds far-reaching, Pertz cites a diverse range of program applicants – from architects to public servants, from planners to politicians – who are seeking an academic framework for their current responsibilities. For example, one applicant is using public space to integrate Israeli and Arab communities in Jerusalem.

Some courses in the PSPD’s existing programs already have elements of placemaking, but the UPM coordinator David Burney cites the global competition of cities for quality of life as a prime driver behind the program. As NYC Commissioner for the Department of Design and Construction from 2004 to 2010, Burney saw culture, education, and, of course, public space, become critical to the city’s success. A principal and inescapable focus of the UPM program will be the challenge of forming quality public space in low-income areas.  Above all else, Burney, Pertz, and UPM faculty see the degree as a catalyst for acculturating a new approach to public space.

“It’s not just designing the place, but a continuum of facilities, infrastructure, and program that fulfills needs over time,” says Pertz. “That will be the job of the professionals coming out this program.”