Act Urban brought together leaders across several sectors working in innovative and successful ways to shape cities in to places that provide opportunity for all.
The conference aims to bring consensus to the term public life, identify tools and knowledge that will surface the value of public life, and empower a larger network of actors to champion public life in their home cities.
“Act Urban is a stage for attendees to share their expertise and engage with the passions of others. We hope interactive smaller group sessions will spark new connections for future collaboration.”
As populations in cities continue to grow, so do problems of socio-economic segregation and inequality in opportunities for upward mobility. Gehl Institute believes that by inviting people to spend more time in public and creating spaces that promote a sense of the shared we can address the urban challenges that cities face. Quality public space and robust public life are needed in order to bridge divides and promote economic integration.
Act Urban will convene 90 experts across many fields to experience what Philadelphia is doing to foster robust public life. Recently, Philadelphia Mayor Kenney announced a total potential investment of $500 million dollars to repair and improve parks, recreation centers, and libraries in neighborhoods across the city.”
Philadelphia’s investments in public infrastructure can potentially bring a sense of equity and shared citizenship to communities across the city.
- Begin building a shared definition of Public Life
- Identify the core values that can frame future work around Public Life
- Identify the existing and missing tools and metrics that will define the economic, social and cultural value created by robust Public Life
- Build an initial framework for getting Public Life on the agenda of cities and urban leaders
Fifty years ago, Jan Gehl pioneered the public space public life research methodology and it has since been applied in cities across the globe. In some places it spurred systems level change in the way the cities approach planning, design, and governance. We believe convening leaders from across the country will empower them to champion public life in their home cities- expanding the dissemination and implementation of the approach Jan and Gehl have been working with for decades.
Act Urban Format
Public Life- Everyone’s Business/ in conversation with Jan Gehl:
Jan Gehl will open the event with a lecture that reflects on the progress of public life as a driver for developing the public realm. A panel discussion of Philadelphia leaders will follow that highlights the state of public life in Philadelphia- historical and current influences, recent work that promotes robust public life, and its place in the national context.
Jeff Risom will lead a conversation with Catie Marron and Adam Gopnik about the role of public space in the larger context of community, culture, society- historically and currently. Catie Marron recently published the book City Squares which has been an exploration of 18 public squares and the role they place to the city in which they are located. Adam Gopnik is a long-time writer for the New Yorker who regularly comments on the built environment and society.
Pitch – Workshop – Share:
Instigators will facilitate workshops that dive into the topics and themes that they are most passionate about. Connect and debate with like-minded colleagues grappling with the same topics.
Groups will problem-solve and discuss solutions to selected topics that are relevant to the Public Life Movement.
Urban Life Labs
Groups will explore 15 sites and discuss Philly’s public spaces and programs with the designers, administrators and program managers.
Police Stations are the Public Realm???
When Act Urban convening participant Felicia Davis pitched the concept of a guerilla occupation of a local police station to explore Police Stations’ role as part of the public realm, it simultaneously appealed to my background as an urban activist and gave me pause given the current animosity heralded in news media between police and communities of color.
A small group of us hopped in an Uber and headed over to the Philadelphia Police Department: 3rd District headquarters and tentatively sauntered in the door. Within moments we were greeted by a tough looking cop who said, somewhat menacingly “Can I help you?” I was sure we would be immediately ushered out, but as Felicia explained the intent of our visit – that we were group of urbanists interested in public life and public space and role of the police station in the community – the scowl slowly disappeared from the officer’s face and was replaced with a genuine, hearty, wide-toothed smile.
We had the luck that day to encounter none other than ‘Ace’ Delgado, a beloved long time 3rd District Community Relations Officer. Ace gave us a tour of the station’s public facilities and took us behind the scenes to the crime tracking lab. Ace walked through what he does in his role doing community policing, from leading programs that target at-risk youth to providing nutritional information for young mothers and families.
Ace invited us to join him at an event in a nearby community center, a prayer for peace to be led by a local pastor. We accepted the invitation and met up with Ace after a short walk through Philadelphia’s Queen Village/Pennsport neighborhoods.
Ace hailed to us from across the street and introduced us to a local pastor who was preparing to lead an assembly of community residents in prayer. The group spontaneously formed a circle in the parking lot and one after another offered prayers for peace in advance of what is expected to be a hot summer of violence that affects this community. One woman remarked: “May the gang-bangers and drive-by’s drive on by this community and not bring their violence to this block, this neighborhood, this community”. Another man offered a song in prayer for neighborhood youth. After everyone in the circle who was moved to speak had said their piece, the pastor skillfully brought the circle to a close.
Act Urban participants with community members and the 3rd precinct- hand in hand
It was powerful moment for all of us Act Urban participants, a powerful moment of authentic public life made more remarkable for the fact that we were invited with open arms to be part of the circle. The impromptu police station and neighborhood tour completely upended my assumptions about what it means to be a Police who is connected and invested in community, and provided a direct experience of the powerful role that communities of faith continue to play in making strong and healthy neighborhoods.
Contributed by: John Bela, Gehl
Remember to Forget
Places to dream and the role of the urban wilds in civic life, a reflection on a tour to Bartram’s Garden
One of my Urban Life Labs took me to Bartram’s Garden, the oldest living botanical garden in the United States, founded in 1728 on what was then the outskirts of Philadelphia. It was enveloped by the industrial expansion of the city, and today finds itself at the center of a residential expansion into these formerly industrial areas. Many of the areas of this garden are overgrown and wild.
Cities are constructed out of nature after all, and we are human animals. But it’s easy to forget. Most cities’ defining features are tall buildings and bridges after all (except San Francisco’s Twin Peaks which are the highest and best thing ever, a symbol that nature rules).
It’s special to find a wild place and make it your own, even for a moment. We talk about human scaled places, but nothing is more human scaled than a log you climb over, or a small wave from a paddle boat on a pebbly river bank. Often times formal designs try to replicate these natural sensory experiences. Urban wilds, and the invitations for rest, reflection, and dreaming are also part of public life.
Bartram’s Garden has one of the Schuylkill River’s last remaining stretches of natural coastline. It’s there in large part because this area of the city was forgotten by development interests for years. The human in me says, “Thank God.” The urban planner in me says, “But how to plan for forgetting?”
Contribution by Anna Muessig
An Urban Designer’s Thoughts
Let’s nerd out on public space!” my walking companion Dyhana Quintanar Solares told me as we gazed at a man dressed as Moses standing in the middle of Dilworth Plaza fountain in Philadelphia, PA. I was all in! We then decided to take a self-arranged tour of Philadelphia’s downtown plazas.
We were two lost members of a tribe of designers, sociologists, planners, and advocates that love to study the way people use parks and plazas and advocate for more people friendly public spaces and transportation. We were brought to together in Philadelphia by Gehl Institute’s Act Urban Conference to kick start a movement to spread Jan Gehl’s teachings on public life.
I came to Act Urban hoping to meet people like Dhyana that shared my excitement for public life and to kick–off my fellowship at Gehl Institute to study ways to strengthen public life in at-risk neighborhoods in Washington, DC (the city I work for as a municipal urban designer).
What I didn’t expect was to meet people who’d reframe my own understanding of public life. The organizers at Gehl Institute had the insight to invite a broad spectrum of people from technology firms to the social justice movement. I’m still pondering the discussions I had with Julian Agyeman of Tufts University about how to create places and neighborhoods that celebrate difference and not just tolerate it, and Isis Ferguson of PlaceLab who spoke eloquently about cultural displacement and authenticity. I hope to write and study these topics further over the next few months as I work with Gehl Institute.
As I often find with conferences, the informal and after hours gatherings were some of the most fruitful in developing connections and stimulating conversations. A long walk through Center City Philadelphia after dinner with some new friends from San Francisco examining the public life of the streets at night was a highlight in this regard. We discussed both the brilliance and error of Edmund Bacon’s plans, the individual actions of business owners and performers to create place, and began imagining new possibilities for creating public life though the creation of shared streets on Philadelphia’s narrow streets and alleys. But I’d have to say the closing group lunch discussion was the most stimulating interactions of the three days. We hit many topics: what about gun violence in public space, what are the limits of tolerance in public space, how can we use data to correct stereotypes about homeless people and other undesired users of parks and plazas, and more.
As the conference was wrapping up, I said goodbyes to my fellow municipal urban designers Neil Hrushowy from San Francisco and Simon Pastucha from Los Angeles. “How can we take this to the next level” one of them asked. Now that we had been connected, we needed to advocate and lead in our small field of city designers. So, if you’re an urban designer who works for a city please reach out; we are organizing to change our cities to be places for people.
Contribution by Thor Nelson