Placemaking expert and Senior Vice President of Project for Public Spaces, Cynthia Nikitin talks about her life, art, culture and improving lives. Text by Mira Soyza
Hailing from Baltimore County, Maryland, Cynthia Nikitin’s passion for culture and arts is deep rooted in the culturally rich suburb she grew up in. She found her calling at the tender age of 10, when her parents took her to downtown Baltimore to a fringe theatre festival. She recalls the streets were closed to traffic to make way for buskers, artists and food vendors. There were music and performances everywhere, the air was thick with euphoria and the streets were emanating joy—the sight blew her away.
That moment was the deciding point that changed the course of her life. “I remembered (much later mind you) saying to myself, ‘this is what I want to do when I grow up. I want to make these things happen!” It was also probably fated that three years later, her class was assigned to attend a cultural festival celebrating Baltimore City’s rich ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity, the Baltimore City Fair. “There, I experienced food, music and craft and costumes, and met people from dozens of different countries—it was awesome. That’s when I think I became an urbanist.”
In 1986, Nikitin managed the Zenith Gallery in Washington DC while pursuing a Master’s Degree in Arts Administration. Soon her love for the arts brought her to New York where she worked for a corporate public art consultant, Joyce Pomeroy Schwartz, who was working with some of the most wellknown public artists at that time. It was then she was introduced to the fascinating world of public space.
“Imagine, there were all these amazing, museum quality artists who had turned their hand to commissioned works in public space. That’s when I started to become more interested in the public space, and how the artwork impacted it, than on the aesthetic value of the artworks themselves. How did the art make the place work better for people? How did it impact people’s experience? Or did it?”[ihc-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”show” ihc_mb_who=”1,2,3,4,5″ ihc_mb_template=”1″ ] Steaming Ahead
While Nikitin was completing her Master’s Degree at New York University (NYU), she did a comparative analysis of the metro/ subway art programs across Europe and Russia as her thesis topic as she was very fascinated by art “underground”. The problem is these art programs were still in their fledgling stage in the US. Determined, the budding urbanist made her way to Europe to source the little research material there was, and to meet the practitioners, first-hand in hope of learning important precedents from the European programs—some of which had been around for nearly a century—to apply back home. She visited subways in London, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, Leningrad, Stockholm and stations newly reopened after 50 years in East Berlin.
Upon her return to New York in the summer of 1991, Nikitin paid a visit to a colleague friend who happened to be leaving her job at Project for Public Spaces (PPS) as the public art program director. Passionate and high-spirited, she convinced them to take her on as a consultant for several years before eventually getting absorbed as part of the team. Before long, she started on her first project, the NJ Transit’s Model Stations Program where they developed plans for redesigning and activating the public spaces around 5 train stations around the state of New Jersey.
“The most memorable moments were when I was at the station reopening ceremony and took “after” pictures of the finished project and saw these beautifully restored historic stations full of people, cafes, outdoor activities, and bicycle parking,” she reminisces. “I was very fortunate to have been able to continue to work on a dozen more transit facilities owned and operated by NJ Transit. Today, they are one of the nation’s most progressive public transit systems as far as I am concerned.”
Twenty-four years and numerous successful projects later, Nikitin is a strong advocate for ‘placemaking’ and has led numerous large-scale multi-sectoral projects in several countries. Going Public with Cynthia Nikitin APR: Could you share with us some of PPS’ projects in the developing countries? CN: More and more cities are reconsidering the value of the public realm in terms of the social, economic and health benefits they provide to communities.
Cities like Adelaide, New York, Houston, Detroit, Copenhagen and Mexico City are looking at public spaces as the key untapped resource for creating long term social and economic stability with ‘placemaking’ as the key strategy for engaging their citizens in collaborative partnerships to capture the shared value of the public realm. We’ve also completed a very successful project in Nairobi Kenya, where the City Council supported by UN-Habitat committed to creating 60 public spaces by 2017.
Urban public spaces is a defining strategic direction for Habitat III and will be the focus of UNHabitat’s work for the next 20 years and we hope to be working on public space and ‘placemaking’ in many countries across the global south over the next two decades. APR: What are the challenges in implementing ‘placemaking’ in Asian countries? CN: There are challenges in implementing ‘placemaking’ just about everywhere we’ve ever worked. But the challenges, and the opportunities, are always different. That’s partly why I find this work to be so fascinating and often times frustrating. The challenges in implementing ‘placemaking’ in Asian countries, and in Malaysia are two-fold: the pace and speed of development and the enormous amounts of capital that developers have to spend on new projects.
Because the developers have money, they don’t see the need to partner with local municipalities, or civil society organisations to get their projects built. They just build them and then hope that every millennial from around the region decides to purchase a bungalow in their development. They seem to be competing against each other for a particular demographic – a demographic of people who basically can live and work from anywhere as long as they have access to Wi-Fi. What these developers are beginning to realize is that it is the quality of the social life and physical environment that these places offer that attract buyers and visitors. Safety, security or concern about the quality of the school system is not the driving principle behind the property purchase decisions of younger people. In fact, they may not even want to have to buy a car if they can help it. Instead it’s the quality of the amenities, the ease of walking to or from shopping or the train station, or the park that’s really important. And being close to arts and cultural attractions, great local food, and others like themselves. APR: What can the developers in Asia do differently? CN: Developers need to compete to create great place destinations that will attract people from all over who will want to visit, shop, work, and live there. And each place destination could and should be completely different rather than a carbon copy of someone else’s project. That’s harder to do. And it means you need to engage the local council and residents, and cultural and civic partners to find out what makes that place unique in and of itself, and how a new mixed use development can become a new Multi-Use Destination instead. We advocate for public spaces being planned first and with a view to supporting adequate urban density and connectivity. When planning focuses on providing the right public space in terms of quantity and connectivity, it is possible to move forward with infrastructure, plotting and development in a much more structured way. Furthermore, public space can lead implementation and urban development when its development is linked to that of buildings and facilities.[/ihc-hide-content]