20171010 214421

How do you put a Price Tag on a Smile?

Heard last week from an American expert doing work in the U.S. and abroad…

“You have to understand, when evaluating placemaking in the United States you can’t use common metrics to measure outcomes because of the underlying bias towards libertarian thought and capitalism.”

People at conferences like this one held last week often ask , “what is placemaking?” With the explosion of interest in the quality of place around the globe, there are all kinds of answers to the question. Lots of big words, too- Resiliency. Trans-disciplinary. Subsidiarity.

Amsterdam Alley

A lit alley, good beer, great food, music and new friends. The smells and sounds of the city.

For me, at least, the answer is a simple one- placemaking is an attempt to improve the human experience. Period. The deeper, more complicated answers are important in the longer view, but they are more tactical in nature and stem from the basic premise that placemaking’s goal is to create better circumstances for everyone.

Here is an exercise for you. Think of your favorite places that you have visited in your travels. Don’t, however, just say “Paris!” and be done with it. Instead, break it down to a human scale- maybe a particular neighborhood in the city, a walking path along the water or a street full of galleries. Next, think of what you see and what you experience when you are there.

My guess is that you will think of the sites and smells; the people and the sounds; and the way that you feel when you are there.

That’s the human experience.

So when it comes to measuring the success of a place, it seems plausible that human reactions play an essential role in determining success. Do people smile when they enter a public plaza? Are there kids playing in an open space? Is there music playing, people chatting in small groups, and cultural enrichment along a downtown street?  Yet, these aren’t priorities in places where bottom line thinking diminishes these experience in favor of an overly constricted economic lens. This is where the American version of public space breaks with its international peers. It isn’t enough to make human scale claims that don’t have a corresponding economic argument.

But, how do you put a price tag on a smile? Do 100 smiles amount to a 1% increase in per capita income? How about 1,000?  Or a million? In other cultures they don’t ask these questions, at least not directly. This is where the chasm between the humanist values of other nations and the financially-driven American point-of-view about what constitutes the public good widens.

To my American friends- On this point, I believe the others are right. Financing IS important and longer term economic models show real value in placemaking. But, at its core, good placemaking should bring out the best in people, regardless of its impact on an economic forecast. I am reminded of Edgar Allen Poe’s powerful defense of poetry in “The Poetic Principle.”

We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake […] and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: – but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.  

The same could be written for public spaces.