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What makes a great place?

Orit Sarfaty, Evergreen’s Chief Program Officer, on the importance of placemaking, belonging and connection to others

people sitting on the grass, birdseye view

Published on September 18, 2019

In 2019, Evergreen welcomed Orit Sarfaty as the Chief Program Officer to develop programs that drive urban innovations and make cities more livable, green and prosperous. Throughout her career, she has worked in city building and strategic planning with best practice achievements in cities like Chicago, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. as well as in Kingston, St. Catharines, and Port Hope.

As an expert in placemaking, we asked her what makes a good place.

“A great space is where people want to gather,” explains Orit. “Places like Cité Memoire in Montreal, Bryant Park in New York City and Parc de la Villette outside Paris are great examples of this. While they are very different from one another, they share key elements that are critical to their success.”

She shares some fundamental elements that make spaces thrive:

Safety and Comfort: From our living room to Central Park, a great space makes us feel like we belong. We look for cues that make us feel comfortable. This means both actual safety and perceived safety that include accessible pathways, well-lit areas, dependable maintenance standards, amenities for all seasons and multiple entry points. Safety is a basic necessity to be a great place.

Millenium park - fountain and people playing in water, standing around

Density: Orit uses the water feature at Millennium Park in Chicago as an example of an enclosed outdoor space with elements that are close together, giving the sense of outdoor rooms. Density in the built forms creates density of people which creates a crowd. That’s a good thing. This density allows people to see and be seen.

Legibility: This looks like a welcoming “front door” with clear pathways and signage at key decision points, much like signage at an amusement park. Clear legibility allows for exploration and discovery because there are dependable markers that people can rely on. This legibility begins before visitors arrive onsite with an easy to navigate website, an up-to-date programming calendar and consistent branding.

people sitting on chairs at Bryant Park

Activation: A great space should allow many people to interact with a space in different ways. This can include exhibits and art, visitor-centric corporate branding and clustered passive programming. Movable chairs, like the setup at Bryant Park in New York City, signals to visitors that they are empowered. As Orit puts it, there’s a sense of independence that comes when a place partners with visitors to define a space.

Socializing: It seems like a strange element, but there are aspects of a public space that can encourage socializing. Fluid activities for the day and night, multi-demographic programming, activities that don’t require skill and a range of snack and drink options often bring strangers together. Dogs and kids usually help too.

Granville Island boardwalk. people sitting, walking, dogs, kids

Serendipity: Visiting a place and seeing something different makes a great space. Space transformations, unexpected surprises within predictable boundaries and the sense of discovering something new. It takes a tremendous amount of thought to understand how a space is best utilized, but when it feels safe, clean and easy to navigate, a serendipitous moment can occur.

For Orit, we are all ‘placemakers’ and have the responsibility of making a space great.