Finding hope in people who believe in public spaces and planet Earth
By Maria Saporta
After a brutal presidential campaign and election season, it has been a struggle to envision a brighter future for our nation and our world.
My emotions have vacillated from despair about the future of our planet to concern about the future of our cities to empathy for the millions of people seeking a better life – hoping to find comfort and acceptance in America.
With that backdrop, I attended two distinctly different events last week that helped give me hope for the future.
The first was the latest offering from the Atlanta City Design Project on Dec. 6 at the Atlanta Central Library. The featured speaker was Matthew Lister, director of Gehl Studio New York, whose talk was about “Putting People First: Public Space and Public Life.”
The second was the 25th anniversary the Captain Planet Foundation gala at the InterContinental Hotel in Buckhead on Dec. 9.
The gala began in the early 1990s as a way to carry on the mission of Captain Planet – an animated cartoon series that began when Ted Turner was running Turner Broadcasting System and CNN that aimed to teach children and young people about the magic and fragility of Planet Earth.
At both events, it was comforting see people who continue to be dedicated to making cities a better place for people and to leaving the Earth no worse from the wear and tear of 7.4 billion people inhabiting our planet.
Tim Keane, commissioner of the Atlanta Department of Planning and Community Development, set the stage for the City Design Project – explaining that Atlanta could double or triple its population in the next 25 to 30 years.
“Atlanta is not known for the public realm – we have a tremendous amount to do in this regard,” Keane acknowledged, adding that public spaces will become even more critical as more people call the city home.
Matthew Lister, director of the urban design firm – Gehl Studio in New York, defined public space as the area a group of people create when they are “outside of their businesses, their homes and their cars.”
Cities that have quality spaces for people are safer and more fun because people love looking at other people. They also can make urban spaces more inviting and beautiful – adding to everyone’s quality of life.
“Public life needs to be an intentional driver in how cities are made,” said Lister, who explained the firm’s founder Jan Gehl believed in creating public life in the spaces between modern buildings in the 1960s. He was part of the new thinking of people and cities – Jane Jacobs and William “Holly” Whyte – urbanists who wanted to understand the magic of cities.
“It was about putting people first and rebalancing the city,” Lister said. “It wasn’t about taking options away. It was about adding options.”
Gehl measures how people use public spaces to see what works. “We measure what people are doing and where they stay,” Lister said. “Vibrant places invite people to stay longer…. Provide people with opportunities to sit and stand.”
In 2007, Gehl worked with then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to redesign Times Square – a place that had no public square. Today, Times Square is an example of how a 21st Century street can become a place for people and not just as a conveyance for cars.
Lister advised Atlanta to try to implement projects in a temporary way to help with a culture shift – helping people adjust to a new way of using streets and public spaces.
“Having people experience it themselves” can change the conversation and help people understand the value of the public realm, Lister said. “Doing pilots and prototypes get more and more voices to the table.”
At the Captain Planet gala, more than 700 people – including several actors, musicians and performers – came to pay tribute to Captain Planet himself – Ted Turner.
“It is up to us – every man, woman and child,” said Laura Turner Seydel, chair of the Captain Planet Foundation, who called the gala one of the most diverse gatherings in Atlanta’s history.
Her son, John R. Seydel, who is the brand new director of sustainability for the City of Atlanta, described himself as a Captain Planet Planateer, called the earth a “small blue dot” in space that needed to be treasured.
Environmentalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson – known as the father of biodiversity, put it this way: “We can share this precious planet so that all life can prosper,” adding he was “overwhelmed by the magnitude of the effort” that’s underway. “The way things are going in the professional conservation community, it gives me hope we will soon address the biodiversity depletion we are now experiencing. You inspire me.”
Perhaps the most touching moment came when former Atlanta resident Jane Fonda expressed her admiration of her ex-husband Ted Turner and his support of Barbara Pyle who created Captain Planet. She emphasized the show’s theme: “By Our Powers Combined” when addressing the gala’s audience.
“I’m so proud to be here on the 25th anniversary of the Captain Planet Foundation,” Fonda said. “I’m so proud of you Laura, and I’m so proud of Ted for what you’ve done.”