A Conversation with Peter Kageyama

July 6, 2018, Department, by National Recreation and Park Association

2018 July Conference Content Keynote1 410

One of the 2018 NRPA Annual Conference keynote speakers

Prepare to be inspired and amazed by one of this year’s keynote speakers — Peter Kageyama, author of For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places (recognized by Planetizen in 2012 as a Top 10 Book in urban planning, design and development) and Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places; and SaulPaul, an award-winning recording artist and author, whose album, “Dream in 3D,” (also the name of his book) was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Parks & Recreation recently sat down with Kageyama, “an internationally sought-after community development consultant and grassroots engagement strategist” who is passionate about “bottom-up community development and the people who are making change happen.” In addition to writing and speaking around the world, Kageyama is a Senior Fellow with the Alliance for Innovation, a national network of city leaders that is dedicated to improving the practice of local government. He’s also the co-founder of the Creative Cities Summit, an interdisciplinary conference that brings citizens and practitioners together around the big idea of “the city.”

Following is the conversation NRPA’s communication manager Cort Jones had with Kageyama. Tune in to Open Space Radio later this month for a podcast of the entire conversation and look for a similar conversation with SaulPaul in the August issue of Parks & Recreation magazine.

Parks & Recreation: Taking it back to the very beginning, what got you into this field? What sparked your love for cities and spaces and all this?

Peter Kageyama: In 2003, I first heard Richard Florida speak. Many of you may know, Richard is the author of The Rise of the Creative Class and several other books. The Rise of the Creative Class really put him on the map, and it got people excited about their cities, because he was talking about the role creative people play in their places and the economy of their places. He came to Tampa Bay (I live in St. Petersburg), and he spoke and got folks really excited about this concept. Following that, there was an organization created here to continue the conversation called Creative Tampa Bay. I, eventually, became president of that organization, and we started doing some really cool stuff. We commissioned some research, put on conferences and just started to change the conversation around community and economic development. And that’s how I kind of morphed from what I was doing before, which was internet-based marketing consulting, into this whole idea of cities and community.

P&R: What do you feel is the role of parks in creating community in cities?

Kageyama: I love parks. I think parks are integral to our relationships with our places. For most urbanists, we kind of think of parks as the thing that was added to cities, you know 18th/19th century, to literally make them livable. We created these cities that were all about industry and building stuff, which was great, but at the same time, those cities were literally poisoning themselves with the outputs of that. They had to create parks to make these cities livable.

But, I think in the 20th century, we had to take that even further; we realized that parks become sort of the amenity that becomes the choice that makes cities not just livable, but desirable — that makes them the place where you want to be. And parks are one of the most egalitarian places in a city. You don’t have to be rich to enjoy a park. Across class, across age — parks are the great equalizer in our places. So, parks play a central role in the relationship that we have with our places.

And, the other thing that I love to say about parks, especially the folks who do the parks and recreation side, is that parks and rec are the fun department. They literally bring the fun to cities. And fun is an incredibly important aspect in that relationship we have with our cities. You guys are the fun department. I think that’s a unique role that you play and, hopefully, you can help teach some of the other departments in your cities how to have a little bit more fun and how to bring the fun to what they do and, ultimately, to your citizens as well.

P&R: In your book, For the Love of Cities, you said innovative urban design should connect people to their places. What do you mean by that?

Kageyama: Well, we tend to think of places as buildings or constructs, but places are actually the interconnectedness of that. There’s a great Danish architect, named Jan Gehl, who talked about what he called “the secret life between buildings.” We tend to notice the buildings, and we think that that is the city, but the experience of the city, the experience of the community is the walk sometimes between building to building or the building to your neighborhood. The whole idea behind this is the interconnectedness, is all the stuff — even the stuff we don’t necessarily overtly think about — sidewalks, trees, parks. We tend to think, ‘I’ll go have lunch at the park or I’ll walk through the park,’ and you think that that is a passageway between two destination points. Well, no. The park itself is integral to the relationship that you have, not only with those two end points, but also to the overall feel of the city. It is, again…that connective tissue that is, oftentimes, not fully appreciated for the role that it plays.

A friend of mine says we have this Oedipus complex in the sense that we look at buildings, and we look at big structures and we think that that’s the city, not realizing that the city is also lots of little stuff. And, it’s also the moments in between the big stuff that make up the totality of our experience with places.

P&R: It’s kind of that, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” kind of thing. It’s all the things that make up the city.

Kageyama: Absolutely. Things that may go unnoticed or are not fully appreciated, until they maybe go bad. Imagine taking the parks and green space out of your city. People who don’t think parks and green spaces are important, alright, pull that out of your city. Tell me, does this feel like a city you want to live in? Probably not. I would absolutely bet money on that.

P&R: You and other innovation urban planners are proponents of activating public spaces. What does that mean to you? What are some examples of activated public spaces on a large and small scale?

Kageyama: In terms of parks, there are passive parks — green spaces where there may be benches but there’s not necessarily programming. Then there’re active parks, where we’re trying to activate that space. What do we do? Well, we have an event there — invite a yoga class to come in, we have music or we have a beer garden or just set out some cornhole games and invite people to play – that’s a way to activate that space.

For more urban public spaces, think about a plaza – is it a passive plaza where people might sit near a water fountain? People might look at it or pass through, or is it an activated space where instead of a fountain there’s a splash pad. Why a splash pad? Because parents and kids will go there. On a hot summer day, you might see that place is activated because they’re using it as a place to cool off and have fun. And, of course, if people are having fun, we as human beings like to watch other people having fun, that is part of our DNA. We are infinitely fascinated with watching each other. So, activating a space, by doing something relatively small like a splash pad, has a halo effect of activating the entire space around it, because, suddenly, this plaza becomes more interesting. Because people are playing, people are having a good time and then others are watching them and, in turn, sitting and chatting with other people. It’s sort of a mushroom effect that happens when a little thing that flips that switch and turns that energy on in a place.

It invites you to engage with it. It doesn’t just say, "Hey, this is beautiful, you can observe, but you can’t touch," or "this is functional, but it’s not interesting." It serves a particular purpose, like it moves water from point A to point B or it moves trash from here to here. But, instead, it invites you to be part of it, to interact, to play with it — we feel differently about those kinds of spaces. Those are the kinds of spaces that we naturally gravitate to and those that aren’t activated, the ones that are sort of used to do something else that’s not really for us, of course, we feel very alienated by that. If a whole city or a whole block becomes like that, it becomes a no-go zone. That creates a really negative emotional impression about a place

P&R: A central question for you is “Where is the fun?” What do you mean by that? If you apply that question to urban design and place making what does “fun” look like?

Kageyama: That’s a good question. I simply ask people or suggest that people should ask that question as they’re going through their planning process, as they’re going through the design process, they’re thinking about their spaces, the parks... whatever they are doing, that they should ask that question: "Where’s the fun?" Because by asking the question, you’re actually opening up the lens a little bit bigger. By doing that, you may get something beyond a technically sufficient solution. We’re very good about coming up with technical solutions. We’re very smart about how we do that stuff. But, if you ask the question, “Where’s the fun?” you might think of the problem and therefore think of the result in a different way. So, when I ask the question, I don’t want to be prescriptive about — “well this is fun, or this is fun.” I don’t know what’s fun in a particular context and that’s okay. But if we ask the question, somebody who’s actually dealing with that context, who’s dealing with that particular problem, they might have a good idea of what fun could be in that particular situation and that particular place.

P&R: That can apply in a lot of different scenarios.

Kageyama: It can absolutely apply to everything. The way we solve problems is we typically find people who are smart, who are trained in whatever discipline it is, and we get them to think about the problem and hopefully they come up with something, and usually they do. But, inevitably, if you ask any of those folks if they’re solving a question in healthcare or in geology or in an urban problem, if you ask the question, “Where’s the fun?” they have to look at the problem in a slightly different way. And, by doing that, they might get a different kind of solution that not only is technically sufficient and smart, but also actually maybe addresses some other issue as well, like, in my case, our emotional engagement with our place.

P&R: You’ve spoken about “the garden hose solution.” What does this refer to and how does this work?

Kageyama: So, I had this experience: I was traveling in a city outside of Pittsburgh called Braddock, Pennsylvania, and I happened on this little downtown park. It’s a hot summer day, and I’m walking around the park, and I noticed on the one side of the park, somebody I’m assuming from the city  clipped a garden hose to the fence. They were spraying the water out onto a wooden deck that was there. It was an inexpensive sort of splashpad, a makeshift splashpad. To me, that’s brilliant, because, again, maybe they can’t afford to do the splashpad, but you know what? It’s a hot summer day and the kids want to play in the water, great, somebody turn on the hose. 

So, I ask the question: “What’s the garden hose solution?” A lot of times, we can’t necessarily afford the stuff we’d like to do, so what do we do? Do we throw up our hands and say, “Well, we just can’t do it.” I mean, let’s think about this. What’s wrong with going to the hardware store, spending $20 and turning on the facuet, or the equivalent there is for your particular problem? The point is, I think we sometimes overthink the solutions to our cities problems. Sometimes the good enough, or the garden hose solution, is absolutely not only good enough — sometimes it’s just brilliant. It makes people smile and think, "wait a minute, maybe there’s other stuff we can do that actually addresses these things." Solving problems makes us feel good, and I think very happy. So, again, the garden hose solution.

P&R: We love to see innovative solutions for creative park design. What are some things you’ve seen in innovative urban design that can apply to parks?

Kageyama: One of the more interesting things that I’ve seen is a different way in thinking about parks in the context of cities. In South Bend, Indiana, going on almost two years now, they started a project where they rolled parks & rec, arts and venues under the city all under one umbrella. They called the project initially, Department Q —“Q” standing for quality of life. The whole idea was, that if you think about the things that actually address those fundamental issues around quality of life — parks, arts and culture and some of the venues, like the performing arts center and the convention center — they said, those things actually conceptually have a heck of a lot in common. Why aren’t we using them in a more coordinated fashion? They actually did that.

The mayor, who’s one of the most innovative mayors and one of the youngest mayors in America as well, hired a guy who. at the time, was actually running the downtown partnership. He had this very unique skill set where he actually knew a lot about all of these different things and then he took some time to learn more about parks and about how the convention center works, but rolled them all into this one "Department Q" kind of thing. I think that’s kind of brilliant, because, again, that’s recognizing that these departments address the fundamental question, which is, "What is the quality of life in a place?"

And, if we do this in a more joint manner, we might actually do this in an even better way. That’s fascinating to me — that fundamental recognition that arts and culture, parks and events actually kind of naturally work together and work with each other. Why aren’t we doing that more often in our cities? So, South Bend, Indiana, there you go.

P&R: At the end of the day, all of these separate disciplines have to at some point interact with each other and work together in order to have a thriving community.

Kageyama: Yeah, cause you’re all graded on the same thing, which is that the city, the community has to work. It has to be good. You can’t say, “Hey, we have a great park and a terrible infrastructure. We have a terrible education system or a crap transportation system.” You’re still graded on all of that together. So, how that might all actually work together becomes a more interesting question and a more interesting challenge.

P&R: That leads into this final question. Sometimes we see that parks and public spaces are the last consideration in so-called, innovative urban design. Do you think that parks should be an integral part of quality urban design and have just as much importance as things like transportation, housing and other top priorities?

Kageyama: As much as people love parks — and they absolutely do — a lot of times when the money gets a little tight many people think, parks are "nice to have," but they’re not "must haves." I would change that equation. If we’re trying to solve our cities challenges in a siloed way, then if you look at, well, what silo don’t we value or don’t we think is important? And then you can think, well oh parks and rec or arts and culture, cause we’ve got to deal with this serious transportation problem over here.

If we start looking at this and say, "Wait a minute, we have to solve this problem in not just a siloed way, but we have to do something that is a little bit more joined up — how do we integrate green space in a transportation solution?" If we start thinking about it that way, then we don’t put you guys into a box of well, you’re nice to have, but you’re not must haves. How do we integrate parks and green space into the conversation, how do we integrate arts and culture into the conversation? Again, those don’t have to cost a whole lot of money comparatively speaking.

A mile of concrete, a mile of asphault is incredibly expensive. For a fraction of the cost of that, we could do some amazing things that add to that in terms of green space or with better design or some sort of artistic expression there that actually makes that mile of concrete and asphault much, much better. Again, I want us to change the conversation. It’s not about nice to haves versus must haves. It’s like, how do we figure out how to do all of this stuff in a more integrated way? But to just sort of say, "Nope, we’re not going to do that cause we’re going to focus on functional and building this out, we’ll paint in battleship gray and that’ll be good enough." No, it’s really not.

Again, you could solve something in a technically sufficient way, but it actually doesn’t address the humanity of how we want to live in our cities. You could build a great transportation system that works great for cars, but terrible for people, and I guarantee you that the people will eventually leave that place.

P&R: It’s that fight to prove that this is just as important as all the other priorities.

Kageyama: Part of what I talk about is how to give our elected officials the ammunition to respond because, inevitably, somebody’s going to say, “Hey, why are you spending money on parks and green space, or on art and culture, or public art or something like that, when we’ve got potholes to fix, or we have stuff that’s literally broken, we need to fix that?” And they don’t know how to respond to that because they think they’re being frivolous spending this kind of money there.

The point I try to make is there is a cost to things. Things not only have a financial cost, but they also have a value and, oftentimes, that value goes beyond the financial. If you want to live in the type of city that has room for beauty, art, great design and green space, then you’ve got to speak up about the value of those things and not just the cost of things. Because a lot of folks get obsessed with the pure financial accounting of things without taking into account the value that those things actually bring.

P&R: What are you looking forward to most about being in Indy with us?

Kageyama: You know, I’ve spoken to some state park and rec associations, and I’ve talked to those folks in the cities. I’m actually looking forward to hearing about things that you guys are doing. I’m always looking for the next great story. That’s really what I do, I tell stories. So, I’m sure that while I’m there, I’m going to hear some really cool innovative stuff that some of your compatriots are already doing, and I’m going to say, “That’s awesome. Let me pay that forward by telling that story to some other communities, because they need to hear this.” South Bend is a good example, but I’m sure there are dozens of other things that cities and counties are trying that are amazing, and I’m looking forward to learning that.

P&R: Thank you for joining us!

Listen to the Open Space podcast later this month.