‘People places’ make a city

Greg Taylor is a Sacramento architect and the founder of the Urban Design Alliance-Sacramento

The guiding vision statement in the city’s ongoing general-plan process states: “Sacramento will be the most livable city in America.” The self-confidence this statement holds is a welcome refrain, but it also belies the need for Sacramentans to take stock and ask: Just what does this statement mean?

One aspect of a livable city is the attention to making places for people—its citizens—through the process of urban design. Lewis Mumford, the noted urban historian, once wrote: “The shape of the city not only reflects its citizens’ values and preferences, it also helps shape them.”

The notion of “public space” is often taken for granted in the design of American cities. However, the quality of the public realm is what is most remembered about a city, and it is the reason people return. We respond to spatial experiences that either encourage our participation or repel us. Think of the streets, the parks and the plazas you enjoy and then consider those in which you feel uncomfortable. Ask yourself why.

Making high-quality places for people is one of the most democratic actions a city can provide for its citizens. Sacramento, one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in the nation, can best celebrate that diversity by creating great public spaces in which all can congregate and share. Opportunities abound in all the projects currently in the pipeline—billions invested in buildings and infrastructure improvements—but where and how will dollars be spent in the development of spaces and places for you and I to enjoy strolling, sitting, meditating, playing or commuting to work along friendly streets on foot or on bike?

Many efforts are under way to analyze and define the shape and form of our city, through the general-plan process, the parks department, the pedestrian master plan and the upcoming downtown-design-guidelines process, among others.

A new organization, the Urban Design Alliance-Sacramento, has formed to serve as a forum for design thinking in the public realm. We welcome business leaders, design professionals, public servants and interested citizens. If you envision a livable Sacramento that celebrates great public streets, plazas and parks, then take a look at your city with a critical eye and voice your desires in these ongoing efforts.