Building World Class Cities: Why a bottom up approach is better than top down

Building World Class Cities: Why a bottom up approach is better than top down

No man is an island. As poet John Donne so aptly stated – men do not thrive when isolated from others. Almost everyone’s sense of being has always revolved around community and connectivity. That is why placemaking, which is a process that connects people to their environment, should be at the very core of planning city development.

Cynthia Nikitin, Senior Vice President of Project for Public Spaces (PPS)


The pioneer of placemaking, Project for Public Places (PPS), is a non-profit firm dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. Having practise placemaking for 40 years in over 50 countries and in 3500 communities, the organisation has worked with numerous developers on creating some of the best public spaces in North America and is hoping to replicate their success here in Malaysia.

As explained by Cynthia, “For a city to be world class and to have projects that are fully leased and full of people, we have to create great public spaces, which are destinations and places where people want to be”. Placemaking is one way of ensuring the success of a project as no developer has the time or money to create a project or development that fails. Unfortunately, this incongruity still occurs, where many expensive investments, which are usually built with profit in mind, instead of with people in mind, understandably fail.

With placemaking, the community is engaged from the very beginning – by crowdsourcing information and asking people in a place what they want to see, what are their goals and vision for that place, and by taking their views into consideration to design the area or development. It is the complete opposite of the type of planning that local authorities and developers have been doing all these years.

Placemaking turns this concept on its head – when the government builds with the people, then cities are designed to meet the needs of their communities. Cynthia commented, “We are going back to how we designed cities 100 years ago when it was all about scale, context, walkability, as well as designing for bicycles, pedestrians, and transit users”. This concept supports human life and habitat, builds civil society, and creates a safe, welcoming public society”.

Times Square in New York City being a great example of public space – 4 years ago it was transformed into a pedestrian boulevard​



Cynthia points out that as we have been building our cities based on how to accommodate more cars and traffic, we have been undersupplying great public places for decades now, and we have not built what the market now demands. That is one of the reasons why property prices are so high in walkable compact neighbourhoods.

Explaining her point, she said, “Urban dwellers around the world want to be able to walk to work, or bike to the LRT station, to do their shopping in the neighbourhood and to let their kids play down the street –all which is impossible when the only public spaces are parking lots around these vertical towers. What we should do instead is to spend money, get private donors to build a fabulous public space with great amenities, a place that people would want to live near. Then, developers would be very interested to build there and pay all the taxes and the land at market. So, you create the demand first instead of creating the supply”.

Another great example was PPS’s success story with Broadway in New York, where they convinced the City to close down the motorways and added plazas and bicycle lanes, as well as relocating parking thus turning these traffic islands into pocket parks. All these created a pedestrian boulevard which gave the streets back to the people, creating more footfalls in that area, which in turn resulted in more customers for the businesses there, thus increasing more sales and the value of properties as well.

Cynthia introducing placemaking strategies and ideas to the team from Think City and Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL)​



“The biggest challenge would be factoring in the street network – we have to look at the crossings, the distances between traffic lights, the five-foot ways, the sidewalks and how you have to go about creating and designing roads that are less auto-centric and would support walking, biking and transit. To start off, we have to take back the streets as they make up 70% of a city”, she added.

But the beauty of place-making – is that it can be done in small bite-sized pieces, unlike masterplans which start big and never really trickle down. Placemaking on the other hand, starts at the human scale and it ripples outwards, very much like pebbles in a lake.

PPS has been working in partnership with Khazanah Nasional’s Think City since 2009, and providing technical support and training on placemaking approaches to municipal staff and planning authorities. They are evaluating several urban renewal projects here in Malaysia – small scale projects that would take back and transform the public realm.

“Investing money in the future and making money is easy, building a legacy or a project that your grandchildren are going to be happy about however, that is something else,” she concludes.


*To learn more about placemaking, visit the Project for Public Spaces’ website at