Placemaking in Pomona: An Interview with Bree Devones Hsieh

Bree Sidebar

Pomona has benefited from amazing grassroots efforts of citizens working for the transformation of the city, including public spaces. Having seen my share of lifeless public spaces, one of the initiatives that got me excited when we first considered our move to Pomona was a workshop series on placemaking, with the tagline “What if we regenerated Pomona around places?” Here, Bree Devones Hsieh, cofacilitator of the Pomona Placemaking group, answers some questions about the practical art of placemaking.

JUDE TIERSMA WATSON: Placemaking is a relatively new concept. Can you describe what you mean by it?

BREE DEVONES HSIEH: Placemaking is a people-centered process for improving public places. All the places we drive past, walk through, and spend our time in have a very visceral and physiological impact on us. In a community where the actual places are rundown or don’t facilitate the relational and connective feel of a neighborhood, people and relationships suffer. In placemaking, positive projects that are quicker, cheaper, and easier are emphasized:  pop-up parklets, play areas, gatherings and events, food, seating, pathways, lighting, greenery, flowers, painting, art, and more. Anything can be added once an initial project is completed. Just talking for years without any concrete improvements can actually be worse for a community and the people in it than using one’s available will and dialogue and creativity to try some things toward improvement.

JTW: There are so many ways to be involved where we live. How did you decide to get involved in placemaking?

BDH: I wanted to engage in the public civic space in our city, but through the arts and beauty—which I’ve been focusing on in this past season of my life. On a suggestion, I met with a professor of landscape architecture, Kyle Brown from CalPoly Pomona, whom I had met before. He was already involved in civic work in Pomona and was also teaching design. He shared some foundational thinking behind placemaking, and we wondered if it would be a good way to continue to bring unity and transformation to Pomona. The leadership of the OnePomona team, who had worked so hard to bring renewal through our last city election, had discussed the possibility of various city council members taking on a placemaking project to improve the city. But it was decided that would not be as transformative as regular people from Pomona taking ownership and working on projects. So we sent an email to everyone we knew in Pomona to see who might be interested in learning about placemaking and maybe doing a project or two. We were shocked at the number of people who responded to the email. We were thrilled when more than 70 people showed up to our first workshop. 

JTW: Tell us more about this particular group—how does placemaking in Pomona work?

BDH: We gather any interested community members every few months, in any place that will host us. Projects come out of an empowering question I learned from community organizing: What do you like about your community, what don’t you like, and what do you want to do about it? All it takes to start a project is someone who commits to work on it, and one or two others to join them. Everything comes from community members’ own ideas and energy. Our placemaking meeting facilitates that with some training about placemaking at the beginning of the meeting and some free time for project groups to meet or brainstorm. We currently have about 18 projects that are in process or complete. Anyone in Pomona who is seeking to make the city more inviting, more beautiful, and more conducive to positive relating is placemaking, whether or not they meet with our group.

JTW: Our cities and towns are so in need of these kinds of initiatives to make our communities more welcoming. Do you have an example of a past project as well as a current project?

BDH: One of my favorite examples of a past project is a butterfly garden that was just planted in Ganesha Park. The team started with the idea of creating a walkable arboretum because there are so many beautiful old trees in that park. But more people joined the team and the ideas kept coming for more and more possibilities for that park. They decided to go with a butterfly garden first because it was something they could do faster, cheaper, and more easily: they planted it this winter to bloom in the spring.

One of my favorite in-process projects is focusing on the huge civic plaza in our city—that team is being led by current Fuller student Derek Engdahl. In both cases the process of talking through ideas and bringing people together in a good way is just as significant as the project itself.

JTW: This strikes me as something that faith communities can be involved in. What might be the role of the church in placemaking?

BDH: Our world and work and story and bodies will all be part of the new heaven and earth, much as Jesus’ time on earth and whole person were enfolded into his resurrected transformation. Churches are a significant part of this transformational work. They are also a significant part of any neighborhood or city they are in, so they can be a part of making the particular place they are located a benefit to the whole community. A local church in our downtown area added a parklet in their front lawn area with four benches, some flowers, and a few small tables, and people stop there all the time now and have lunch and chat or just stop to take a break.

JTW: What’s the importance of placemaking to you personally?

BDH: The fact that we abide within our given bodies and this inhabitable material-physical space we call world, country, city, neighborhood, home—and the fact that we will always abide in relationship with others who are also here, are both irreducible aspects of being God’s children. As citizens of heaven we are obligated to show some love during this daily life we live on earth. Placemaking is just a good fit for me to try to do that.

Jude Tiersma Watson

Jude Tiersma Watson has lived and worked in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of central Los Angeles for 30 years as a member of InnerCHANGE, a Christian Order Among the Poor. The neighborhood and ministry have changed over the years, but one thing remains: God’s desire for us to live lives of worship and joy as we share life with our neighbors. She is an associate professor of urban mission in the School of Intercultural Studies. A key interest for her is the impact of the urban context on our spiritual formation. Jude and her husband recently moved to Pomona, California.

“My social location as I write this piece is as an educated, privileged immigrant of Dutch descent, struggling to listen to, learn from, and be changed by stories and places that are not my own.”

—Jude Tiersma Watson

thumb Bree Devones Hseih

Bree Devones Hsieh lives with her family in Pomona, California, where they have invested in community transformation for the past 20 years. She has co-led Pomona Placemaking community-wide efforts for the past 2.5 years, helped start the Poet Laureate program in Pomona, and is a poet and home-muralist.

Pomona has benefited from amazing grassroots efforts of citizens working for the transformation of the city, including public spaces. Having seen my share of lifeless public spaces, one of the initiatives that got me excited when we first considered our move to Pomona was a workshop series on placemaking, with the tagline “What if we regenerated Pomona around places?” Here, Bree Devones Hsieh, cofacilitator of the Pomona Placemaking group, answers some questions about the practical art of placemaking.

JUDE TIERSMA WATSON: Placemaking is a relatively new concept. Can you describe what you mean by it?

BREE DEVONES HSIEH: Placemaking is a people-centered process for improving public places. All the places we drive past, walk through, and spend our time in have a very visceral and physiological impact on us. In a community where the actual places are rundown or don’t facilitate the relational and connective feel of a neighborhood, people and relationships suffer. In placemaking, positive projects that are quicker, cheaper, and easier are emphasized:  pop-up parklets, play areas, gatherings and events, food, seating, pathways, lighting, greenery, flowers, painting, art, and more. Anything can be added once an initial project is completed. Just talking for years without any concrete improvements can actually be worse for a community and the people in it than using one’s available will and dialogue and creativity to try some things toward improvement.

JTW: There are so many ways to be involved where we live. How did you decide to get involved in placemaking?

BDH: I wanted to engage in the public civic space in our city, but through the arts and beauty—which I’ve been focusing on in this past season of my life. On a suggestion, I met with a professor of landscape architecture, Kyle Brown from CalPoly Pomona, whom I had met before. He was already involved in civic work in Pomona and was also teaching design. He shared some foundational thinking behind placemaking, and we wondered if it would be a good way to continue to bring unity and transformation to Pomona. The leadership of the OnePomona team, who had worked so hard to bring renewal through our last city election, had discussed the possibility of various city council members taking on a placemaking project to improve the city. But it was decided that would not be as transformative as regular people from Pomona taking ownership and working on projects. So we sent an email to everyone we knew in Pomona to see who might be interested in learning about placemaking and maybe doing a project or two. We were shocked at the number of people who responded to the email. We were thrilled when more than 70 people showed up to our first workshop. 

JTW: Tell us more about this particular group—how does placemaking in Pomona work?

BDH: We gather any interested community members every few months, in any place that will host us. Projects come out of an empowering question I learned from community organizing: What do you like about your community, what don’t you like, and what do you want to do about it? All it takes to start a project is someone who commits to work on it, and one or two others to join them. Everything comes from community members’ own ideas and energy. Our placemaking meeting facilitates that with some training about placemaking at the beginning of the meeting and some free time for project groups to meet or brainstorm. We currently have about 18 projects that are in process or complete. Anyone in Pomona who is seeking to make the city more inviting, more beautiful, and more conducive to positive relating is placemaking, whether or not they meet with our group.

JTW: Our cities and towns are so in need of these kinds of initiatives to make our communities more welcoming. Do you have an example of a past project as well as a current project?

BDH: One of my favorite examples of a past project is a butterfly garden that was just planted in Ganesha Park. The team started with the idea of creating a walkable arboretum because there are so many beautiful old trees in that park. But more people joined the team and the ideas kept coming for more and more possibilities for that park. They decided to go with a butterfly garden first because it was something they could do faster, cheaper, and more easily: they planted it this winter to bloom in the spring.

One of my favorite in-process projects is focusing on the huge civic plaza in our city—that team is being led by current Fuller student Derek Engdahl. In both cases the process of talking through ideas and bringing people together in a good way is just as significant as the project itself.

JTW: This strikes me as something that faith communities can be involved in. What might be the role of the church in placemaking?

BDH: Our world and work and story and bodies will all be part of the new heaven and earth, much as Jesus’ time on earth and whole person were enfolded into his resurrected transformation. Churches are a significant part of this transformational work. They are also a significant part of any neighborhood or city they are in, so they can be a part of making the particular place they are located a benefit to the whole community. A local church in our downtown area added a parklet in their front lawn area with four benches, some flowers, and a few small tables, and people stop there all the time now and have lunch and chat or just stop to take a break.

JTW: What’s the importance of placemaking to you personally?

BDH: The fact that we abide within our given bodies and this inhabitable material-physical space we call world, country, city, neighborhood, home—and the fact that we will always abide in relationship with others who are also here, are both irreducible aspects of being God’s children. As citizens of heaven we are obligated to show some love during this daily life we live on earth. Placemaking is just a good fit for me to try to do that.

Written By

Jude Tiersma Watson has lived and worked in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of central Los Angeles for 30 years as a member of InnerCHANGE, a Christian Order Among the Poor. The neighborhood and ministry have changed over the years, but one thing remains: God’s desire for us to live lives of worship and joy as we share life with our neighbors. She is an associate professor of urban mission in the School of Intercultural Studies. A key interest for her is the impact of the urban context on our spiritual formation. Jude and her husband recently moved to Pomona, California.

“My social location as I write this piece is as an educated, privileged immigrant of Dutch descent, struggling to listen to, learn from, and be changed by stories and places that are not my own.”

—Jude Tiersma Watson

Bree Devones Hsieh lives with her family in Pomona, California, where they have invested in community transformation for the past 20 years. She has co-led Pomona Placemaking community-wide efforts for the past 2.5 years, helped start the Poet Laureate program in Pomona, and is a poet and home-muralist.

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