Diners from the neighborhood and across the city enjoy meals in the light-filled dining room at Inspiration Kitchens – Garfield Park, Chicago. Courtesy Bruner Foundation

In this 25th year of the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA), the medalists reflect remarkable diversity. Once more, the selected projects remind us that effective urban placemaking happens at all scales, in all kinds of settings, and with all types of agendas: six small houses along a street or a 222-unit housing development; an 80-seat restaurant or an 85-acre park; a 100-year-old steel yard revived by artists.

Yet the five awarded projects also have much in common. All of them transform underutilized and overlooked urban spaces—deteriorating houses and industrial structures, city blocks and vacant land—into vibrant places that bring people, skills, and community members together. In doing so, they challenge our assumptions about each other and about what is possible.

Last month, the 2013 RBA selection committee met in Oklahoma City to review the five finalists and select the Gold Medal winner. Inspiration Kitchens – Garfield Park, a LEED Gold nonprofit initiative in Chicago that serves free and affordable healthy meals and offers food service industry training, was selected as the Gold Medalist and will receive $50,000 to further support the project.Congo Street Initiative, Louisville Waterfront Park, The Steel Yard and Via Verde received Silver Medals and $10,000 each.

Selection committee members Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City and Cathy Simon, design principal at Perkins+Will, San Francisco, review submissions at the committee’s January meeting in Cambridge. Courtesy Bruner Foundation

From its inception in 1988, the RBA has avoided static evaluation criteria. Convening a new selection committee for each biennial award, we are on a mission to find projects that represent the best of current practice and innovation in design. When our selection committees meet for the first time, they are asked to identify five finalists that stand out among highly detailed project submissions. This first selection process often reveals trends that enlighten our collective thinking about urban placemaking. Then, with the five top entries in hand, our staff visits each site for two to three days, collecting information from creators and users. At the selection committee’s second meeting, we present our site visit findings. The conversation about the finalists, led last month by Richard Wener, RBA consultant and professor of environmental psychology at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, further clarifies and distills the issues and themes, leading to the selection of the medalists.

Dr. Richard Wener discusses the finalists with selection committee members Ann Coulter, Owner, A. Coulter Consulting, Chattanooga, TN; and Walter Hood, principal, Hood Design, Oakland, CA; at the May meeting in Oklahoma City. Courtesy Bruner Foundation

The five medalists reflect recent shifts in practice and approach to urban placemaking. Today, there is a growing attention to creating environments that encourage healthy lifestyles, including opportunities for outdoor exercise, access to fresh produce, and sustainable development as well as the remediation of former brownfield sites and a focus on LEED-certified construction. Smaller projects such as Congo Street, Inspiration Kitchens, and the Steel Yard are examples of the growing momentum of the “do-it-yourself” or “maker” movement—hands-on, entrepreneurial approaches to achieving social good. Larger projects like Louisville Waterfront Park and Via Verde remind us that tackling big issues such as affordable housing and reclaiming urban waterfronts requires bold and innovative collaboration between designers and their collective communities alongside government support.

Residents, students, and volunteers worked together to rebuild existing houses like this one along Congo Street in Dallas. Courtesy buildingcommunityWORKSHOP

In Dallas the architecture students who worked alongside homeowners to rebuild their Congo Street houses experienced first-hand the social impact of their work and changing perceptions about affordable housing in the city. At Garfield Park’s Inspiration Kitchens, Chicago foodies of all economic levels dine together with neighborhood residents. They equally enjoy meals prepared by a team of professionals and trainees, including formerly incarcerated men and women who are making a fresh start in the food service industry. These projects offer sanctuaries—beautiful places—where people come together to try new things and improve their lives with dignity. They inspire hope and remind us that we can do more together than we can do alone.

Collectively, the 2013 Rudy Bruner Award recipients remind us of the value of repurposing urban places, both large and small, and the value in connecting people and communities.

The Big Four Bridge at Louisville Waterfront Park repurposes a former railroad bridge into a new pedestrian link between Kentucky and Indiana. Courtesy Bruner Foundation

Now that our 2013 medalists have been selected and notified, the Bruner Foundation is busy planning award ceremonies in each of their home cities, as well as exhibits and public programming to honor their accomplishments and the RBA’s upcoming 25th anniversary. We are also preparing detailed case studies for each project, published in a book as well as online later in the year. I will be back to share more about these initiatives with you as they develop.

Anne-Marie Lubenau, AIA, is director of the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) for the Bruner Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An architect and advocate for educating and engaging people in design of the built environment, she is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and was a 2012 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

This post is part of a series that focuses on placemaking in American cities, written and curated by RBA. The blogs offer a detailed look at the 2013 award selection process and site visits, case studies from past award winners, and highlights from events such as the Bruner-Loeb Forum.