What is ‘placemaking’? We at Redwood understand this is a complicated question, and one that is both mystifying and alienating for those approaching urban design. But it doesn’t have to be. When ‘placemaking’ was first pioneered, it was a liberating approach designed to incorporate people into designs that had become too sterile and isolating; a move to reframe the urban design discourse from including only commuters, and their vehicles, and to re-centralise local consumers, producers, and inhabitants.
These goals were laudable then, and are still now, but how we achieve them through the process of ‘placemaking’ has always been unclear, and as Christina Gillings, our Head of Developments noted in her post last month, the term has been worryingly overused and borders becoming a catch-all buzzword. To rectify this, over this perspective series we have asked industry experts and journalists what they think of placemaking, where it has been successfully implemented, and where its most substantial challenges lie. Below is a summary of what we have observed during this campaign.
Throughout this series, experts consistently returned to the concept of time, and how, or when, people are willing to spend their limited amount of it, as a central element of a successfully designed ‘place’.
For some, like Tom Cartledge (Benoy) and Simon Grimbley (Uncommon Land), successful placemaking requires a willingness to invest significant amounts of time; to plan ahead, by envisaging a ‘place’ that will attract people for generations and that you will be engaging with for decades in the future. For others, like Andrew Sparrow (Activate, Workman) a sign of a successful place is the willingness of inhabitants to strategically alter the environment they live in, by transforming parking spots from spaces of transportation convenience to liveable, comfortable, urban retreats. In turn, this strategic altering requires an understanding of how society has changed, as people de-prioritise one element of life (car usage, ease of transportation) and refocuses on another (ecology and urban greenery). Therefore, creating a ‘place’ like Stockholm relies upon an ability to recognise the dynamic, and fluctuating, nature of urban living.
For others though, immediacy can be crucial in creating a successful place; designing spaces that produce, and foster, spontaneity between inhabitants, and building environments that facilitate ‘social collisions’ between previously separated individuals; as Liam Ronan-Chlond (First Base) described Kings Cross.
Finally, we received acknowledgement that placemaking is often incremental; a process that starts well before ground breaking, and that never really ends. Developers, and architects, we were reminded, need to understand placemaking significantly before designing anything, throughout the construction period, and even when maintaining a site.
Placemaking, as Simon Grimbley (Uncommon Land) and journalist Mark Faithfull (Retail Property Analyst) informed us, needs to create ‘places’ that people not only feel comfortable eating, spending, and working within; often perceived as the primary roles of retail space; but also playing, learning, and, frankly, living within. For Glen Smallwood (Completely Group), placemaking faces the challenge of adapting to stay relevant as the demands on physical space change.
The ‘places’ a placemaker builds must be all-encompassing, and able to appeal to individuals at every hour of the day and night. Furthermore, as Christina Gillings (Redwood) noted in her blog, it is this commitment to multifaceted thinking that distinguishes placemaking from other, more orthodox, urban designs; and is what attracts people to successfully created ‘places’.
Finally, industry voices repeatedly framed placemaking as an attempt to not appeal to isolated, and distinct, individuals, but rather the ever-amorphous ‘community’ or ‘communities’ which surround a ‘place’, and who the ‘place’ must attract as a group if it is to succeed.
However, those we spoke to did stress that modern placemakers face significant, and systemic, problems; particularly, as Tom Cartledge and Steven Gray noted, developers are often hampered by a broad knowledge gap about who will use their ‘place’, as well as what activities they are planning to engage in. To bridge this gap, as Steven Gray outlined, there “needs to be a shared vision and roadmap… (and) shared investment”, which connects both consumers and development stakeholders.
Beyond this knowledge gap, as Liam Ronan-Chlond remarked, public faith and trust in developers is at an all-time low; as disparate groups across the UK indicate that they either do not believe in the long-term viability of modern developments, or, more concerningly, the safety of new builds. As placemaking relies so heavily on public engagement, and trust in a space, this erosion of faith can undercut any ‘place’ before it has even been built.
We all know that ‘placemaking’ can be an alienating field, and our perspectives series seeks to shine a light on some of the trends and challenges we’re seeing, to underscore how embedded, and committed, to the process the industry is, and how much thought people are putting into ‘placemaking’ discourses. If industry-wide perceptions are so disparate, imagine the challenge for communities themselves to buy into a long-term vision and understand their role in making that come about. That is where the role of communications is most critical, in bridging that gap, facilitating dialogue, capturing insight, and captivating the imagination of the long-term users of a space.