In Search of Place

Carol Tallon, founder of PLACEengage.com, Your Virtual Town Hall.

“Many people search their whole lives for a sense of ‘place’, but do we even know what that is, what it feels like and, more importantly, how to create it?”

Carol Tallon

We are halfway through the year and gearing up towards 2020, which truly feels like it should be a lifetime away. 20 years past the millennium and much about how we live now has changed. Over the next two decades, society looks set to continue towards increasing urbanisation, and at an ever-increasing pace. Humans must learn to live in closer proximity to each other and it would be naive to think this will come naturally to one and all. As private space gets smaller, public space will need to take on a whole host of new roles. This cannot, and will not, happen by accident – although great design might just make it look like it did. 

This is placemaking.

But, what exactly does ‘placemaking’ involve? And can the interests of commercial property developers, local government authorities, local businesses and residents – both owners and tenants – ever be truly aligned? In short, yes. We all want great spaces to live, work, socialise and spend time, we just might not agree on what ‘great’ actually looks or feels like!  

Placemaking is not a new concept, the term itself has been used for decades to describe a more holistic approach to urban development. Originally, placemaking was focussed solely on the public realm. Today, designers of place know that the public realm is only a part of what makes a place. When you explore further, it is difficult to see where placemaking starts and ends, if, in fact, it ends at all. 

The single placemaking absolute I know to be true is that is that any place is the sum total of its people. To me, it has always been about involving the community and really engaging with them on a practical level to deliver workable design and implementation of new spaces. This type of collaboration has proven to be hugely beneficial to local communities and stakeholders. And place-making is not only about creating new spaces, very often, it is about improving or reimaging the existing areas. The first step is always to understand the space, the people and how those people currently use it. The next step it to conceive of the potential; how might it look, how might it be used, who else might come forward to use it?  Meeting local residents and identifying stakeholders is key to fully understanding the space as it is. 

The community knows best about what is, however, engaging the right design and planning experts is the best way to unlock what could be

While it can be a lengthy process with so many stakeholders involved, this is not a bad thing. Placemaking done well sets the tone of the area for many years and decades into the future. This is simply too important, for too many people, not to get it right.  

Most people tell us they would like more green areas or alfresco dining options or a safe space for teenagers to hang out. What they are really telling us is that they want usable spaces that appeal to all demographics (although not necessarily together!). Another critical  consideration is safety. While it might seem counter-intuitive, bringing more people into these shared spaces is a safety feature. Isolated places become trouble spots, with higher incidences of anti-social behaviour that plague many neighbourhoods. Credible property developers now pay more attention to the design and planning of these spaces in order to ensure they are safe and inviting spaces to enjoy. It can only be a good thing when local communities benefit from the space around them and feel secure in their environment. 

At its simplest, a pleasurable or interesting space can be its own reward. But the benefits of placemaking go beyond simple pleasure; by bringing the various disciplines of planners, designers, engineers, architects and urban landscapers together with local communities – who are the end users of these developments – you get a compliant, citizen-owned neighbourhood strategy that really works.

I routinely quote, Jan Gehl, Danish architect, urban design consultant and global leader in people-centred urban design  as he simplifies placemaking:

“First life, then spaces, then buildings — the other way around never works… Make it nice where you are and put the density on top.”

Jan Gehl

Placemaking is re-imagining a world of opportunity, facilitating sustainable and happier living spaces. People matter most and as Jan Gehl said “first life…”  Having perfectly placed buildings and spaces is meaningless without the community around it. 

People give a place its meaning. 

Placemaking is most successful when local people take an interest; and when they do voice an opinion – in support or in opposition to proposed plans –  it ought to be listened to. Urban planners, architects, engineers and designers are all considerably talented people with creative vision that allows them to conjure up  a wondrous world for people to live in, but they do not always live in these spaces themselves. They might not know the local area in the same way the residents do, therefore, they need that extra voice, that extra opinion and, yes, even that extra opponent at times. The value of ‘community knows best’ is unparalleled; with local insights, knowledge and practical expertise, the local community have an innate understanding of what might or might not work in their locality. Placemaking is about collaboration and giving all stakeholders a voice. Opening up the public consultation process, which is already public, to a wider and more engaged audience tends to terrify project owners. We talk quite a bit about the community’s lack of trust in property developers, however, property developers struggle to trust communities too. They do not always trust the community to know what is best, or to do what is best, for the sustainable future of the place. As in all worthwhile relationships, trust must be earned. When it comes to creating the right place, people can rarely be bought,  bullied or hoodwinked into consensus. 

Urban planning and design is about so much more than a green area of respite from traffic, or efficient parking that does not curtail retail opportunities. It is also about more than random outdoor seating or disjointed art installations copied from other successful areas modelled. Every place is unique and, as such, presents with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. The solutions and proposals form the basis of a placemaking strategy that all stakeholders can contribute to. 

While a shared vision is critical, it is important to note that consensus is never the aim. Collectively, a sense of place can be achieved with design excellence, local insights and creative vision. 

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the process of placemaking never really ends, it simply moves hands from the initial project team, to the community, to the next generation of community and the place evolves to meet these ever-changing needs – sometimes this evolution requires some professional or outside help. The key to long-term success is for local communities to understand how places evolve;  rather than resist the inevitable change, they need to advocate for positive change. 

Carol Tallon, founder of PLACEengage.com, Your Virtual Town Hall.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/caroltallon/