A sense of place

Monday 15 August 2016

What does ‘placemaking’ actually mean? And how can London do it better? A Think Tank organised by NLA last month sought to find out.

For Steven Bee, principal at Steven Bee Urban Counsel and Chairman of the Academy of Urbanism, there are a number of factors that regularly feature in the places that the Academy celebrates through its annual Urbanism Awards. These include leadership, particularly the value of an active and independent mayor to a city; ‘stewardship’ - making a long-term commitment, and the importance of having a clear and ambitious vision. Successful places will be adaptable, reinforce their local distinctiveness, and ‘recognize, understand and exploit their cultural and built inheritance, said Bee. They will value ‘proximity’ – the new ideas and opportunities that come from people and activities rubbing up against each other, and they will also have an understanding of how places of different scales sit within or beyond each other. Bee took Think Tank members through a series of examples from finalists in the Urbanism Awards, of different scales, from King’s Place in London, Cairns Street in Liverpool, Devonport in Plymouth and current ‘town of the year’ Frome in Somerset, to Rotterdam.  The Academy’s European City of the year 2015. Rotterdam has rediscovered its identity with confident long-term leadership, a high level of autonomy and a clear vision of what it wants to be. Its concept of the city centre public realm as an Urban Lounge is being implemented with great enthusiasm. ‘Great places are often framed by good rather than spectacular development, not buildings that shout at you, but quiet buildings that provide the appropriate setting’, said Bee. ‘We could do the ordinary rather better, with less focus on the exceptional…Buildings should set the scene, not steal it’.”

Bristol’s Architecture Centre programme manager Rob Gregory said the city he works in had produced two recent plans on good food and transport, engaging stakeholders with clear ideas and objectives, and that a good places plan will come next. The Architecture Centre is working on common terms of reference and is trying to get down to five this year: the land, footprint, identity, efficiency and change.

Over in Barking & Dagenham, the borough’s strategic director for growth and homes John East said there is a sea-change taking place, led at political and officer level, working to create an interesting place. Key to its approach has been to recognize that this is not just about building physical properties, said East, with a push to create a cultural industries quarter, attracting artists to the area and at the same time recognizing the heritage of the borough. It is doing this partially by commissioning a series of characterization plans of different areas of the borough. Leadership is a consistent factor in Camden, where a balance is being sought between generating growth and using it to benefit the borough’s communities, said Camden’s regeneration and place manager Richard Wilson. While in Enfield, said its programme director Peter George strong leadership has been coupled with a ‘very interventionist approach’, with the council buying up 17ha of land at the Meridian Water project to keep ‘control in the right places’ and to begin to change perceptions of the area and create a new identity. Peter George also suggested that LBE aim to ensure developers retain the original architects through to delivery to maintain clarity of vision. He also mentioned that the council would look to retain freehold on commercial space to influence the mix of offerings which can help to activate the public spaces in new developments.

The ‘Holy Grail’ of good placemaking, said Argent partner Anna Strongman, is ‘bringing together a successful place where people want to come, with making money.’ But the reason why placemaking is such a ubiquitous term is that it can mean so many different things to so many people’, she said. And perhaps it is better to think of it less as a recipe book or grand vision and more about an approach and state of mind – Argent is adopting a place-specific approach in its other development projects at Brent Cross South and Tottenham.

There has to be a commercial imperative and a balance, it is true, agreed British Land’s Matt Webster. Places are successful when people come, and the company is looking to use its urban fabric to increase wellbeing, health and happiness. It is also about ‘delight’ and developing a set of principles to guide thinking on new places, including items such as access to nature, inclusivity, a nod to beauty and public art and ‘something around the unexpected’ – creating a sense of wonder about a place.

While Kingston First chief executive Ros Morgan outlined that politics can be either the key to success or barrier to it, money does indeed talk –‘without it, this is just a conversation’, she said. But sometimes something as simple as a market such as in Kingston can be transformative, answering a need from the people for community and interaction, 29 stalls turning over almost £1.6m annually and boosting incremental spend of many more millions in the area. Indeed, said Broadgate Estates chief executive Steve Whyman, one of the most successful things that Broadgate Estates does is run a farmers’ market. People just want to do something different, and that doesn’t mean that it is sterile or over-managed, he added. ‘It has to have that local authenticity.’

On the North Bank, said the BID’s chief executive Ruth Duston, wellbeing is a big agenda, playing an important part in placemaking, particularly around air quality, with the BID acting as the ‘custodian’ of the area, looking to take out the Aldwych gyratory and replace it with a two-way. But one of the key problems in placemaking, said Capco’s creative director Beverley Churchill, is that there is no one ‘toolkit’ and no-one knows how to value it. ‘The only time you see the value of what you do is when you sell an asset.’

Planning restrictions are another barrier, said Anna Coverdale of Coverdale Barclay. And we have such a structured way of delivering development in this country, said Futurecity founder Mark Davy, relying on the architect for the vision and then ‘subsumed providers’ underneath that pyramid. ‘I think it is the other way up now and it all filters down to the architect’, said Davy. But the cultural opportunity is massive, he said, with 180 UK art schools generating 10,000 art students every year, most of them coming to London. The problem is in how to tap into that cultural energy. But success for FutureCity is in getting in early to see how things that wouldn’t normally have cultural value can be flipped, said Davy - and we live in an era when ‘the idea of a cultural city is huge’.

For some, the very word placemaking is one which is avoided. One is Victoria Wagner, associate director of Publica, who said her practice talks more about integration and character rather than a word which implies a kind of tabula rasa approach. "Our approach always starts with a focus on understanding the place and it's particular qualities, character and context. This informs our strategies and proposals and tailors them to that particular place”. Or for Patel Taylor associate Roger Meyer - who says the term is frowned upon in the office - perhaps it was about trying to create, through design of the environment and beginning with landscape, the positive emotional response which can arise spontaneously in the least programmed spaces. Context is also important to Conran and Partners project director Victoria Whenray, and about how a new building can act as a backdrop, while for PDP’s Prachi Rampuria, the common thread was that placemaking is a lot to do with the relationships between different elements that make a place.

Ultimately, for JTP Managing Partner Marcus Adams, the test is potentially that the new places we make are as good as the places we like, with the ‘hardware’ of neighbourhoods, streets and spaces activated by ‘software’ of social and economic activity, and with visions not imposed on places but borne of a collective input. Rather than look at masterplans as finished propositions, the attitude should be one of staged placemaking, and of ‘growing’ a place. ‘We believe in engagement with communities’, said Adams. ‘Doing that leads naturally to a distinctiveness, and a cohesive vision for a place.’

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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