Placemaking – how can London improve?

Wednesday 1 June 2016


How can London get better at placemaking? And is the very term becoming outdated, misunderstood or solely the preserve of the marketing team?
A talk this morning headlined by four select speakers at NLA and sponsored by Broadgate Estates and Capco sought to find out.

Called ‘Placemaking: Everyone is doing it but what does it mean?’, that central question was tackled first by Annette Simpson, director of planning and development for Earls Court at Capco. ‘For us, placemaking is a core belief and actually a commercial priority’, she said, pointing to the work the firm has done over the last decade at Covent Garden as an example, even if taking the message for investment to board level can often be difficult. Covent Garden has been transformed from a tourist hotspot to a more ‘democratic and diverse place’ used more by Londoners, said Simpson, but the secret to good placemaking lies as much in small scale interventions such as maintaining good public realm, as it does with grander gestures. Placemaking is certainly still relevant and ‘prolific’ as a term but that is no bad thing, and, done well, it should have both a positive social impact but also an economic one, providing an energy to a place that is beyond the buildings themselves, said Simpson.

For Urban Space Management’s John Burton, placemaking is more at the level of ‘marketing speak’, and all too often is an afterthought, used to market a space or create a label for selling houses. There is a marked difference between those who develop to sell and those who develop with a longer term approach like Capco, said Burton. And examples like Central St Martins at King’s Cross show how something that wasn’t overly planned can bring something with such vitality to an area. Another issue is keeping things interesting over time, said Burton, who says he now does not enjoy visiting places like Camden Market, which he feels is too touristy and seen as a property asset above all. ‘How do you keep an open, embracing environment, particularly where property is traded as assets?’ he asked. ‘There’s no formula; it’s not a science. It’s about hard work.’

Urban design consultant Kathryn Firth said the term ‘placemaking’ has perhaps been devalued through overuse and the public would be hard put to describe what it is. But everywhere always has a context from which good schemes could and should learn. ’It should be place-growing, or place-extending’, said Firth. At the London Legacy Development Corporation, Firth’s team had striven to include destinations and amenities at the perimeter of the development to better connect with existing communities. ‘It’s about facilitating creative patterns of use’, said Firth. ‘The long term life of a place is so important’, so needs bottom-up collaborations from the outset, at a local level. ‘As soon as it goes beyond a block, you’re creating a piece of city’, she said.

Finally, PRP director Craig Sheach said one of the main considerations should be to activate the ground floor uses of schemes, but he was uncomfortable with the term ‘placemaking’ since it implies a full stop as a final object. Also problematic was how density is starting to affect places, with ground floors swallowed by bins, plant rooms and bikes.

Perhaps, said Firth, it was time to reassess planning policies where we no longer have the high street life we did, people multi-task and distinctions are blurring, even between inside and outside spaces. Simpson agreed, saying that there was perhaps too much policy, with outdated planning use classes meaning she was constantly trying to shoe-horn things in to create an active ground floor. ‘Every place is different and places change and evolve’ she said. ‘But what makes a place great is having a diversity of people’.


By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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