Placemaking explained....

Place: (Noun) a particular position, point, or area in space; a location.

Making: (Noun) the process of making or producing something

As an Urbanist it is gratifying to see that placemaking has become a word in such common use. Placemaking and place is now the zeitgeist and is now intrinsic to Government policy (the National Development Framework Wales), as well as developers’ corporate objectives. But with such heavy rotation also comes buzzword fatigue and a risk that the phrase becomes so overused that it is gradually hollowed of any meaning at all. 

I have always wanted to make places. When I was 15 I thought that I wanted to be an architect, until I realised that I didn’t want to design individual buildings. Then I thought that I would be a planner and went off to Manchester to study a Degree in Town & Country Planning. Upon completion of the degree, I realised that I didn’t want to interpret, manage and orchestrate a process, but I wanted to be more hands-on, and be creatively involved in how the arrangement of buildings, routes and the spaces between the buildings worked. More latterly, I’ve become more active in Landscape Architecture, as a process that binds buildings, spaces and the natural environment together. I’ve also worked extensively with highway and transport engineers to re-make urban streets that have previously suffered from a heavy-handed, placeless approach to changing a town or city.

In isolation, none of the core built environment professions: architecture, planning, landscape, highways, transportation, can claim to do placemaking. Working on their own, none of them makes a place. Places are more complex than any individual component, so if you want to make a place you need those professionals to work together with a brief that makes it clear that a good quality sense of place is an essential outcome. 

Port Talbot Travel Hub. More than just an interchange, but an example of a place being managed to bring life and purpose to a public space. (Market image courtesy of @BenReynolds1977)

Urban Design and Placemaking are equally opaque terms and maybe even baffling to some. What does an Urban Designer do? What is Placemaking? Urban Designers come in all shapes and sizes, some start as architects, some as engineers, planners or landscape architects. Irrespective of their origin, they all take a perspective which is broader than any single profession until a point where their original title is superseded by that of ‘urban designer’. Urban Design is the sweet spot between all of the traditional built environment professions where they come together to shape a place as a whole. This is why Urban Design became so attractive to me as a vocation because it is a blend of architecture, planning, landscape architecture, engineering and in some cases a smattering of development economics, public art and property management. A team of urban designers with different core professional disciplines represents a powerful proposition: landscape architects, architects, planners and engineers all working to create somewhere with a prevailing character or atmosphere which is distinct and memorable.  

A project sponsor or client who wants to create a place can do so by writing the right brief, but they can also achieve this by creating the right brief and assembling the right team. A team that understands completely what placemaking is and can interpret that understanding into proposals that create value and meaning.

Commercial development, housebuilding and regeneration can be seen as different activities, but in fact, they all work to achieve a common end goal, which is to persuade people to choose to invest their time (and/or their money) in a particular locale. Create a great place and people will be more likely to vote with their feet and the value will materialise (however that value is measured). 

The ubiquity of placemaking as a term is partly because it has found its way into the public sector policy lexicon. It is heartening that the public sector has recognised the importance of creating enduring, attractive places which are fit for future generations and that use as little fossil fuels as possible. However, we need to ensure that the kind of places that public sector policies want to see more of are actually created. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, but there are reasons for optimism. The public sector are expanding their remit into certain types of development (e.g., the former Oceana site in Swansea), Housing Associations are setting a new tone as developers, while a growing number of private developers recognise the value that place has on the bottom line. The announcement this week of the creation of a Land Division for Wales to help bring public sector land into active use is a welcome step. This is similar to objectives held by Homes England

Hall & Woodhouse, part of the emerging community at Witchelstowe.

Hall & Woodhouse, part of the emerging community at Witchelstowe.

Despite the risk of overuse, we should remember that the best places elicit an emotional response. The kind one tends not to get when visiting an identikit out-of-town foodstore for example (we go to those type of places out of necessity, not necessarily choice). Great places are locations that people go out of their way to use, visit or live in because they consciously choose to be there. Great places are locations with character and identity. One might expect someone with my name to talk about soul, but great places should have this in abundance. Successful placemaking should never result in somewhere that is bland, indifferent or soulless.

Many architects, planners, landscape architects and engineers will understand and occasionally excel in the process of placemaking, but it should come as second nature to every single urban designer who uses that title as the basis of their work. If placemaking is to outlive its current buzzword status we need to ensure that we can create enough places that clearly demonstrate the benefits of the activity the term describes. It will be proving its value, across a whole range of metrics, that is central to placemaking becoming the norm and not just a fleeting buzzword. 

By James Brown


Working progress on school landscape project

On site engineering works have begun at the construction of Ysgol Parc Y Tywyn, Burry Port where we are the landscape architects. This follows the completion of ground remediation works and discharge of pre-commencement planning conditions.

The brownfield site sits adjacent to the Wales Coastal Park, and the ‘passivhaus’ structure, designed by Architype (alongside WSP), will provide pupils of the Welsh-medium primary school with a positive and pleasant working environment. The building will also provide staff with a contemporary, energy efficient structure and a state of the art teaching facilities.

The works at Ysgol Parc Y Tywyn are being completed alongside the development of Ysgol Trimsaran (where were are also the planning consultants), which is now at an advanced stage of construction. The timber frame structure at Burry Port is up and Dawnus hope to have the structure weathertight by mid-February.

The site Manager, Rob Downs (Dawnus), kindly showed me around the new building while on site to discuss some of the external works features. At this early stage, the benefits of the light and spacious classrooms can be felt along with the generous communal core, which doubles up as a hub space for pupils.

The new building is also set within the falling topography of site, to mange compliant access to the school and associated facilities. The framework for the primary approaches to the building are now in place, in accordance with our design and the benefits of the path orientations and level management can be felt as you approach the main entrance.

Normal service continues within the existing school, which occupies the southern portion of the site, but with the external infrastructure taking shape, the pupils will be in their new School for September 2017. Following occupation of the new building, phase two will see completion of external works.

by James O’Donnell (Senior Landscape Architect)

Developing a City Region Vision

The City Region concept for South East Wales is an idea which is still yet not fully established, but other regions in the UK are pushing ahead with confident plans and regional strategies. There are now clear lessons from which South East Wales and the proposed Cardiff Capital City Region needs to learn.

An excellent example is how the ten Local Authorities in Greater Manchester are expected to jointly consult upon a ’Spatial Framework’ that will make possible the development of 227,000 homes, the creation of 200,000 jobs and the protection of significant areas of landscape between now and 2035.

The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework draws the big picture of where new development will be encouraged, where it will be resisted and how improvements to strategic transport (including new Metrolink extensions, train stations, motorway junctions and connections to Manchester Airport) will help to continue to position the region for further improvement in GDP and an increasing quality of life.

The plan is exactly the bold and integrated vision that is needed in South East Wales. In the Cardiff Capital Region we have the beginnings of part of a picture, the Metro, but we need the other elements to be brought together into a wider strategy for the region that all ten Council Leaders can sign up to. It is possible to debate what these other elements should be, but the orchestratration of: housing sites, strategic employment sites, an economic strategy, as well as tourism/recreation, transport and green infrastructure should all be high priorities for any such plan. (After all, is it not easier to piece together a jigsaw puzzle, by occasionally referring to the picture on the lid of the box?)

The recent changes to the planning system in Wales make it technically possible to establish ‘Strategic Development Plans’ while the shelving of Local Authority mergers by Welsh Government leaves much greater space for the ten Local Authorities in South East Wales to collaborate on strategic issues and opportunities. 

Cities all over the world are the driving force behind the economic growth. It is essential therefore that each City Region is able to set its stall out to be able to say to the rest of world, Government, its communities and businesses, what it will do and what it requires in order to succeed. 

South Wales needs the kind of clarity which Greater Manchester is striving for, and is now more essential than ever following the UK's decision to leave the EU. Structural funds from the EU will cease beyond 2020, so a new modus operandi is critical now that the rule book is about to be re-written. It is too early to see how the Welsh Government’s ‘Valleys Task Force’ will work, but perhaps it should look closely at how its objectives could be realised by promoting a clear picture for the whole region, not just the Valleys? The tight boundaries on eligibility for EU funding have forced a ‘Valleys myopia’ before and it has not worked. After the scale of the rejection of the EU by communities across the South East Wales in the referendum, it is apparent that a new approach is required to tackling inequalities and optimising opportunities in the region.

Decision makers and influencers, as well as all those who are involved in planning and development in South East Wales need to work together, in the context of an orchestrated plan to bring our region into the 21st Century so that it is an economically successful and liveable City Region. Greater Manchester seems to offer a model for how this should be done.

By James Brown