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they all take a perspective which is broader than any single profession until a point where their original title is superseded by that of ‘urban designer’.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