Placemaking is the thing that every developer and landowner is talking about, but do most of us in the UK really understand what it means?

Ben Young

With a term that originated in the US, it is no surprise to find that, over the pond, placemaking is bigger and better. The question is what do they know that we don’t, and can we catch up?

When it comes to the main metropolises, there is little difference between the types of people who work in and live in and around the cities. The generations of city dwellers have a common culture shared across the internet, TV and social media. Digital innovation has accelerated this culture; it moves quickly, it’s bold, outspoken and ever changing. The way professionals choose to live, work and play is very similar on both sides of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, the similarities between the US and the UK do not carry over into the property world.

Here we see age-old national stereotypes borne out. The US is a country with a ‘bigger is better’ attitude, a land of boundless opportunity. The UK is a more stoic, traditional counterpart.

The property industry in the US is bolder and faster-paced. US placemaking strategy is confident and forward-thinking. They will push the boundaries and set the pace of creativity, understanding that the innovation that has infiltrated most aspects of our lives does not have to stop when it comes to the built environment.

Take New York’s High Line, perhaps the best example of managed public space in the world. It has transformed the lower east side of Manhattan and spans the trendy neighbourhoods of Chelsea and the Meat Packing District. This gargantuan scheme, which extends one-and-a-half miles and cost a staggering $187m (£118m) to build, was initiated at a community board meeting by two guys, a writer and a painter - a very American dream. Public opinion of the High Line among all generations couldn’t be higher. The obvious British equivalent is the proposed Garden Bridge, a 366-metre crossing over the Thames at an expected cost of £175m. This practical solution to a need for additional Thames crossings is being met with widespread criticism from all camps, including millennials. Why does the expansive High Line get a thumbs up, while the Garden Bridge gets a resounding thumbs down?

The traditional, stick-to-what-we-know attitude of British decision-making has left us with a half-way house - the Garden Bridge is perhaps both too little and too late. When the High Line scheme was created it was a first; the proposed Garden Bridge is a similar, smaller project a decade later. The scale of the High Line was staggering, while the Garden Bridge is comparatively pedestrian. This, I would say, is reflective of the whole approach to placemaking in this country. There are very few over here who are pushing the creative boundaries and looking at new ideas.

Since the High Line has been built Google has bought 270,000m2 (2,906,280 sq ft) of real estate in its shadow. Where Google goes, others follow. Big investment reaps big rewards; $187m is a very bold investment in placemaking, but token investments simply won’t cut it.

New York is made up of districts that have their own identities and cultures. This is something that, in the UK, Manchester has started to get to grips with, but for all the real estate names in London, from Midtown to Tech City, they are differentiated by geography, rather than identity or a sense of community.

Work and life are becoming increasingly entwined. Decisions about the location of the office in which you work are becoming as important as the business you work for. The best and brightest are migrating from the traditional commercial districts to the coolest neighbourhoods.

If, as an industry, we are to implement real placemaking strategies, then we need to up our game, be less ‘British’ in our attitude to new ideas and learn from the American desire to push boundaries and innovate.

Ben Young is Capital Properties’ ideas engineer and recently returned from the PSFK conference in New York

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