Placemaking is loosely defined as the “multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces”.
As an architect, it’s a phrase I hear on a daily basis. The UK has some fantastic examples of placemaking, but while many urban designers and developers strive to achieve it, they often fall short.
Perhaps we are missing a trick in the way we are thinking about it. True placemaking speaks more to planning from scratch with an entirely clean slate. Good examples include the new wave of vast ‘Giga Projects’ in the Middle East, which by definition each exceed $10bn in cost and are hailed as the most ambitious projects on earth, utilising technology, sustainability and natural landscapes.
Bar a handful of large-scale, shining examples such as London’s Greenwich Peninsula or the landmark transformation happening at Old Oak Park in West London, the nature of our landscape generally does not afford us the privilege of true ‘from scratch’ placemaking. We simply do not have the vast swathes of blank canvas needed to facilitate this properly and find ourselves mostly working in pre-developed environments.
What is the answer? I believe the term placeshaping is more apt for our landscape, where vacant blocks and greenfield sites are a rarity.
Placeshaping involves repurposing, refurbishing and repositioning what we already have, making it fit for purpose and adaptable for the brave new world we are entering, where uncertainty remains high.
At a sustainability level, the reuse of existing assets is far better for our environment, at a time when the ESG agenda is firmly under the microscope. The government’s recent change in flexibility for planning use classes has come as welcome news in regard to this and there appears to be a collective and increased appetite to work with what we have.
We must rethink the historical nature of our cities’ ‘zoning’; Covid-19 has shown that as soon as the office crowd disappears from their buildings in our financial districts, so does all of the periphery business – the market for shops, restaurants and bars simply drops away.
A more holistic, mixed-use approach to urban design will help to counteract this, with a live, work and socialise approach that can effectively feed itself – a true circular economy.
The blending of uses must also be central to our future thinking. Buildings can and should have more than one use, dependent on the time of day; a yoga studio during the morning, café during the day and auditorium for performances at night, for example. One asset, utilised flexibly, can cater for a range of users.
The city as an organism
We should think of the city as a living organism with its parks and green spaces seen as the lungs that breathe life into it, with transit-orientated development being the vital arterials that connect it all. With this model, we look to maximise the mix of residential, business and leisure space within short walking distance of public transport, allowing us to create 15-minute cities where all your needs can be met conveniently.
The result is thriving neighbourhoods with strong local identities and circular economies that are more resilient and impactful. It is something we have been undertaking at Station Hill in Reading; working within a designated zone to design a vibrant, mixed-use development around this vital transport interchange, one that fuses together contemporary living, working, leisure and open community space.
So let us reconsider and work with what we have, complementing it with new buildings and structures as required, while not losing sight of our changing world and the way we in which we use our spaces today.
It is about the right management and curation of spaces and places — we’re planning and designing the hardware, while the software is the life and soul of the place. That is the true essence of placeshaping and I believe vital to ensuring the future success and resilience of our cities in uncertain times.
John Badman is a director at CallisonRTKL