~ Carol Tallon, originally published in Council Journal, September 2018
Placemaking is not a new concept, the term has been used for decades to describe a more holistic approach to urban development. Initially, placemaking was focused solely on public spaces and offered a mechanism to get communities involved at early design stage and then kept them engaged until such time as the communities themselves effectively became the ongoing curators of the space. Today, this remit has broadened and placemaking is now a key function of every State or private property developer and home builder.
In the past, feature public areas like plazas, parks and waterfronts were quite separate and distinct from neighbouring residential development; however, suburban sprawl and urban reclamation has seen small spaces, previously unutilised or underutilised, start to fulfil the function of a ‘public area’. Left unchecked, these areas can become targets for antisocial behaviour, whereas with the right planning and resources, these can be made into safe, inviting and functional spaces for citizens. At its simplest, a pleasurable or interesting space can be its own reward. But the benefits of placemaking go beyond simple pleasure; by bringing the various disciplines of planners, designers, engineers and architects together with local communities and end users of mixed tenure developments, what you get is a regulatory-compliant, citizen-owned neighbourhood strategy that works.
Jan Gehl, Danish architect, urban design consultant and global leader in people-centred urban design simplifies placemaking:
“First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works… Make it nice where you are, and put the density on top.”
The basic tenets of sustainable placemaking are as follows:
At a glance, a city might well be defined by its buildings or streets or principal industry but the beating heart is its people. If ever a city illustrated this point, it is the city of Tianducheng (often referred to as ‘Little Paris’) in China. The urban centre was planned and designed as an almost-replica of Paris in France, including an Eiffel Tower of sorts. Was this what people wanted? Clearly not, as only 2,000 reside in this city, which has the capacity for 100,000. When it comes to successful placemaking, listening to the people who currently use or who will be using the space most is critical. In this context, it is often said that ‘community knows best’. And of course, this makes sense. They have the insights about local practices and neighbourhood habits (good and bad). More importantly, they have a much deeper awareness of local needs and challenges facing the community in a way that helps to prioritise resources.
“Good placemaking requires multi-disciplinary experts to provide answers, but great placemaking gives a voice to the community to pose the right questions.”
Once community stakeholders have been identified and brought into the placemaking loop, the focus must shift to the place or area in question.
Urban planning and design is about so much more than a green area of respite from traffic or efficient parking that does not curtail retail opportunities. It is also about more than random outdoor seating or disjointed art installations copied from other successful areas modelled. Every place is unique and, as such, presents with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. The solutions and proposals form the basis of a placemaking strategy that all stakeholders can contribute to. While it might sound overly simplistic, often the key to unlocking all these contemporary solutions can be found within the space itself. Placemaking is the process of mining all available natural resources like place, community spirit, local entrepreneurship and creative talent, and then refining it into something precious – a shared vision.
A Shared Vision
As truly successful placemaking requires buy-in and contributions from local authorities, politicians, local businesses, private developers and members of the local community, a shared vision is critical. While the concept of a shared vision sounds simple, the process to achieving that collective agreement is never easy – but it is worthwhile. Most countries can point to so-called ‘vanity projects’ when it comes to design and development. While the motivations behind these stunted projects vary, the one common theme is lack of public consultation and meaningful community engagement. This lack of public consultation is not necessarily done out of disregard, often the proponent is well-intentioned but operating under false assumptions. For example, The Residencial Francisco Hernando development in Seseña, Spain was built by a property developer who was nobly driven to provide affordable housing for people he viewed as forgotten or abandoned by the State. In his single-minded pursuit of this, fundamental elements of the development were entirely overlooked and the space was not suitable for occupation initially.
“Assumptions are the enemy of placemaking. You need to ask the right questions of the right people.”
Respect the Cycle
While it might sound counterintuitive, the most successful placemaking never reaches a conclusion. ‘Place’ is a constant work in progress and this is a good thing. As society changes and as people change, so too do their needs and the space around them must evolve to reflect that. Useful places and objects (and, arguably, people) must adapt to avoid obsolescence. In turn, some level of obsolescence must be accepted and then the cycle starts all over again.
The Impact of Digital Placemaking
Increasing digitisation and the pervasiveness of social media has transformed placemaking over the past decade, however, the big success stories tend to come from developing countries where public consultation and community engagement are relatively new. In Ireland and the UK, public consultation is still, at worst, a political headache for developers (even State developers) and, at best, a tick-box exercise on the way to planning compliance. We are still finding our feet when it comes to meaningful and actionable community engagement. There is, perhaps, a lack of appreciation for the commercial potential of tapping into such a data-rich resource. But this is changing. Stakeholders now realise that the current pre-planning public consultation process does not encourage real engagement, generally only objections. It has grown to be adversarial in nature, not by design but rather by unwitting acquiescence.
“Experience shows that the interests of local authorities, private developers and citizens are far more aligned in terms of values and priorities than our adversarial public consultation process would have us believe.”
There is certainly a move to curb this among progressive local authorities but NIMBYism is causing major disruption and delays in the planning process. This is where new technologies can facilitate change and Ireland is showing great promise in this emerging sector. In fact, Proptech Ireland, the not-for-profit organisation supporting innovators of technologies designed for or used by the planning, construction and property industries in Ireland was recently awarded the status of ‘Partner City’ by Leading Cities. The Boston-based Leading Cities organisation is the global leader in Smart City solutions, city diplomacy and collaboration, advancing sustainability and resilient city strategies and technologies.
PLACEengage.com is just one example of the latest iteration of cloud-based, community engagement tools that embrace PaaS, or Platform as a Service, to act as a digital town hall. It quickly identifies community stakeholders and then becomes a digital bridge between placemakers, their clients and neighbours. It allows developers and local authorities to upload proposals, planning decisions and changes to planning for all stakeholders to access and comment on in real-time. This is a great way to bring citizens along in this process-driven system. Of course, it can also be used to promote and then live-stream more traditional approaches like workshops or in-person discussion groups so that no one is left behind. Digital placemaking allows member of the community to stay informed on area or development proposals or changes, in real time, and to contribute their views from the comfort of their smartphone 24/7. This makes it more likely that they will contribute in a manner other than objection. Local authorities can then reap the benefit of a decade-worth of disjointed smart city initiatives and it takes them a step further towards the aspired ‘Digital Citizen’.
Also, this type of AI-enabled, digital placemaking makes sense for property developers as it offers a complete, multi-stakeholder, communications tool to facilitate meaningful public consultation and further community engagement in a compliant and technologically smart way.
One of the greatest challenges to public consultation and the community engagement process is the misguided quest by placemakers for unanimous agreement. The complex reality is that there is not one, single unified ‘community’. In real life, when considering one development in one neighbourhood, there will be overlapping communities that are already in conflict (for example, private vs. social housing, owners vs. tenants, generational vs. newbies). Not only does the community as a whole have conflicting or competing priorities, but in many cases, individuals have that too. For example, individuals might have the need for local employment yet are resistance to increased industrialisation or they might have the need for further school places yet not want to amalgamate senior schools. Real life is messy. The purpose, therefore, is not to surmount all of these individual objections or try to cajole unanimous agreement, but rather to focus on the bigger picture – a common vision for the neighbourhood and engender commitment from all sides to work towards it. This is more likely to achieved when all sides feel that they have contributed and been heard.
As we embrace greater building heights and urban density, which are to be delivered at rapid pace, it has never been more important to engender community support and cooperation. In its simplest form, digital placemaking leverages the power of emerging technologies and social media to increase community engagement by meeting citizens where they are, online. We can say that it ought not be so or we can accept what is.