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The Purpose of Placemaking

Opinion piece: by Hannah Averbeck

A few weeks ago I saw an interesting question posed on LinkedIn- Client, customer or community: who do you serve? The question was introduced by Heatherwick studio to publicise the latest planning approval for the new Google HQ within the Kings Cross area. Alongside the question, the post argued that we should scrap the word ‘Placemaking’.

As it stands, placemaking is written within the goals of our work at West Port and forms the ethos behind this blog. We have used it as a way of summarising the interdisciplinary nature of our goals based on our understanding of the word and its position within built environment theory.

So what do we mean by placemaking?

I’ve been asked multiple times by friends and family (who only interact with urban literature through my imposed ramblings) whether I am making up words when I say ‘placemaking’. It's a word often used within urban research, discussions and papers, and is one of the first concepts I was introduced to when studying City Planning - but to most people it is just two words squished together - place and making. Ultimately, placemaking is about making places, but it doesn’t only relate to making places from scratch. Whilst we often intervene in existing urban areas as opposed to building them from bare dust and soil, this does not mean that the principles of placemaking can not be applied to redevelopment, infill or public realm interventions.

The concept, as the name suggests, is about designing more than just buildings, but creating places. We can look at cities and urban areas as entities, woven together, made up from independent threads and yarns, blending to form the fabric of a city. Placemaking concerns exactly this, it asks designers of the urban realm to make considerations beyond the individual buildings; looking to the social, economic, governance and design of a location- factors which when carefully considered have the potential to transform a space into a place. Placemaking takes something of a dual perspective; one from the ground of the individual human scale and social interaction, and one from a wider birds eye perspective of governance and integration of areas.

So I would ask - what harm does the word placemaking cause that we should eradicate it? Perhaps it could be seen to blanket cover a number of issues, sweeping important questions under the rug of a single term - however, I believe that it is the concept of placemaking which has helped draw connections between architecture, urban design and planning, to form much needed interdisciplinary conversations which ultimately allow for more inclusive practices. It is a word that, if removed, we would end up finding a different word to replace it with a similar meaning.

Many however share disdain for the word beyond a criticism of its meaning. Sound Advice also recently posted on their instagram an extract from a speech. They argued that “the planning system is now placemaking, place making is just spectacle”. The point aimed to articulate the frustration of representation within the planning system and profession. It highlights the fact that the people and cultures which actually contribute to what makes a place are ignored within the existing planning system due to a top down approach where those in power make planning choices based on individual needs. The speech called for an altruistic approach which goes beyond serving the self and instead serves the wider needs of a community. I can’t argue with their case - there is a gaping chasm between those who make choices about what makes a place, the decisions they make, and the reality of the immaterial factors which actually come together to shape spaces. Similarly there is a difference in the definition of place and thus the means with which to achieve it.

It was made evident that many developers and planners view successful placemaking as the creation of growth and profit. The people actually living in those places would correctly point out that those are not the qualities which make a space feel like a place. This sheds light on the systemic and structural issues within the planning system. Planning is relatively new as a discipline and its position alongside the age-old profession of architecture and the politics of governance, I would argue, is yet to be fully determined. It sits at an uncomfortable intersection of control and design - responding to governmental agendas on a spatial level.

It is at this point where diversions and differences emerge between professions of architecture and planning and who they serve - Taking it back to the original question at the start of the post: Who does the architect serve? This question is of particular interest and, in essence, lies behind our pursuit of inclusivity.

Despite disagreeing with the disposal of placemaking as a concept, I must agree that the community is the client. Within the topic of urbanism, the experience of the public realm as an onlooking observer and member of the public, is of utmost importance. It is often felt that these interventions are imposed upon the public and are created from forces beyond the majority's control. It is therefore integral with this view to be serving the many as opposed to the few and in such a way the local community should be engaged within the design process in order to have agency in the outcomes.

However this brings to light a key question - who is the local community and how do we engage them? Staying on brand with the Heatherwick post, let’s look at Kings Cross, often crowned one of the most successful redevelopment schemes in London, the site is now home to multiple large corporations, ample high price point restaurants and multi million pound apartments.

But who does it really serve? At Face value, yes the development has brought in business and it is undeniable that the space has been tastefully designed and is enjoyable at a human scale. But what about the social landscape and existing community of King’s Cross? Historically, the area was home to some of the lowest-rent London offices. The 19th century influx of social housing and public buildings such as the Local British Library meant that the area became densely populated with council tenants and a working class who brought in a set of non corporate enterprises to serve the local needs. The new landscape of Kings Cross, however, tells a very different story, with the new Google HQ acting as a prime example of the changes to the social scene and the residents of the newly refurbished gasholders who sit in a very different income bracket to the surrounding areas of SomersTown and the wider Kings Cross area.

As you may already have clocked, what I’m describing here could nestle comfortably under the umbrella of gentrification in the form of displacement. But often this is where the conversation ends and transforms into ways to prevent gentrification as opposed to location specific solutions. I’m going to take this opportunity to suggest that gentrification is inevitable within a capitalist society (aware this is not groundbreaking). If so, how do we engage and create inclusive places? - is it just about engagement in the design process or is it also about designing spaces that evoke comfort and belonging. Consultation and public engagement, whilst integral, is not the only way in which existing communities are served. In order to avoid tokenistic participation, methods should go beyond allowing locals to feel heard and included, but also promote designing spaces which allow them to feel proud of their area and foster a sense of ownership. In my opinion this is a way in which growth and change can sit more comfortably alongside existing urban identities and should be the goal when attempting to resist the negative impacts of gentrification.

So when we say let’s engage the community, let’s first begin by looking at who we’re defining as community and whether they’re the same community benefiting from the design as being impacted by the design. I would argue that placemaking isn’t the word we should be scrapping or even interrogating. The misuse of the word community within planning and architecture has far greater consequences… but perhaps that calls for a separate post itself.

Where do you stand on the term ‘placemaking’? Share your thoughts in the comments section below…


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