I interviewed one of Australia’s leading Placemakers, Gilbert Rochecouste from Village Well, to discuss how they are ‘Reconnecting people with Place’, and the idea of Commerce and Community.
What do Village Well do?
Our role is to facilitate the creation of great places, and the key word is ‘facilitation’. Our core business is really about reconnecting people to place. If you break that down a little bit, our core service is really about creating the visions and strategies, and taking the community on that journey at a transformative level, not a transactional, or transmissive level, which is 95% of all engagement unfortunately.
Our core business is with developers through to councils. Then we have the Main Street community that come to us all the time and say to us “we need to re-position and reactivate”. So it’s quite broad. We’re working on four universities at the moment doing master plans and placemaking through to a small town with 30 people.
We’re the ‘software experts’, if you want to call it that. So there’s ‘hardware’; infrastructure, built form, roads, those sorts of things, and then there’s the spaces in between all that, the ‘software’ that animates, creates localism and has a small footprint.
‘Transformative’ is what I call a ‘deep democracy’. There’s a participatory democracy process, where people are actually empowered to take ownership, budgets are given to them and decisions are made. We did that for thousands of years. We stopped doing it because experts and planning systems evolved, reducing 95% of the creativity of our communities. So our role is to unlock that creative potential through using powerful engagement and placemaking processes that we’ve developed over many years to unleash and unlock that transformative agenda.
What we’re needing very quickly is transformative agendas of change and renew compared to, “Here’s another master plan. Here’s another activation plan.”
That’s the transformative nature of placemaking, and we see placemaking as a new environmentalism. When you talk about their place, their local park, their streets, their Main Street, their night time economy, they all get that, things that they can attach too. We then move through that lens to shift their thinking about living well, living smarter, and living more sustainably by them doing it. We take a little bit of tactical urbanism, a little bit of the community-building and culture-planning.
When do you like to become involved with the project?
The preferred timing is at the beginning, actually understanding the lay of the land, the context, the culture. We understand the lay of the land before we do engagement, understanding the local heritage, the indigenous heritage; how the soil, the mountains and the rivers speak. Then we come in with that early placemaking visioning process. It creates the principles and the lens for the developer to move through. Setting the vision early, rather than starting to design something and then trying to activate it. Because of our community/commerce experience, we understand the deeper demographics and lifestyle components of the customer.
So in what phase do you think placemaking is most valuable to Greenfield projects?
We capture all the culture and heritage of the site which becomes the pattern language and placemaking strategy. We have a strategy around leasing mix and re-localisation where we try to break the big box mentality, because you can do everything possible as a good designer, but all that is going to be destroyed by one thing – the box. Because 98% of the box is brand and placeless stories.
What makes a place? If you think about all the great places in Australia, 95% of them are all pre-1945. What we create now are ‘no-where’ places and that’s our biggest challenge.
Where do you find the ‘voice’ of communities in Greenfield sites?
Almost three-quarters of your purchases are already there in your catchment. What we’ve learned working in Greenfield development is up to 75% will buy within a 5 to 10km radius of their current home. So your catchments already there, they’re the ones you talk to, people forget that.
How do you make a place great?
There’s two things that make a great place. You’ve got to tap into the wisdom that’s in the community, and it takes many hands to create a great place. You put those two principles together, you can really change the world.
But we, as an industry, don’t use those two principles in our planning, architecture or urban design professions. This is because we don’t really listen to the community and empower them to operate, design or co-design a place. It’s usually a one-hand architect, designer or planner who draws the whole vision…and 99 times out of 100, it doesn’t work.
How do you implement your placemaking strategy?
It’s basically taking what cities already do. Melbourne has place managers, cultural and community planners, and activators; so it’s taking the skill sets here and overlaying that on top of the commercial side of things.
There might be a place manager, but it’s actually made up of local voices and champions. Then they have community working groups, steering groups so that’s the key to developing great places, because they’re the ones that come up with the little ideas. We have an executive sort of working group, place leaders, then there’s a little marketing group and a little activation group for the Main Street, pulling in and watching who is doing what in the town.
Is placemaking a commercial advantage?
I’m working on one in Liverpool at the moment. It’s going to be 600 apartments on the Georges River, inspired by ‘The Grounds of Alexandria’. This developer went into an industrial estate and created a place. Really funky and kooky, like a mix between CERES and Abbotsford Convent in an industrial estate, cafes and people line up. It’s a nowhere place, but he’s created a place that will sell. A new stay of living well.
Give away the retail basically. I always tell them, “Give away the retail. What are you worried about? You’re going to sell another 400 apartments with a 15% premium. That’s where the commerce stuff works with placemaking. Well, we’ve done it dozens of times and we’ve got a set group of enlightened developers who get that now. Creating high performing ground planes. Councils are starting to also understand that community and enlightened commerce can work with each other.
Placemaking provides a sustainable competitive and commercial advantage giving a long-term cultural and community advantage. You put those three together in economic terms, with a high performing ground plane and places people love, it can add to the marketing premium.
Today the market has got nothing to sell; they’re selling the word ‘community’ all the time on glossy brochures…but it’s not real. You know there hasn’t been a super-regional mall built for the last 12 years in the US. They’re converting them back to Main Streets and mixed use town centres.
What were some of your key placemaking strategies you used with the Laurimar Community?
We did the initial setting up and vision. We set up a great little deli grocer when there was no one around right at the start of the project. Importantly the first hundred homes had a place. A permanent building that became the sales suite as well. The first residents could meet there…a barbecue was provided and a little piazza. It was like a little permanent tactical urbanism, because you could sell it off as a house later on or retrofit it. The developers employed one place manager 10 to 12 years ago. They know hundreds of people’s names and birthdays like they’re the town crier. They are the person everyone knows on the street, like the bank manager and postman used to be but are unfortunately all gone. At Laurimar the enlightened developer had a focus to build in these types of governance systems earlier.
How can you maintain the continuity of a ‘place vision’ across the lifecycle of a new community?
You need to own a town-making vision and have a developer who willingly becomes a town-maker. You must find and include community champions early on, along with key individuals, like the place manager and development director that say “this is going to be ten years of my life here.” I think in all our work we try and put a little bit of that inspiration and magic in adopting the ‘vision’ so it has a commercial reality and will be delivered.
When you come back with a placemaking plan, do you make some tangible targets that you try and put in place for people to work towards?
That’s where the principles, or place objectives come in to move it towards delivering a place experience. There’s a whole heap of place activation ideas: small, medium, to large. Sometimes we’ll create a wow factor.
We created the world famous night markets in Melbourne 20 years ago. It was small but now it gets nearly 50,000 people going to it in four hours! What kills most of these places is supermarkets. What we need to recreate is bringing back the public market. Councils would positively transform their towns and communities if they created and invested in public markets like they used to.
If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?
The zoning and planning laws, we’re keeping things siloed and it’s just killing our communities. I think councils should become investors along with developers; we could change the framework where our community gets to invest in our town centres. If you look at names on all these buildings everywhere, pre-1945, they were community members and civic elders. This is what crowd-funding could be used well for.