I chatted with Kylie Legge the founding partner and current director of Place Partners about what placemaking is and the importance of the design foundations – urban design, architecture and density as part of this process.
How would you actually define placemaking?
Placemaking is the collaborative process of creating, enhancing, and maintaining people-focused places that reflect and respect the inherent qualities and characteristics of each location, whether they be social, cultural, economic, or environmental.
So it’s not actually attached to one particular phase in the process?
No, placemaking is the process. So you can’t ‘placemake’ something. I’ve been in meetings where someone has asked, “well don’t you just come in and do placemaking at the end?”, at a time when we were trying to make the decision whether the main street should be north-south or east-west.
I replied, “No, this is the placemaking! The benefit of these fundamental decisions influence the way we address things such as sunlight, or if the shops are going to be located on people’s way home and therefore they’re going drive past and be more likely stop.”
All of these considerations contribute to placemaking, it’s a very complex system. It’s a collaborative process. So for an architect, masterplanning or landscape firm to say that they’re doing the placemaking is actually where they’ve already failed. You can’t be a firm designing placemaking; you can’t design place.
Where do you think is the most valuable phase of placemaking?
The research phase is definitely the most important for us. One thing that I’ve learned from placemaking is really listening and actually just being collaborative. So many times we get into this and we think we’ve already got an answer, and can overcomplicate things because we’re not understanding what the problem is. What looks like a physical problem might be a cultural problem, however you actually need different tools to address these issues. It’s like if you’ve only got a hammer, all you see is nails. So if you give an architect a place, they’re going to design a building and if you give it to a social planner they’re going to come up with social programs. The idea for the placemaker is that we are expert generalists and can provide a brief that will actually address the relevant parts for each expert to be to be able to focus on.
When do you generally become involved in a project? Once a vision has already been established helping set the vision?
In an ideal universe we’re there, but it’s really hard, usually there are already key items like transport networks set. If they’ve gone through some preliminary structure planning process, to unpick that is almost impossible. I’ve challenged students I lecture at university by asking, “If you were master planning a new area what would you do if I said you can’t put the roads down first?” The challenge is that people need a paradigm shift around transport networks and which is the dominant mode.
Do clients appreciate the process of ‘placemaking’ and see the value added in getting input early?
I think a lot of our clients come to us because we’re problem solvers, our projects are so diverse, shopping centres, public spaces, main street revitalisation. We don’t have a one size fits all outcome, however the process is one size fits all, as the research reveals completely different outcomes every time.
How can you achieve a balance between community and commerce using placemaking strategies and outcomes?
It’s one of our biggest challenges as place makers, to understand the cost benefit of projects. It’s something that we’re really committed to, which is part of the reason why we try to clarify the benefits. An example of this would be if we’re saying, “Okay, we think that you should retain these two trees on this corner for the following reasons…the first is because they’re retaining a part of history, secondly they’re mature trees and mature trees are worth about $100,000 dollars to put into the ground. The third point is because it’s part of landmarking and actually connects to the pedestrian network and provides a natural gateway, which means you don’t have to build a gateway, so therefore you’re saving money!”
The simplest argument for commerce is that good placemaking results in people wanting to spend time in a place. Then if they enjoy being there they are probably going to spend money, and they’re going to tell other people about it.
How do capture a community voice in a place with no pre-existing community?
It’s still important, but we don’t necessarily do primary engagement, what we try to do is understand who the likely buyers in that area are and where they might be coming from by looking at buying patterns.
How do you think brand differs from place identity or placemaking?
Placemaking is about trying to work out what the essence or the identity is, the personality or character of a place, whereas brand is the communication of that essence. We always say it’s what a place is, but what it wants to be as well. It allows for this idea of evolution.
What do you think of the images used to portray lifestyles in new communities through marketing brochures?
The developments are getting bigger and bigger; there are many well over 10,000 houses. So, by necessity they’re taking 10, 20, 30, 40 years to deliver. That’s changing the whole onus of placemaking and is part of the reason it is now popular. The developer never had to stay around this long on previous smaller developments, but now they’ve got to actually work harder to deliver vibrant place as those first people are doing what all people in a place do, which is they’re telling their friends about whether it’s a good place or a bad place. So they’re marketing to their future residents through their current residents, which is fine.
It’s certainly making the places better for everyone. But you’ll often find the demographic profile does not reflect the brochure. I worked on a project in North Melbourne, when we went back to the demographic profile it had this incredibly high contingent of people from the subcontinent, however when you walked around this place there was not a hint of this culture, even though it represented an extraordinary percentage, over 20% of the population.
It seems the design guidelines have a perfect image of the future residents in mind for the brochures, but the community isn’t that perfect image! At the same time the community wants to be that perfect image, because they think that that will make them more socially acceptable because difference isn’t explored in these estates. It results in creating this real tension between people not being able to express themselves.
If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?
Imagine creating a place from the inside out versus throwing it down and trying to fill spaces in. I think we just need to more generous with the places we create and try to consider the common good…for the people that are going to live in these places. How would it look to a 14 year old kid? How would it appeal to a mother with two kids? How would it relate to a guy who’s unemployed? Just think how these places are going to relate to a human being.