The term ‘placemaking’ has been rendered almost meaningless. Can we agree on just one thing? It’s not about the journey time from Bond Street
The Deptford Project Cafe in London is often cited as a model for placemaking and community engagement. Installed as a ‘meanwhile use’ by developer U+I, it was a bistro inside a 1960s train carriage repurposed by the artist Morag Myerscough. The cafe soon became the focal point of an events programme that activated the site ahead of its redevelopment. A subtle, but important feature was a Chinese proverb Myerscough tagged to the side of the train: “Make happy those who are near and those who are far will come.”
That sentiment was the guiding principle of a development that has worked hard to ensure local people participate in its success. Much of the retail space has been tenanted by businesses sourced from within a two-mile radius and the programming of a new public square is curated to be relevant to a mostly local market.
U+I later commissioned a stand-alone work from Myerscough based on the same Chinese proverb – a bold message in bright lettering that now hovers like a mission statement over the company’s London headquarters.
U+I is not the only developer to focus so conspicuously on local audiences rather than tourists. Argent is gradually introducing new cultural attractions to King’s Cross Central, but it mostly relied on the programming of the public realm to create a sense of place during its early stages.
There is no showy ‘BBC experience’ in Stanhope’s redevelopment of the former Television Centre in White City. At Here East on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Delancey has created one of London’s most interesting new places by serving the needs of people who live and work within walking distance.
I recently worked on a large scheme in east London where the developer asked for a placemaking strategy that would ‘attract people from west London’
To be sure, none of these developers has consciously set out to discourage tourists – they aren’t ‘anti-tourist’ in a nimby sort of way. They just aren’t being distracted by the shiny object of large tourist attractions. They are putting residents first, confident in the truism that people generally like to be where people are: create an environment that is warm and inviting for local people and other people will want to be there, too.
If this seems obvious, it is worth noting how much of a departure it is from the way we have traditionally thought about urban regeneration. For a long time, we were in thrall to the concept of place-branding and its corollary: the idea that any place could and should be ‘a destination’. It prompted a Lottery-fuelled binge on outsized museums, theatres, arenas and science centres of ‘iconic’ design, many of which were preposterously scaled to cater for all the tourists they were meant to attract.
A misplaced fascination with tourists remains the norm today rather than the exception. Consider Birmingham’s Smithfield project, which promises to regenerate some 17 hectares of the city centre. Lendlease was recently named as the city’s development partner, but it will have its work cut out trying to reconcile all the conflicting objectives of a brief that can’t seem to decide whether Birmingham city centre should look a little bit like Poundbury or a little bit like Disneyland. There is comforting new urbanist language in the brief about diverse and affordable, mixed-tenure residential neighbourhoods in attractive, sustainable environments, full of amenities that make it “a great place to live” with “a distinctive sense of place and identity”. But that is then punctuated by the clichéd hyperbole of a city that’s trying just a little too hard to be noticed: leisure attractions should appeal to everyone within a “regional/national” catchment; arts and cultural facilities need to have a “national and international appeal”. Placemaking is today’s watchword, but underneath it all, the object is still tourism. Their lips say “inclusion”, “diversity” and “engagement” – but their eyes say “Sydney Opera House” and “Guggenheim Bilbao”.
I recently worked on a large scheme in east London where the developer asked for a “placemaking strategy” that would “attract people from west London”. There’s the issue in a nutshell – it’s such a peculiar way to frame the question. Tourism strategies are about getting people to cross the city; placemaking is about getting people to cross the street. They may use the same language, even the same set of tools, but they are very different things.
It is a measure of how quickly placemaking has rocketed up the agenda that almost every article must now begin with the author’s definition of what they mean by placemaking. There is no formal definition, so – with grim inevitability – everyone’s definition of placemaking differs slightly from everyone else’s. Indeed, some would argue that the term has been rendered almost meaningless by steady overuse and appropriation.
Nevertheless, we don’t need a philosophical debate about placemaking to conclude that it has little to do with tourism. Placemaking started as a discipline in the seminal works of authors such as Jane Jacobs, William H Whyte and Kevin Lynch. It is striking how little these early works care about attracting tourists to a place. Instead, they focus overwhelmingly on the many small, daily interactions between people in the spaces they inhabit.
For example, in 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote: “The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man… The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level – most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone – is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighbourhood need.”
That elusive sense of place we are all trying to create but struggling to define is all about the rhythm of people’s daily lives in the places they live and work.
Tourism is different. Tourism has a very precise and internationally accepted definition. Indeed, every member country of the UN World Tourism Organization (WTO) adopts the same definition of a tourist as “a traveller taking a trip to a destination outside his/her usual environment”. Those last two words are crucial – the definition of a tourist hinges on the idea that we all have our own “usual environment”, which the WTO defines as “the geographical area within which an individual conducts his/her regular life routines”.
It seems surprising, even astonishing, that we could so easily confuse our placemaking and tourism agendas. They are targeted at two entirely different sets of people: placemaking is for those people interacting with their usual environment; tourism is about people outside their usual environment. They are not two sides of the same coin – they are more like two magnets turned the wrong way around and constantly repelling one another.
The best examples of placemaking thus tend to be organic, nurtured by communities from the bottom up. Think of places like the Northern Quarter in Manchester, the Baltic Triangle in Liverpool or Brighton’s North Laine. They are tales of serendipity, experimentation and trial and error – small projects that evolved, adapted and grew over time. The best thing local authorities and developers can normally do in these situations is to stay out of the way and let things happen.
By contrast, tourism-led projects need a measure of scale and prominence to have a meaningful impact on a wider market. They are bigger, riskier, more expensive and more complex, and therefore need the impetus of major promoters. They are driven from the top down by politicians and developers often trying to effect transformational change with a single swing of the bat. It’s the type of thinking that has delivered some lasting projects, such as Turner Contemporary in Margate and The Lowry in Salford, as well as cautionary tales such as The Public in West Bromwich and the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield.
In some cases, the overlap between tourism and placemaking is explicit and intentional, being rooted in the belief that if a place is worth visiting, it must be a nice place in which to live and work, too. A ‘how-to’ guide to place-shaping in towns and cities that the Northwest Regional Development Agency published in 2009 was premised on the idea that “the towns and cities that are the most attractive to visit are invariably those that are most attractive to live in” and that tourism development should therefore “always be a central part of regeneration and economic development”.
“The best examples of placemaking tend to be organic, nurtured by communities from the bottom up.... They are tales of serendipity, experimentation and trial and error”
It is an awkward inversion of that old Chinese proverb – make come those who are far and those who are near will be happy.
A more general and widespread issue is the way politicians, planners and developers have all adopted the vocabulary of placemaking, while still being straight-jacketed by planning and funding processes that continue to incentivise prioritising tourists over residents.
Tourism-led strategies fit neatly into large development projects with broad sweeping masterplans. They create signature buildings that serve a marketing function and are more easily justified through their economic impact. Generally, funders are good at assigning economic value to projects that can track the expenditure of incoming tourists, but bad at recognising the intangible social capital that’s built up through thoughtful, organic placemaking.
Good placemaking, while typically cheaper and less risky than tourism-led strategies, is an uncomfortable fit with local authorities and larger developers, which like certainty, measurable outputs and clear milestones. Placemaking can be tedious, often chaotic and is almost always slow and incremental. Genuinely allowing communities to co-create the spaces they inhabit is incongruous with the built-in control-freakery of professional estates management.
Placemaking is messy, but that messiness has value. Tourist attractions are evaluated in terms of defined outputs: footfall, admissions, box office, spend. In contrast, placemaking is more concerned with outcomes – a community that is happier, healthier, more connected and resilient. Successful placemaking leaves a more empowered community in its wake. Even heroic failures can be as useful as runaway success stories. The goal is (or at least should be) to set in motion a system that will run indefinitely under its own steam and impetus, without the prodding of a local council or a private developer. If a project delivers those outcomes and builds that kind of social capital, its financial success or failure takes on less importance – the making matters more than the place.
None of this is meant to be a critique of either approach. There is a time and a place for investment in tourism, just as there are situations that call for a more nuanced approach to community-led placemaking. They can both be powerful instruments for effecting positive change, depending on the context. It is just important to be clear and honest about what one is hoping to achieve and for whom.
Trying to placemake by reflexively turning to tourist attractions can lead people to take some bewildering risks on large capital projects that are at best wholly unnecessary, and at worst counter-productive. As placemaking anchors, big tourist attractions have a margin of error that is razor-thin. They need to be successful, but not too successful – if they’re a big hit with tourists, they can quickly be perceived by residents as being ‘for them’ and not ‘for us’, but if the attraction struggles or fails, it simply cements the perception that there must be something wrong with the place. Whatever the underlying circumstances, a casual observer must be left to wonder what’s wrong with Hastings if its new pier can win the Stirling Prize in October and go bust in November.
In any event, for various reasons, it is likely that the market is trending away from the top-down, tourism-led approach that once dominated our thinking towards a more organic approach to placemaking – even in the context of very large, masterplanned schemes.
First, there is no longer such a compelling need to risk developing large tourist attractions simply to shape perceptions of a place. That strategy made more sense when experts mediated our understanding of places and we went where Lonely Planet and the travel trade told us to go; now we follow the recommendations of our friends on Facebook and our peers on TripAdvisor. You don’t need to feature in The Guardian’s travel section if you can find a way to trend on Twitter or Instagram. Scale is no longer an easy substitute for quality. The foodies will find their way to Brixton; the skaters will make their way to Tottenham’s The Spot.
Second, younger people are increasingly trading the manufactured experience of traditional visitor destinations for the authenticity of places perceived to be ‘real’. They want to do what locals do. Short breaks in London were once dominated by visits to must-see staples such as Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge, but the city must now also serve a new market that would rather eat in Bermondsey Street or shop in Brick Lane. The city-as-theme-park is giving way to a city of villages that all have an opportunity to capture visitors’ attention.
Finally, we are seeing the emergence of developers with a more sophisticated approach to placemaking. They are solving the financial riddles that previously thwarted their attempts to invest in a place beyond the bricks and mortar, as well as finding new ways to involve residents in defining their own spaces and communities.
A good example is Placefirst. This has recently (and rightly) scooped a hatful of awards for its development at Welsh Streets in Liverpool, which The Guardian’s Rowan Moore calls a “rare housing story to celebrate”. These eight rows of Victorian terraced houses were cleared and left to rot by an abortive Housing Market Renewal scheme, but were bought by Placefirst, which is now restoring them one street at a time.
“There is no longer such a compelling need to risk developing large tourist attractions.... You don’t need to feature in The Guardian’s travel section, if you can find a way to trend on Twitter or Instagram”
Welsh Streets was also the birthplace of Ringo Starr. In a city that has made a monument or memorial out of every brick that a Beatle ever touched, it must have been tempting to make hay out of that direct association to a local legend. The childhood homes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon are, after all, run by the National Trust as fixtures on The Beatles tour.
But other than Starr’s inclusion on a small mural with 25 other Toxteth celebrities, there is virtually no reference to this as the birthplace of a Beatle. Placefirst CEO David Smith-Milne doesn’t see what value it adds to Welsh Streets as a place to raise a family, not even as a marketing gimmick on the website.
“Our success won’t be measured by the rate at which we lease the units,” he says. “I won’t consider this place a success unless we find that in two, three, five years down the line, people are still renewing their leases. I want people to stay here and settle and make it their home, not just a convenient housing solution. How is a Beatles museum going to make the people who live here any happier?”
It’s not. Obviously. Instead, Placefirst concentrates on the subtle touches that enable and encourage residents to connect with each other, such as clearing out alleyways and rear extensions to create communal gardens. These connections have grown and manifested in unexpected ways.
“The garden parties just happened,” he adds. “The first batch of residents welcomed the second batch with a garden party. And it snowballed through the summer. Every time somebody new moved in, there was another garden party to welcome them.”
The next phase of the project will include some more communal spaces and some artist studios, which will offer discounted rent in exchange for works that reflect or improve the neighbourhood. Everything is always geared to a market that lives on these and their neighbouring streets. They are making happy those who are near and…
Well, you get the point.
Dan Anderson is a director of Fourth Street. He has almost 20 years’ experience of advising destinations