Placemaking: the new urban agenda

Mark Stevens
How do we embed good placemaking in the development of our cities? The inception of public space and place has traditionally been scattered among disparate disciplines and social movements. Today, the debate on what constitutes a public space is inevitably coloured by the complexities of funding and long-term management, and shaped by a range of views on the role of the private sector.

Our cities certainly need to find creative ways to preserve, manage and create new public spaces, and these spaces should be more than just the incidental spaces between buildings. The focus has shifted from regeneration schemes where single asset class, density, and maximum returns were the priorities.

Today’s emphasis is on the development’s added value, both within the scheme itself and beyond its immediate boundary and into the surrounding area. This multi-faceted approach is so much more than merely replacing old commercial building stock.

Developments are now expected to revitalise the area, encouraging multiple usage, and potentially introducing night-time economy and culture.

Many schemes are able to resurrect the lost histories of places, reconnecting sites with their heritage.

Community engagement with the space is a priority for placemakers. Good practice placemaking facilitates inclusiveness and attracting people, which means integrating new spaces into the wider urban fabric, blurring the line between public and private, and going beyond corporate and consumerist aims.

Retailers and food & beverage providers obviously want as much footfall as possible, but money-spending activities shouldn’t be the only possibilities, nor should these spaces be seen as solely white-collar public realm. We can expect a continuing debate around the democracy of privately-owned public spaces.

Private sector involvement is here to stay and it’s encouraging to see more developers demonstrating aspiration to deliver long-term social, economic and environmental value. A more collaborative approach has emerged, with lead developers typically working alongside local authority partners, transport authorities, business networks, community stakeholders, universities and schools, and neighbouring developers.

For developers and investors, this is a long-term commitment bringing significant estate management responsibilities and associated costs. This cannot be achieved without a sound economic basis—local authority partners will need to develop their understanding of what motivates investors and developers, if they want private sector involvement to stimulate growth in their region.

Centre for Cities highlights the following city traits as the most highly valued by investors and developers alike: a strong city economy with growth potential; good transport connections; pro-investment city leadership, and a focus on delivery—including a responsive, pro-investment planning system, a team with access to investment expertise, and willingness to step in where necessary to facilitate investment.

Robust approaches to demonstrating social value will be helpful to all stakeholders, not least developers. To date, the built environment industries have paid little attention to the question of measuring real estate value in a broad-ranging and holistic way. Regeneris Consulting’s 2017 report The Economic and Social Story of Kings Cross attempts to address this. The study identifies the economic and social benefits over the last decade, restricting itself to only those benefits directly attributable to the development.

King’s Cross has largely avoided the barrage of criticism historically levelled at London’s largest redevelopment projects. The ongoing transformation of 67 acres of former railway land to the north of King’s Cross station is frequently praised as an example of good practice regeneration, and its social impact plays an important part.

The Regeneris report identifies areas where the development already demonstrates the value of what it delivers. For example, since 2008, £3bn has been invested in construction on the site, supporting 1,300 jobs; the Construction Skills Centre has supported 1,200 people into construction-related employment and strengthened the local labour market by providing 600 apprenticeships and 450 NVQ L2 starts. The scheme has also delivered 900 new homes, of which 325 (36 per cent) can be classified as affordable, supporting £77m of additional local spend per year from new residents, which is estimated to have stimulated 200 jobs in the local area, and generated £1.4m in additional council tax per year.

There’s room for improvement too, with the recommendation that Argent and its partners put in place a longer-term approach to tracking social outcomes within neighbouring communities. Among the tracking recommendations were the social impacts of providing access to affordable/intermediate housing, and the value of participation in the arts and leisure.

At Faithful+Gould, we work with the most visionary developers and their partners, as they seek to plan, finance, design, construct, own and manage these new spaces. We understand the importance of multiple-stakeholder collaboration.

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