Placemaking can be traced back to the 1960 when urban pioneers such as Jane Jacobs and William H Whyte discussed the idea of cities for people, in opposition to cities for cars, as the current Mayor of New York City Robert Moses had been planning. As the term indicates, placemaking is about making places, hence it relates both to the process and outcome. What better person to invite to talk about placemaking than Ed Watson, Executive Director for the West End Partnership. With over 20 years of experience in shaping places in London, Ed shared with us his cocktail ingredients list for place-shaping. Because place-shaping is not a single person or, indeed, a single ingredient activity. For Ed, to shape places where people want to be, a mix of 12 ingredients is needed, brought together in different times and doses – just as a cocktail.
The ingredients on Ed’s list were shared-vision, community buy-in, mix, comprehensive, passion, curation, long-term value, heritage, connectivity, quality and narrative. Ed went through each of the ingredients, illustrating them with London-based examples. For instance, community buy-in is about winning the hearts and minds of the residents and this sometimes means showing persistence: Roger Madelin, during his tenure as Chief Executive of Argent spent two-years going to weekly community meetings when Kings Cross’s redevelopment was being planned. Mix is important because it brings vitality and diversity to an area through tenure diversification, a range of land uses but also by thinking about both the day/night economy or permanent/temporary facilities. Another ingredient is ‘comprehensive’: the regeneration of Elephant and Castle is an example of planning on different scales and for a wider area. Shaping great places is also about curation of space. Argent’s space curation in Kings Cross during the construction period demonstrates the effort made to mitigate the negative impacts of construction for residents and passers-by.
The presentation let to an interactive conversation on a variety of subjects including what it means for public space to be privately managed. For Ed, the maintenance of space is key for the public to enjoy it, whether it is publicly or privately done. Therefore, pre-conditions on keeping the space accessible and to high standards are essential. That said, he recognises the need to protect some areas, especially against a loss of authenticity. Soho’s 450 years long creative legacy must be protected and even grown. Kings Cross retains a bit of its past through the schools and affordable homes provided on site.
A further point was around the fact that Local Authorities do have a key role to play to set the conditions for a successful place. Yet, it was felt by the group that too often planners see themselves as administrative people instead of place-shapers. Cllr Nickie Aiken, recently elected Leader of Westminster City Council, launched an initiative requiring developers to build at least of 30% intermediate and affordable housing. While much debated, this bold demand is already having positive effects in Westminster’s housing stock.
The group went on to discuss how the Private Rented Sector might contribute positively to placemaking, especially in less desirable areas outside London as developers end up having a natural long-term interest in these places. This relates to the long-term ingredient in the place-shaping cocktail. In this sense, some argued that the UK building environment has also the responsibility to conquer the hearts and minds of the people and speed up the construction process.
The conversation closed with a recall on the importance of a smarter use of urban land. While high density is increasingly becoming a necessity, it does not necessarily mean high rise. Ed cited the work of Hong Kong’s metro system operator (MTR) as a wise way of densifying around existing connectivity nodes and funding rail projects.
Words by Pauline Niesseron