Placemaking has arrived on the Westminster agenda. It was long overdue. 

The term has been doing the rounds in the real estate industry since at least the 90s, when the PPPS put it into wide circulation, and it has been gaining velocity ever since. This longevity has of course been coupled with evolution, and significant reinterpretation: proponents can probably be forgiven for a large degree of disagreement over what they actually mean when they call down the word ‘Placemaking’ (or any of its hyphenated derivatives), while others will say that we’ve now moved beyond using it at all. 

However, the principles at the heart of placemaking remain sound – to such an extent that, following the launch of a ‘call to arms’ report by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), a new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Building Communities has been established. On its launch, the new APPG’s chair, Bob Blackman MP, said the new Group would “take the discussion around good design and placemaking to the next political level.” 

The overarching aim is to facilitate the strategic delivery of new homes and related infrastructure, to tackle the housing crisis - which is probably second only to Brexit and the NHS (along with social care) in terms of both newspaper column inches and political angst. 

That the principles and values of good placemaking would deliver significant housing improvements for people and society is beyond doubt. Few could argue against the inclusion of beautiful public spaces that engage communities, better infrastructure to improve accessibility and mobility, and ‘third-spaces’ that create activation and community ‘buzz’. All of this with the aim of creating (in new developments) or amplifying (in redevelopments) the identity, vision and values of a place and its people. An aim which fosters a sense of pride, cohesion and rootedness. 

There are, though, real challenges in making this a reality. 

As we found in our report, Placemaking: Buzzword or Brand Builder, the barriers to successful placemaking are various and multifaceted. However, one of those which continues to hold placemaking back when it comes to housing is that the economic model of many of the volume housebuilders just doesn’t allow for the upfront investment required to put in place the infrastructure and activation good placemaking calls for. There are of course exceptions – the likes of Urban & Civic’s development at Alconbury Weald – but the problem runs deep. Efforts continue to be made to demonstrate the long-term value in up front investment (such as in Savills’ 2016 report), but more needs to be done. 

Retail Leading the Way? 

There are lessons to be learned here from the retail and leisure industry. 

The economic challenges that have seen many retail collapses over the last year or so have been well trailed. However, as BRC chair Helen Dickinson told the group’s annual conference, “it’s not Armageddon retail, it’s reinvention retail.” The retailers that have evolved, adapted, and succeeded in this challenging climate have clearly adopted a people first approach that focus on the factors that are key to consumers today: price, accessibility, provenance/exclusivity and, importantly, experience. 

This has changed what ‘retail places’ look like, and the future of retail is looking increasingly mixed-use - including leisure, residential and workspace elements. Put simply, integration of things like housing and offices drives the footfall that retailers and leisure operators rely on. 

What the success stories in the retail industry are getting right is the idea of cultivating audiences around a place - and continuously engaging them – to increase dwell time, spend, and wellbeing. A recent Centre for Cities report on saving town centres has called for greater facilitation of this. 

Placemaking for the Long Term 

This of course requires a long-term sense of stewardship and responsibility over a place, and it is here that the placemaking dream can often fall short in reality. 

While, for instance, the landed estates have a built-in long-term vision that enables them to enact successful placemaking, many residential developers are unable to do the same – limited by the practical realities on the ground, and the pressure to deliver, swiftly, on the government’s target of 300,000 homes a year. 

What the retail industry’s experience indicates, though, is that the housing developers who succeed in the future will be those whose product evolves to meet the needs of its audiences; flexibility, community development, identity – placemaking – will become an increasingly central consideration for those who get it right. The growing influence of the BTR and wider Private Rental Sector, notably including co-living, is an interesting sub plot here. Savvy landlords will be taking a leaf from the retail industry by taking a long-term view of their properties and creating engaging products that respond to residents’ evolving needs. 

One of the key ‘place’ challenges for government, and particularly the new APPG, then, is to bridge the gap between the immediate housing shortfall, and the need for the long-term vision and financial commitment required to deliver good placemaking. It’s not an easy task, and answering it will require collaboration and new partnerships between the public sector (the role of Local Authorities cannot be understated here) and the private, as well as breaking down the siloes between traditional sectors. All the while remembering that people – their communities, their identities, their aspirations, and how they are engaged and brought along in the co-creation of a place – are central to any placemaking strategy. 

Watch this space. 

Tal Donahue