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  • Writer's pictureOur Green Warrington

The Importance of 'Placemaking'

Updated: Feb 11, 2021



The notion of ‘placemaking’ has been around for decades, but it is only relatively recently that this idea has gained real public and political traction - as we belatedly realise that simply dumping housing on an empty piece of land and then driving away is not the way to create happy, safe, healthy, interesting and inclusive places to live.


Similarly, towns and cities that are uninspiring, drab, difficult to get to and which don't have attractive public spaces will struggle to draw people to their streets.


‘Placemaking’ is the process we use to shape our private and public spaces and our buildings. It is the process by which consideration is given to where a new development should be located, how accessible and well connected it needs to be, who will be living there, what it should look like architecturally, where communal and green space could be placed and what services and amenities are needed. It is also a process whereby existing settlements, towns and cities are improved structurally, socially, aesthetically and therefore, potentially economically - for the benefit of those who live and work there.


Placemaking is not easy to specifically define and will often involve input from a number of disciplines involved in development. A development with placemaking at its core will ideally involve architects, planners, the local council, engineers, landscape architects, transport planners, community organisations, local historians, artists, retail experts, health professionals and environmental scientists and advisors on sustainable living. Most importantly though, it will put people at the centre of their plans. Engagement with those who live in the area is absolutely essential in successful placemaking - to ignore views, insights, priorities and needs from the local community is to risk a failed, unloved development where people may reluctantly live or work for practical reasons - but will not really put down their roots and invest in their own community. Simply providing people with a box to live in and space to park a car should not, and does not cut it in the twenty first century.


Good placemaking involves a holistic, people based approach, requiring careful consideration of the whole area under development or regeneration, not just isolated sections of land. It requires thought on what a community may want or need beyond the mere building of housing, such as; will there be attractive public space that will actually be used; is it pleasant and easy to walk through; is there enough for all demographics to do there; should there be a shop, a GP surgery, a school; how does it connect with services and other amenities; does it affect other nearby communities and how can any differential with neighbours be addressed to ensure equity; how easy is it to use public transport; is it safe for all age groups; is there a range of price points and house types in the area to build a rich, diverse community?


Great placemaking can not only have a positive psychological, practical, cultural and aesthetic impact, it can actually improve social cohesion and lead to strong economic benefits for the community and the town or city beyond.


A people centred approach to building up the character and quality of place


Ethan Kent of the Project for Public Spaces New York described the process of ‘placemaking’ as “how we help create our public realm and the world beyond our front door.”


The Project for Public Spaces notes the following about placemaking;


“...the rigid planning processes of the 20th century have become so institutionalised that community stakeholders rarely have the chance to voice their own ideas and aspirations about the places they inhabit. Placemaking can break down these silos by showing planners, designers, and engineers the broad value of moving beyond the narrow focus of their own professions, disciplines, agendas. Experience has shown us that when developers and planners welcome this kind of grassroots involvement, they spare themselves a lot of headaches.”


From Ebenezer Howard’s vision of attractive civic spaces and a belief that power should be conferred on communities to administer their own environment to Jane Jacobs’ 1961 groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she challenged the orthodoxy of city planning in the U.S., declaring it a failure with untold impact on the souls it had been ‘done to’ (“marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality”), the idea of planning places around people and their needs is not new, but these important principles have often been brushed aside in the development of housing settlements and town centres for time and cost reasons. And sometimes placemaking is just not considered at all.


Often there are issues involving stewardship and long term responsibility for a place once it has been built. When the housing or business developers have completed their task of filling a site with brick or steel they will move on to their next project, perhaps leaving some landscaping and tree saplings in place to show they have "considered" those who are going to be living in or using the space. Not all developments follow this pattern - there are some extremely good developments in the UK where it is clear that placemaking and people have been at the core of the plan - but more often than not a housing development or retail area or business quarter is built and then the developers move on. It's like baking a sponge cake but not bothering to put any filling in it. Or perhaps there's no filling in it because noone can agree on who is paying for the jam.


Section 106 payments and to a degree the Community Infrastructure Levy were intended to cover the financing of additional infrastructure for the settlement - but there are many reports of developers not fulfilling their promises in this regard, leading to years of acrimony and even litigation. At other times priority is given to using these payments for road infrastructure - which is essential but may leave little finance available for those things that will give a development a sense of place.


Hugh Petter, Director at Adam Architecture observes that "for an increasingly sophisticated population, expectations have changed and obtaining a housing unit is not enough. Now more than ever we are aware of our environmental impact and the importance of physical and mental wellbeing... A slew of soulless and poorly designed new communities...have now been generated, simply providing a place to sleep before commuting into a city." He suggests that "to create great communities, taking a long term view at the outset of projects is crucial. While this may require upfront costs and lower profits in the short term, this deferred approach to financial returns will ental longer term rewards as desirable communities are created".


David Cowans, Group Chief Executive of Places for People believes that infrastructure should be in place first. As a masterplanner on a development in Milton Keynes they "worked with the local authority to build a school before we began work on a single house." He says, "successful placemaking also relies on a long term commitment by developers and housing providers. It should not finish when a place is built but generate investment in neighbourhoods long after they are initially developed to ensure that they are properly managed, maintained and governed."


In terms of where we are with placemaking, community involvement, and putting people at the centre of development in Warrington it is worth having a look at a couple of case studies.


Case Study 1


The first is the planning for development and regeneration for the "Central 6 neighbourhoods" - those settlements already established and pretty close to Warrington town centre. In 2018 Warrington Borough Council, acting on behalf of the Warrington Central Neighbourhood Renewal Board launched a competition to find an organisation who could "masterplan" these areas. The winners were Kevin Murray & Associates (KMA). KMA then embarked in a detailed and open consultation process with local communities, asking what they felt was important for them. The residents of course stipulated what most of us would agree were necessary for a happy, thriving community: a better, cleaner environment, street safety, potential for green space and a place for diverse habitat, social infrastructure, better connections between settlements and quality and variety of housing.


KMA then developed ideas based on this consultation and produced a report for those in the community to consider. They asked the community to share their thoughts on what had been put forward. This was called the "Phase two" engagement process. During this period KMA asked - "is this what you said, is this right, is anything missing, can you help prioritise the ideas and develop them into project proposals." There was then a testing and review workshop, where the plans and locations were shared and support was sought from development partners and the community. You can see the phases of the consultation here


There was even a Tumblr page with the masterplan placed on there for easy access. The communities were invited to have a look at the masterplan and to let KMA know what they thought of it.


The final report produced is clearly the result of those involved listening to residents needs and acting upon them. The consultation findings acknowledged the need for the following:


"Strategy Creating greater accessibility for communities to facilities, services and an ability to meet needs in higher quality places.


This comes through clustering of facilities and services in locations that have great connections and upgrading where people live around these clusters.


Making more of green space for leisure, health and wellbeing and travel.


This will happen through better maintenance and management (including community involvement), connecting up greenspaces and growing their use (more people, more activity = safer places).


Creating healthier places and increased wellbeing through better opportunities for people to participate in the local economy through creating social value frameworks that grow and support the local economy, enhance the availability of training and work opportunities and to access health, wellbeing and social services that can better support their lives.


The aim is to put the right services in the right locations, so that people are able to easily get access to services, in surroundings that are familiar. This type of access to support will increase the opportunity for people to experience better all-round wellbeing.


Joining all of this up through a movement network that has choices for how people get around, with walking and cycling becoming increasingly easy and attractive. This comes about through the provision of improved cycling and walking infrastructure, supporting improvements to the bus service and increasing ridership. In turn this reduces the number of private cars on the roads lowering levels of congestion. Increasing better options for travel makes a movement network that is working better for everyone regardless of choice of mode."


KMA also proposed actions that addressed specific concerns and desires from local residents:


"Many residential streets are dominated by vehicles passing through. Reducing the visual impact and introducing traffic calming measures will create better street environments. This will help to improve physical health and mental well-being by creating greener, safer, more attractive streets and routes. To achieve this, the proposals are:


Soften the road edges with appropriate landscaping and tree planting, to help characterise different areas, improve sense of place and ease of navigation. Where space allows, create separated cycle lanes. • Use landscaping to create character areas and improve local drainage in areas prone to flood risk, create more comfortable micro-climates in different seasons, i.e. shadier in summer months, or protection from wind and rain. Use a locally relevant selection of species to boost biodiversity interest."


And


"Public art and recognisable street scene can help develop a sense of place and act as markers for key services and infrastructure. We will develop a user-friendly transport and movement system by beginning to create a system that is readily understood. To support the achievement of this this, the proposals are: • Ensure that people recognise and identify the main areas for public transport, cycle networks and pathways. • Use public art for ‘gateway’ points and mid-way resting/stopping places that can also act as places to meet and socialise to help to generate local identity. • Reclaim some road space or parking spaces to further enhance these as user-friendly or people-first. Public art should reflect Warrington’s heritage or local stories. The aim will be to produce public art by working with local communities and looking for sponsorship from the private sector. These projects could also be eligible for funding from organisations such as Sustrans as well as arts and culture funders as they are placemaking, arts, culture and heritage themes related."


You can read the final report here. It's a great example of placemaking in action. Let's hope it meets expectations.



Case Study 2


The volume housebuilder, Countryside Properties was recently granted outline planning permission for a large housing development on a site just south of Warrington town centre, behind the Centre Park business centre and adjacent to Slutchers Lane. The site abuts the River Mersey and stretches to lower Walton, providing an opportunity to celebrate an important waterway and better connect North Warrington with the South. There is also the opportunity to create somewhere with a great sense of place - linking the town centre to the suburbs and further towards rural areas such as Moore Nature Reserve.


With the former Spectra site cleared and ready for development a plan of the proposed site is available, with the street layout, housing provision and allocated public outdoor space depicted thereon. This is the plan:

While the density and arrangement of the housing is as predictable as most contemporary housing developments (houses are crammed into small plots at varying angles so that number 42 can see over their back garden fence what number 97 is having for dinner) it surprising, particularly given the size of this development, that there appears to have been no real consideration given to placemaking.


While not on the scale of the Central 6 plans this is nevertheless a significant development of 500 homes - which could mean around 1500 people living in this new space together.


The plan does not give one the sense that there has been a collaborative process between developer, community and other parties who might have otherwise brought ideas forward. There certainly seems to have been no consultation in the manner of the Central 6 project.


Sure, there is a reasonably sized area of land reserved as "public space" in this plan, but it is placed there almost as an afterthought, shoved into the corner of the site alongside the edge of the business park and its attendant mass car parking spaces. It calls to mind the writer’s memories of family picnics on scrubby sections of Woolston Park, gamely munching on sausage rolls in the shadow of The Grange Industrial Estate - Isn’t this lovely?!


Why would anyone enjoy outdoor space next to a business park?


There is a misconception with planners and developers that simply allocating an area of open space to a development will automatically improve its surroundings and benefit the community. Good public space can enhance the area’s identity and sense of place, no matter how small the community. But for the space to work well planners must carefully consider where it is placed, the needs of the people who will be living there, how its uses can be enjoyed by all demographics and how to ensure it is safe yet accessible.


It is important that a public space is not just attractive, but is used and enjoyed frequently and is created in such a way that will appeal to a broad audience. Has consideration been given to this when planning the development?


Has thought been given to the people who may wish to live on the development?


There are hundreds of family homes planned – but where is the primary school for what could be hundreds of children?


What about seniors? Perhaps they will want to live in the smaller homes or apartments – and they might like to spend time getting to know neighbouring families and younger people via events in the public spaces, or working together on allotments, for example. Is there a place for them to do this?


Or they might need a GP close by. Where is the nearest GP surgery and does it have capacity to register more patients?


There is often a children's playground in public spaces near residential developments. What about teenagers? Is it too Pathé to say that they might like interesting outdoor space as well?


Is a shop needed? The nearest shop selling groceries is at a petrol station across busy Chester Road. How many residents will relish running the gauntlet of heavy traffic and a dangerous forecourt if they want to avoid having to drive every time they need a pint of milk? If crossing a busy road is to be avoided a car journey will be required – which is the opposite of what we need if we are to support sustainable, environmentally responsible living.


There is further development planned in nearby areas around Warrington town centre and its waterfront. Perhaps this will provide the answer to our questions about walkable shopping, schools and social infrastructure– but it may well be some years away and in the meantime hundreds of people will be living in this development who will still be car dependent and with no clear plan as to where they will go to school, see a doctor or dentist or easily access a shop.


We have focused on this site because there might still be a chance to do something, to look again and see where changes could be made to incorporate the principles of placemaking into this plan. This could and should be seen as a flagship development, a celebration of the river and the first step towards a vibrant and interesting regeneration along the waterfront. It could bring a diverse community together - of varying ages and economic status. Is the development as it currently looks going to achieve this? Does it reflect a new and innovative approach to planning and placemaking?


Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to have been much opportunity for the public to feedback and comment on the final proposals for development at Slutchers Lane. There was a public consultation when the development was first proposed but unlike the Central 6 plan, there does not appear to have been an ongoing collaborative process or a request for public engagement once the plan for Slutchers Lane was produced.


So with this in mind thought we would create an alternative plan, imagining what a development with more thought to placemaking might look like at this location. Granted, the housing levels remain high - we have moved and added some housing where it has been taken from other areas on the site - because we acknowledge that housing numbers are not going to be reduced significantly if outline planning permission has been approved. We have already shared our ideas for Warrington Waterfront, which includes the Slutchers Lane development here and they are somewhat different from the plan.


This is just a broad idea - obviously we are not professional architects or urban planners. And given the housing numbers that are proposed for this site there is limited scope as to what could be done without a complete rethink on the numbers in this plan. Nevertheless, even these reasonably minor changes could make a difference.


We have moved some of the housing (adding additional housing to the area edging the business park) to allow for better placed and further green space. The main public outdoor space could be multifunctioning – with areas for sports, community events and outdoor games for adults, young children and teenagers.


Inspired by Urban Splash’s plans for Grappenhall Heys, which includes adding 900 trees to their development (incidentally, Urban Splash are very much engaged with the local community in connection with their plans and even have a linked charitable Trust focusing on the additional needs of the community in which they are building) we have included a copse and boulevard area, which would be an attractive way to link the housing at the edge of the site with the main green space and provide an opportunity for wildlife.

We have added additional green space next to the flats. If people are living in flats it would be nice to have somewhere more expansive to relax outdoors. We have also included allotments that might encourage neighbourliness.

There is a ‘village square’ as well. Every development should have an attractive ‘village square’. We love them when we visit tourist destinations but rarely think of having them in new settlements. This breaks up the density of the housing blocks and while we might not always see boules players it would be at least a nice place to walk through and chat to other residents.

We have included space for a shop and a GP surgery next to the electricity substation. This was allocated as public open space in the original plan – but frankly, who is going to want to sit next to a substation?


The shop could be well designed and safe – even a village store that closed at 7pm would offer an walkable amenity to residents there through the day – or as a stop off on their way home from work.


We have included a small primary school and activity shed, but there might be other plans regarding school places.



There is a ‘tree buffer strip’ to shield the development from the adjacent business park. Ideally there would be also be a permanent structure to delineate the housing development, but however this was achieved it is psychologically important to separate homes from drab office buildings and car parks.


So what next?


Whose responsibility is it to insist on employing placemaking principles when new settlements are delivered? Whose responsibility should it be? And how, as the local community, as Joe Public, can we ensure that these essential placemaking considerations are included in future developments? Is it too late to reconsider the development at Slutchers Lane?


The underlying principle for placemaking is a moral, societal, economic and environmental duty to create new places to live that will invite community cohesion, be a product of listening to residents' needs, provide services and amenities for all demographics, be an attractive and well designed space and and which encourages sustainable practices. We need to make sure that these principles are applied to all developments going forward.


It is important to remember that when you’re designing and developing buildings, homes, structures, civic spaces and settlements that what you are building is likely to be around for at least the next fifty to one hundred years. What is created now, after the squandering of so much potential in the past, will be the legacy of the decision makers we have entrusted to create our homes, our towns and our cities. If we are going to do it, we need to do it with care and consideration, listening to the local community, being visionary and creative, and with an eye to what our places will look like in the future.


Here is a link to a great short film called "What Makes for Happy Places?" from Create Streets.

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