Placemaking 101: Building Communities for the Long Haul

Alan Hall, Projects Director at regeneration specialist Genr8 Developments, discusses the benefits of an approach that focuses on the long-term legacy of a scheme.


If we’re all truly honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that placemaking, at times, has been a term grossly misused over the years to describe the creation of a mixed-use scheme that includes the public realm. But, the honourable amongst us will admit that isn’t the true definition of the term.

Placemaking, as it suggests, is to make a place, but in reality, the place itself already exists. We see it very much as location enhancement, essentially creating a community that incorporates a myriad of different elements, builds on existing heritage and brings in new components that help the space and its people to grow and thrive.

Macro-economics aside, we all know that a scheme won’t come to fruition if it isn’t viable, but, in my opinion, it’s when potential gets misconstrued as viability that things start to go awry.

Viability versus potential

Speaking candidly and feasibilities aside, I’m sure we all get frustrated that our collective visions for a development can get value engineered to a viably-suitable state; however, it’s important for a site’s potential not to get watered down in the process. And, in our eyes, legacy is at the centre of all this.

Developments need investment, support and cultivation to help them grow. They need to be nurtured with investment of time, care and attention, so when the scheme reaches PC, it’s not in the spirit of creating a lasting legacy to just leave them to their own devices. By taking a longer-term approach to development and remaining involved in its evolution, you can help ensure that it delivers on its intentions.

An example in practice

Take our landmark project, Smithfield, Stoke-on-Trent, for example. Delivered in partnership with Stoke-on-Trent City Council, the £200m mixed-use quarter pays homage to the original Smithfield bottle works on the site, acknowledging its past but demonstrating dedication to its future.

Comprising Grade-A office space, including Stoke’s first dedicated co-working venue, the scheme also features a Hilton Garden Inn and 151 residential dwellings across 11 storeys. But they’re not the only elements that truly make Smithfield special; it’s the programme of activity that we devise in collaboration with key stakeholders in order to provide added value the whole year through that is the proverbial icing on the cake. With a wide selection of options to suit most tastes, we utilise local businesses to support inward investment and also create an atmospheric and busy space.

Not content on just delivering and moving on, we’re in it for the long haul and have worked together with the council, housing provider, residents, commercial occupiers and operators, and, of course, the general public, to host a range of activities and initiatives.

Most recently, the programme has included the installation of an urban beach, a visiting library van, ‘Circus Flavours’ workshops, storytelling, teddy bear picnics, archery and football, plus an official screening of the King’s Coronation celebrations. All this, alongside establishing a relationship with Hanley Town Football Club with match and player sponsorship for the first time this year, makes for a veritable feast of activities – not for the benefit of generating income, but for boosting the place that we’ve created together. We are invested in Smithfield for the long term and are focused on developing these relationships, alongside exploring where we can add real value back into the community.

Identify the secret ingredient(s)

What should always remain at the epicentre of placemaking is its people, both those who live and work there and the individuals a scheme intends to attract. And the views and opinions of these citizens are truly invaluable, as is the communication that you have with them.

In order to deliver a truly successful scheme, we mustn’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions and make sure we’re engaging with the locality’s communities, which will, no doubt, be vast and diverse. There is no silver bullet to success, but input from a location’s people can be the secret ingredients needed to deliver on its intentions.

In some cases, that could be translated as reducing the number of intended private dwellings, losing a commercial unit to make the others bigger, or simply making more room for green space; the people will inform what the scheme needs and form part of the extensive creative thinking process. Retaining flexibility within a masterplan is important to allow developers to respond and change to evolving market conditions and community needs, and if something isn’t doable – be definitively sure that it’s not, tell people the reasons why and then offer a feasible alternative.

We strongly believe that the spaces between the properties are as important as the buildings themselves. The human scale and interaction with those assets at ground level are as important as the great architecture that sits above it. Investing the time and resources to get these bits right are definitely at the forefront of our thinking.

Going the extra mile

Whilst interest rates, construction costs, materials prices, site viability and delivery partner capabilities are all, of course, vitally important, going the extra mile doesn’t have to break the bank.

Investing time and resources into helping local initiatives, such as supporting foodbanks, volunteering at a charity, providing space for a dance troupe to practice or giving room for a school to display its latest art project, can cost little to nothing, but provide exponential value to those in need. Not only that, but the experience will provide valuable access and insights to the people of the place itself and give input to the scheme’s legacy.

The adage we like to keep in mind is ‘if you build it, he will come’ from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams. Your intentions may seem bonkers to some, but if they are backed by careful thinking and meaningful input, then the vision should stack up.

With potential occupiers, tenants and the local communities’ needs being one of the driving forces behind current and future development, their needs and demands are ever more being catered for across refurbished and new-build assets. It’s no longer just about the fixed amenities but the flexible facilities that a place has to offer. It’s the added value and wrap-around infrastructure that needs to be considered as part of the wider scheme, which will help it stand out from the crowd and make it a success.

Obviously, a geographic location can’t change, and a place will always be a place, regardless of what’s there. With only so much land available to go at, it’s arguably impossible to ‘make’ a place, so when you switch the approach to place-boosting, the opportunities are endless.

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