A bigger vision for placemaking

Infinite Global’s Tal Donahue talked to Leo Hammond, chair of the Urban Design Group and urban design associate director at Lambert Smith Hampton, to discuss how good urban design and branding can work together and what government could be doing to further embed placemaking and design principles into the planning and housing system. 

Watch the video, or read the full transcript below.

TD: Leo, thanks for joining us today. We’re here to talk about placemaking, so I wonder whether I can start by asking what is the Urban Design Group’s (UDG) approach to placemaking at the moment: 

LH: It’s such a big subject, and we at the UDG like to think and hope that we are at the forefront of what placemaking was, and is. We started in 1978 when we broke off from RIBA; we wanted to talk about buildings but we also wanted to talk about place and all of the ingredients that go into making a place. For instance, today we’re on Chancery Lane, and yes the buildings are an important aspect but for us at the UDG we want to be talking about the street, the dimensions, the people, the economics, the psychological aspects that go with a fairly narrow street and more besides. That’s not to say RIBA don’t think about those things, but that’s how the UDG started.

Placemaking for us at the UDG is about making a robust place and making a memorable place, because we think the most successful places are the ones that are memorable. To take one example, the Georgian squares in London are very memorable, or thinking about buildings round here in Chancery Lane – the law courts and Lincolns Inn are incredibly memorable environments. And we think less successful environments which have poor placemaking are the sort of places that are a bit more disposable, a bit like fast food if you will. We think the best places will last 200, 300 maybe 400 years.

TD: There are a couple of challenges with that kind of approach. Firstly, building flexibility into the built environment so it can evolve and adapt over time as requirements change, but also, where you don’t have the historic and cultural assets that we have on Chancery Lane for instance, how do you build an identity and a community framework if there’s little or nothing there to start with?

LH: It’s a big challenge sometimes being able to or trying to put character or identity into a big green field site.

As urban designers in placemaking I think perhaps we need to move on or think about how the industry can move on from focusing on character areas, which is what a lot of practices do. It’s something that I do, it’s something that we do at Lambert Smith Hampton – but trying to push on what a character area is can be tricky, but I think it can be valuable.

So, say you have a site of 50 hectares, perhaps with however many thousands of homes going on there… starting to design and to begin to think about where the centre is; where the secondary streets might be; where are the flats going to be; where are the schools going to be; and beginning to bring in an element of landscape as well and putting all of that in the pot and beginning to see what that character is, is really interesting.

That is the challenge of putting identity into a large site, particularly Greenfield. Often what we would do is look at topography; views; are we an urban extension and how are we tying in to the age of wherever this place might be or how are we tying in to the neighbourhood if it’s something that’s more inner-city in an old industrial site for example. If we are in a more inner-city environment, looking at heritage and kind of scratching at the surface and beginning to see what is underneath there is actually the most riveting part.

I absolutely love looking at historic maps – seeing how an area has developed and asking if there is anything we can use there in terms of the buildings. But also in terms of the names, the people who were there and the people who are there now as well. So that’s going out and talking to people, exploring memories, and tying in not just the physical heritage but the history of community and other sites as well.

TD: This sounds familiar to me because this is a key component of our approach when it comes to building brands. We always include heritage assessment of our brand strategies. In your experience, how do branding and urban design work together or are they very separate parts of the development process?

LH: I think that often urban design is slightly divorced from the kind of hard branding element which possibly comes further down the line – we tend to look at sites at very early stages; the feasibilities we’re working on and outline planning applications. But I have seen examples where the ideas that we might have brainstormed in an early design session have come through to the branding because often a site’s Unique Selling Point is something that hopefully we’re picking up as urban designers because we’re trying to maximize the quality of place for our clients, and ultimately value… Let’s be realistic – people, local authorities, developers, housing associations – are not going to build something unless they can get some level of return albeit that it might be an element of social housing or public realm in the case of a local authority.

Those kind of unique points often do come through to the branding – where is its location; is it next to a new bit of public transport; is it next to a greater open space; are you creating a great open space while you’re doing it; is there an historic name that you picked up while doing your analysis as an urban designer that is then seized upon by someone later down the line…? So I think that the two can exist together. But I’ve seen examples in my work where we’ve come up with a name for a project and we find we find out second hand that the name had to be completely abandoned; we had a whole rationale for why a project would be called a certain name and it’s been given a completely different name based on a marketing scheme which we may or may not have been part of.

I would argue, and the Urban Design Group would argue as well that actually good urban design and good branding should really go together.

TD: From our perspective, almost everything you are talking about should be part of the brand strategy. The vision of the place is its brand and its promise to those that are going to exist within it and the other stakeholders involved. Brand consultants should be involved at an early stage, if only to mitigate the risk of the crossed-wires that in terms of identity vs marketing which you’ve experienced…

LH: I worked on a project recently where we also had an artist who was working alongside the whole of the team and came to the design team meetings and that can be another real opportunity. Having somebody like an artist who takes a complete step back and asks very difficult questions sometimes – but really good questions – and can be provocative in the best sense of the word can be wonderful. I think that can tie in to good branding.

I’ve been teaching for the last few years on the open design master’s course at UCL and I give a test to the students that I see there. We work together on what we call for them, “a concept” and I get them to write down their USP for their project. At the moment they’re working on a site in Poplar – and I get them to explain the big idea and they’ll say something like “Poplar for families” or “Poplar for children” or “Connected Poplar”. And then whenever they come out with any element of design in the following week I often challenge how far the practical implementation fits into the vision. For example, if family is important why are you producing a load of a load of small studio flats!? And I think that chimes a little with branding and placemaking as well, in that if you are branding a place it’s got to resonate with the intended end user and the built elements that you see and feel have to be part of those all-important words and branding that you’re using to articulate the development.

TD: Going back to the idea about invention versus reinvention of a place – and let’s take London as an example because there have plenty of examples of this – how as designers can you avoid being tarred with the gentrification brush? How do you engage with and complement the built fabric that is already there, the people who are there now and the people that will be there in the future to ensure that what you’re creating is authentic, and feels an authentic part of that place rather than something disruptive that is parachuted in because there’s a perception that money can be made in a site? 

LH: Gentrification is terribly tricky word and something that we as designers probably have to face head on. When we are looking at sites they’re often quite small in the grand scheme of things but we do have to think about the bigger jigsaw and also talk to our clients about what their aspirations are. A lot of it comes down to, when it’s housing, (and I mainly deal with housing in my day to day job) mixed tenure; Who’s going to be living there at the end of the day, who’s going to be working there, who’s going to be welcome there. I think urban design is partly is about doing the design itself but it’s also partly about having a bigger vision and being able to understand how your little bit of the jigsaw fits with the areas around it.

There’s also a strong argument that the industry needs to be realistic about what gentrification brings. Obviously it can it can displace communities, particularly those who are renting or those who might be a compulsory purchase – and particularly social renting tenants, where we’ve seen lots of examples which I won’t go into here but which I’m sure a lot of people a lot of people know about – and being able to keep the continuity in the area by keeping existing tenants there is, and this is a personal opinion, very important.

But I think that gentrification doesn’t necessarily have to be a dirty word. I grew up in Hackney and when I was growing up in the 80s Hackney was a reasonably dangerous place I think it’s fair to say. The public transport was pretty awful. The people who lived there generally lived there because they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. And then we fast forward to today and even within the last 10 years, I mean Hackney’s in Lonely Planet! It’s in all of these guidebooks and we are lucky enough to have tourists coming from all around the world to see us, and Hackney has gentrified, yes, but it’s also had a huge improvement in terms of its schools, in terms of its public transport, in terms of its parks and open spaces, in terms of its cultural offer and in terms of its murder rate which has gone down. So there’s also been some good elements but I completely accept that people have been displaced particularly those who did not own their own their own home.

TD: Let’s talk a bit more about housing specifically – your area of expertise. Very often the kinds of components and strategies that are key to good placemaking require significant up-front investment. At the same time, we are facing a real challenge at the moment in terms of the housing shortage and the government’s housing target along with the economic model of some housebuilders which doesn’t necessarily allow to both tackle volume and placemaking. Is there a risk that we’ll reach a situation where we might be building lots houses, but we’re not building communities, villages or town centres?

LH: I think we’re at a key point in the housing debate at the moment. On the one hand we’ve got government saying we need 300,000 homes a year and a lot of people struggling to get on the housing ladder and on the other hand we’ve seen in recent years that producing housing quickly produces mixed results, let’s be honest.

Some reports have recently shown very successfully that some of these newer estates are just housing estates – not placemaking; they don’t necessarily have schools or workplaces and people have to get in their cars to go and do anything. So not only are they not great in terms of how they look and how they’re designed, they’re also unsustainable as well.

But I say that were a key pivotal point because actually a few people have shown us, I think, some answers. So the Letwin Review I think has shown some significantly interesting answers in terms of bringing diversity to the built environment and looking at new models for how the planning system could work to deliver diversity not just in housing types but also in terms of the wider built environment particularly in terms of landscape and streets.

I also think Nick Rainsford in the Rainsford Review has shown some interesting examples as well including capturing land value particularly as regards cities, but also in terms of some reasonably easy changes to the planning system that would better enable the delivery of greater quality as well as a greater quantity.

More widely I think there’s more that we need to do at the Urban Design Group and frankly within the overall housebuilding industry because various bits of research have shown that not just the well-designed house but a well-designed neighbourhood and community has an economic value. The better informed developers, shall we say, and those that aren’t just in it just for short term profits or have shareholders they immediately need to answer to are able to invest early on and we see great examples of that up and down the country of wonderful places to live, of houses which are not just thought about in terms of boxes which have to be bashed out quickly but actually building communities.

TD: All of that necessitates that a long-term vision. And a bit of patience from developer and investor, and patience is often in short supply… Is there anything government should do to encourage a more patient approach to ROI and to encourage better placemaking? 

LH: I think the government absolutely should be having a bigger vision for place making. At the moment we have the National Planning Policy Framework. The NPPF; I mean just by the title we can see it’s not a vision! I can show it to you it’s about 70 to 80 pages of writing and there’s not one drawing in there which I find very frustrating as an urban designer! What the Urban Design Group would argue for is actually to have a bigger vision… Why not have a plan, nationally, for the country for planning and for placemaking; not just a framework but an actual vision.

Other countries have this – they have a vision for how their planning is going to be in 10, 20, 30, 40 years’ time and I think there’s a real opportunity for us in the UK to be able to do that. To some extent we’re able to do it already for London and for other metropolitan areas such as Manchester but I think to be able to do it nationally would actually be rather wonderful. Different bits of government such as Department for Transport, MHCLG and others like the Department for Health could take a holistic approach, delivering not just an NPPF but a vision for planning in the UK and a vision for placemaking. And I think that’s what the Rainsford review and the Letwin review have actually called for… for the government to take a real leading role in this. I think the country and its people are ready for this. Housebuilding is a big issue which everybody having an opinion about, and I think people would be very interested to be able to shape the strategy. I think government could go out and talk to different communities, they could talk to local politicians, and they could put something together much like they would for any other planning document but on a national scale. They would consult on it and then it would be adopted and everybody would have to be part of that.

TD: The challenge I suppose is making this all work at the local level of delivery, along with the associated infrastructure. For example, the changing dynamics around the work-life balance mean cities and regions have to be increasingly interconnected and bridging gaps between where people want to live, where they want to spend time, and where the economic centres are. I split my time between Devon and London, which has real infrastructure challenges associated with it! At the same time, so many local authorities have been criticised for not moving forward to adopting local plans. Does government have the resources to deliver such a grand vision practically, and should we be thinking about solutions being developed by ‘coalitions’ including the private sector? 

LH: I think the Government’s got to show leadership and vision. And then the industry as a whole will have to run with it and work out the funding mechanisms – and again government can help with that. But we should also be looking at how land value can perhaps be captured in a slightly more egalitarian way, shall we say. But I think it’s absolutely vital for the industry to talk about; it’s about house builders, architects, planners and local government as well. I mean if you speak to most developers particularly forward-thinking developers who’ve got big schemes in the planning system they’ll tell you they’re desperate to have more planners in a local authority and they might even pay and contribute for planners to be funded to be able to look at more applications as well.

So I think there need to be a big investment in the public sector, and I think we’re going some way towards that – for example if you look at the public practice idea of bringing architects back into the public sector. If we look historically at how many architects and urban designers used to work in local authorities… could we not get back to a state in our country where we have architects and urban designers and planners working nationally, not just a few of them but thousands of them and whole teams in local authority departments.? Often we see local authorities who just have one urban designer and when you get outside a metropolitan area they might not even have one person and instead it’s a planner who did a term of urban design on their masters course or something like that. We need a whole team of people. So we need to be able to fund that and then we need to be able to speak to the housebuilding industry as well and talk about long term returns and what can we do to help them.

I’ve spoken to developers recently – the kind of the more hard-nosed type – and they’ve said to me “we’d love to build this, but i can’t take this to my board” or “I’ve got shareholders to think about I can’t be doing this.” And they’ve actually said “just give us a design code because once I’ve got something that’s adopted in the planning system you’re very welcome to hold it up and wave it at us to make sure that we conform. Until you have something that you can really hit us with for want of a better word I’m not going to be able to do it.” So I think that government has shown leadership; the Rainsford review which is actually the opposition, but also The Letwin review, shows us that design codes can be used more that design guidance can be used more and it can have more teeth. And therefore once housebuilders have to do something through the planning system they’re not going to go away and not build some homes they are actually going to come back and be able to adapt.

And what housebuilders do is often very clever… It is not just that they’re coming in and deliberately coming up with something that’s not going to build a community or a house that isn’t going to work. It’s more that I think something perhaps gets lost somewhere in the system because there’s a huge amount of people doing amazing work in every house builder; thinking so carefully about what their market is, what people want, doing surveys finding out what a family needs, what a single needs, what a couple needs, what older people need or what children need. And it’s really hard to put your finger on what missing element might be. I would argue as an Urban Designer I think it’s having that bigger picture.

TD: One of the challenges to placemaking, or the criticisms of it, is that it is a bit of a buzzword and a tool to help schemes through the planning system. Do you think the term itself is a helpful one? 

LH: I think placemaking is one of those terms that people read into it what they want. And I think what I read into it at the Urban design Group and at Lambert Smith Hampton is creating great memorable places. What somebody else might see from it from the house building or government or local government or a planning perspective might all be slightly different but I’m very much pro the term placemaking. I think the fact that we’re having a debate about place making and the fact that I’m speaking about it now I think can only be a good thing because I think for a long time actually we weren’t talking about placemaking and if we’re not talking about it we’re probably not getting it right I would suggest.

So I think placemaking is an absolutely fantastic term I’d like to talk about it more and more. Of course, people are going to abuse the term and say that they’re doing good placemaking but if we’re at least talking about it and we’re making it part of the planning system then we can hopefully begin to measure it a bit as well. And like a lot of things in life it’s quite subjective; my good placemaking isn’t necessarily good placemaking for somebody else and actually that’s why we come together and we design together and we talk to communities and we talk to local authorities and we try and bring everybody together in terms of urban design to be able to talk about what place making is and what good placemaking is.

Of course, what good placemaking is differs for every location and should be context driven. If we’re putting something into Chancery Lane, where we are now, good placemaking here is going to be completely different to if we’re in a green field site in Hampshire, or in Scotland or in Wales. So, I would say that good placemaking is actually creating memorable environments but also successfully using your context and your communities as well to be able to shape those environments.