Placemaking: The Regeneration debate – key takeaways and the ‘Four Ps’ of Placemaking

Placemaking is a difficult concept to define.

There are all sorts of visions, expectations, preconceptions and misconceptions bound up within it. Everyone, or mostly everyone, agrees that Placemaking is a positive thing. You can’t really put your finger on what it is, but you know it when you see it. And, perhaps more importantly, you certainly know when you see a bad example of it. So much of what it seems to boil down to is subjective and perhaps that’s why we’re interested in it at Infinite Global – where we think about the ingredients which make (or break) a brand and a brand’s reputation.

This was the starting point for Placemaking: The Regeneration debate – the first event in our Place Stories campaign, a campaign which had its genesis at MIPIM 2018 and which has snowballed since then corresponding to a rising recognition of the fact that, whatever Placemaking is, the property industry needs to be thinking about and acting on it.

Making up the panel were Liz Peace CBE (Chair of the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation), Gary Sacks (Chairman & CEO, City & Docklands), Tom Hawley (Strategic Adviser to Yoo Capital’s Future Olympia project and MD of THE Consultancy), and Elizabeth Rapoport (Strategic Development Manager for Meridian Water, Enfield). The debate was expertly moderated by Christine Murray (Editor-in-Chief of The Developer).

Listen to the full debate here:


The economics of place

One of the key challenges that has emerged throughout our research into Placemaking has been the extent to which it is economically viable and how far private enterprise can both invest in Placemaking activities and strategies whilst also delivering a return for investors. This is a complicated issue, and one which caused considerable discussion amongst our panel.

The key though, as Gary Sacks noted, is that property is (or should) always be a long-term investment and the capital within it should always be patient capital. As one of the panellists quipped, the Duke of Westminster didn’t get rich by selling off property (more on this topic in our interview with Grosvenor, here).

Taking a long-term perspective is absolutely fundamental, but this raises other challenges. For us, as communications and brand consultants, this changes the game in terms of stakeholder management. Very often we hear things like – “this development is about to complete and we need to start marketing – can you give us a brand and do a bit of PR”. This short-term perspective just doesn’t cut it any more. A place’s brand is far more than the logo, or some shiny marketing materials. It is its identity. And that needs to be moulded, curated over time and through meaningful engagement with the stakeholders that matter – and yes that includes investors, local authorities, communities and the people you actually want to be using and enjoying the place. This approach to brand and communications not only helps with visibility, but viability too.

As Liz Peace commented, Placemaking really is about spaces and places that people like. It’s where they want to be and spend time in.

People and experience

It is interesting to consider that the property market is actually starting now to respond to this dynamic with new types of real estate products. Consider for instance the growing PRS industry – where developers have to take a long-term perspective because they are no longer just creating units and moving them on, they are the stewards of a place and they need to be responsive to the changing requirements of residents over time. This is why we are seeing investment in things like residential concierge services. As the panel noted, this is still a nascent asset class and it is hard to measure the ROI of these things (as with most of Placemaking) but the point is that property must be ever more cognisant of the people who live, work and play within and between buildings. As Gary Sacks rightly noted, this will be different across generations and there is a risk that schemes become too blinkered – focusing on one demographic to the exclusion of others (whose spending power might actually be considerably higher).

This isn’t just happening in residential of course. It is absolutely key to the future of the commercial market too and, in particular, the retail market as it goes through what is a pretty painful process of re-balancing. One audience member asked the panel just what does Placemaking mean in the context of so many shops closing down and leaving empty spaces on the ground floor, particularly when the planning system often makes conversions difficult, un-viable or unsatisfactory to the end user.

The answer to this is unclear. Part of it, though, will likely be about reducing the amount of pure retail (i.e transactional) space in town centres and other shopping locations and introducing more uses which are fundamentally about driving footfall. This may include bringing a sustainable level of residential into previously retail-heavy locations, or alternative uses such as entertainment, leisure and hospitality – things that cannot be bought online. Or even public services such as nurseries and GP clinics. Some of these uses may be loss making, but contribute more widely to the economic success of a site. Tom Hawley discussed the role that both entertainment and education can play in this dynamic, and having a “gut instinct” for the kind of thing that will humanise a space. Despite the rising economic power of industries like video gaming, people still want to experience things live – that’s why there is now such interest in the growth of eSports as a spectator sport. This means that the conscientious placemaker will turn to experts in the field to identify and create experiences and services which are going to attract people in and get them to spend time (and money) in a location, and why employers want to locate in areas where the offering is going to be a selling point to the talent they want to attract and retain.

Responsibility and the future

This curatorial, long-term perspective then carries with it the prospect of the creation of significant value – both economic and social (Savills have done some excellent work on demonstrating these are not mutually exclusive). It also, though, brings an added layer of responsibility. Gary Sacks noted that as part of their development process City & Docklands have explored the likes of litter-picking and the provision of bus services – which would have been unheard of amongst the majority of ‘hard nosed’ developers in times gone by. Building on The Developer’s recent focus on resilience in property, Christine Murray challenged the panel on the role of placemaking in what has become known as the climate emergency and there is clearly more that needs to be done in this regard. Elizabeth Rapoport hammered the point home with the simple fact that if you are taking a long-term view on a site then you have to factor things like rising sea levels into your commercial approach. Not doing so will almost certainly result in insurance, and funding, challenges.

What is clear in this context is that successful placemaking requires collaboration, creativity and partnerships between the public and private sectors.

With the debate taking place in the midst of a general election campaign there was always going to be discussion about the politics of Placemaking – and it is clearly an issue. On the one hand, the government’s move to introduce a new Design Guide should be welcomed in principle for promoting better design practices, but at the same time it must not fall into the trap of adopting a cookie cutter approach to Placemaking which leaches the uniqueness out of a place. Perhaps more controversial is how well the planning system is working. We explored this in our interview with Leo Hammond (Lambert Smith Hampton) and the panel echoed his thoughts when they discussed whether housing policy could be ‘de-politicised’ and taken out of the five-year parliamentary cycle which itself promotes short-termism. At the same time, there is a problem with both funding and skills at the local authority level which justifiably causes frustrations amongst developers in terms of response rates to applications.

Clearly, there is much more discussion to be had, including how technology and ‘big data’ can if not solve some of these challenges then at least provide the intelligence to inform better Placemaking decisions.

Perhaps that will be subject of our next debate.

Key takeaways

  • Placemaking requires four Ps – People, Purpose, Patience and Profit – in order to maximise viability, resilience and value. There can be no Placemaking which isn’t commercially viable

  • Taking a long-term view is key and this means finding sources of patient capital and the role of the developer and landlord shifting to that of a curator, with an added responsibility to consider the social and environmental impacts of a place

  • Placemaking is fundamentally about what (real) people want, and recognising that this might be a very different thing from location to location and between demographics

  • With so many stakeholders and a rising need to engage with people and create places which complement local identity, communications and brand have never been more important – and have a role that goes far beyond marketing and sale