Placemaking: Q&A with West Waddy and Archadia Architects

March 13, 2018 • 10 minute read

As part of Infinite Global’s campaign, Placemaking: Buzzword or Brand builder?  Tal Donahue speaks to Hannah Smart, Urban Design Associate, at West Waddy and Neil Gibson, Consultant at Archadia, sister companies providing Urban Design, Planning and Architecture.

TD: Placemaking as a term has been around for a long while now, but there seem to be a lot of different understandings about what it means. What does it mean to you, and do you think at the end of the day it is just a buzzword?

NG: ‘Placemaking’ very possibly has become THE “buzzword”, without many people in the industry actually understanding what it is about. It takes a lot of careful design and passion to make places work for stakeholders, clients, users and communities. We think teamwork and in particular interdisciplinary teams, are key here.

Despite being a bit of a buzzword, ‘Placemaking’ is a really powerful concept, providing the opportunity for all parties to join in a common discussion about what new development, or the regeneration of existing places, can achieve in both environmental, social and economic terms. This discussion needs to include developers, their professional planning and design services, local politicians and existing communities.

HS: ‘Placemaking’ is also the opportunity to add value through design in a holistic way. For us, ‘Placemaking’ is about moving away from the outdated view of development being about shiny iconic buildings, like those that dominate much of the City of London for instance, and focussing more on development that is “space positive” rather than “object positive”. That is to say that the spaces that we create, and the forms between the buildings, is actually more important in most cases than the buildings themselves. The spaces provide the structure, the feeling, the emotion that people need to feel in order to take ownership of a great place or space.

TD: To what extent do you feel there is disagreement across the property industry about what Placemaking is and does?

NG: I don’t think there is broad disagreement in the property industry in general about the overall goal of creating great places. However, tensions may emerge about which vision of place takes precedent – the planning authority, the investor, the lead architect or designer, the purchasers, existing communities? Perhaps this is where the disjoint lies – that not one of the parties or stakeholders needs to take precedent. We firmly believe that ‘Placemaking’ is the “work of many hands”. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it wasn’t built by one person. Rome, London, Paris, they are what they are because of the layering of many years, many plans, many investors and many hands.

TD: What are the main challenges in delivering successful Placemaking projects right now?

NG: There are pressures from the Government to create quantities of homes and jobs at pace which may compromise quality of place. The complexity of securing planning approval and the development value diverted into key essential infrastructure like roads and schools can take the attention away from quality place making. Statutory plan making can be formulaic and whilst sometimes providing a broad-brush framework, often lacks creative guidance for Placemaking. The urban design and Placemaking skills within Local Planning Authorities are limited. We also believe that whilst “Placemaking” is bandied around as the latest zeitgeist, there is not a clear communication that ensures there is a robust and pragmatic approach to making it a reality. Planning is a huge problem here – a large proportion of high quality and skilled individuals work in the private sector and many areas of the public sector are lacking in experienced and suitably qualified as “Placemakers” – if such a qualification is possible!

TD: Very often the Placemaking agenda seems to only apply to the grand scheme; urban master planning or huge regeneration projects. Does Placemaking have a size problem, and can it apply to smaller scale projects or even interior office and residential design?

HS: Alberti said of cities “…the city is like some large house and the house is in turn like some small city…” There is no difference in scale or strategy if one is looking at a room, a house, a village, a town or a city – the same rigour and design rationale should be applied to each and any scale of development. Existing places and new places can be made great places regardless of scale.

TD: You mentioned Placemaking is at its strongest when all parties are involved in a holistic discussion, but can this lead to challenges around roles and responsibilities? Who has primary responsibility for ensuring effective Placemaking? (local authorities, developers, architects, occupiers etc). Is it actually a question for Real Estate professionals at all?

NG: You’re really asking who should conduct the place orchestra!? Everyone that plays a role no matter how small in property development promotion, design, approval and construction has a role to play in creating great places. The primary role, therefore, is not fixed. Forward thinking private or public sector landowners with vision can demand great places. Creative planning authorities with exceptional political and executive leadership can demand great places. In many instances, it is developers with their design and planning teams that take primary responsibility and advocate Placemaking. To answer the second part of your question, though, yes. It is a question for Real Estate professionals. We all have a part to play in that orchestra, be it the lead violin or the triangle. The orchestra is only as good as the sum of all its parts.

TD: In your experience, when and to what extent is the idea of a location’s ‘brand’ considered as part of the Placemaking process?

HS: I think there are two questions here – one is about “identity” and the other “brand”. Some places already have an established identity such as the City of London, Birmingham Jewellery Quarter, Northern Quarter of Manchester, the dreaming spires of Oxford. In these places, with an existing positive brand, it is arguably easier to build upon and enhance identity in terms of place development – this is the key point. Creating great places is not about landing something new from out-of-space. It’s about “creating more of what is great about this place”. Communities and investors can immediately associate with these places and arguably investment risk is lower and attracting new businesses, residents and services is easier with an established identity.

NG: The opposite is true when creating new places or trying to turn around an area with a poor or yet to be developed brand. We believe that what many “Placemakers” forget, is that they don’t actually have to work that hard on creating an identity, places already have identities. It is not about what we can do for a place but how it can grow from its heritage and background. Brand in this case, is actually about celebrating what’s great about a place and communication about where the place has come from, where it is now and what it will be like in the future. There is no need to reinvent the wheel to make great places.

TD: How important is a Place’s brand or identity in developing stakeholder relationships? Is it a risk not to consider this?

NG: Great places look good and feel good to be in. Every resident, business, visitor, service provider will sense on an individual basis what they feel about a place. Is it good on the eye, is it easy to use, does it have things in it I want to experience, is it safe, is it a good investment? Collectively these factors help to create a destination people want to live, work, play, invest in , visit and stay.

HS: The inhabitants of a place have a powerful role in making and sustaining great places. In creating new places or transforming existing places, getting an agreed Vision and brand is an important ingredient. Clarity at the outset across the stakeholders on what place will create is often left unachieved. The landowner looks for value, the highway engineer the right access solution or parking spaces, the environmentalist the protection of key habitats, the educationalist the size of school and so on. It is the job of the “Placemaker” to put into place a collective Vision that takes into account the views of all stakeholders and creates a tangible plan that everyone can believe in. If the whole team believes that the project is moving in the right and the same direction, stakeholder relationships are built on trust and a common goal – again, the “work of many hands”.

TD: Do you think, then, that a lack of effective communication can pose a real risk to the success of a Placemaking strategy?

HS: Absolutely! Communication, communication, communication. We need common goals. We need to learn to speak one another’s language and we need to listen to and understand our colleagues point of view. We believe that this starts at home – we build our own brand on the successful concept of interdisciplinary teams for instance.

TD: It still seems quite a nebulous concept really… What makes a successful Place to the man on the street, and how should Placemaking professionals communicate with this audience?

NG: Placemaking professionals have a the very important job to advocate a the Vision for a place. The ‘man on the street’ audience though will change over time. Communities may not be strong advocates of new development and might be suspicious of new place promoters. Consistent face-to-face contact, good visualisations, social media and listening sessions will be part of any good communication strategy. People want reassurances about their negative views on impact (traffic, poor neighbours, loss of amenity) and to be excited about how they can benefit from the new place (closer new school, open space, services, elderly housing).

HS: A key problem with “Placemakers” is the tendency to use jargon when talking to members of the public. We insist that our professionals talk in simple language that everyone can understand. Communities must feel part of the team and not on the other side of the fence. If you can’t explain it to your grandma in simple language, then you are not giving out the right message.

The media agenda and prevailing narrative is also a challenge here. We are not promoting the development industry in a good light in this country. We must educate our children at an early stage, at the risk that young people will otherwise follow the views of their parents.

TD: In your opinion, when is PR and first thought about in terms of Placemaking – if at all? What are the key trigger points?

NG: This varies on the scale and nature of the development proposed. Often it is assimilated into the overall project plan at a scale proportionate to the need or risk. Clients generally only want to spend what they have to in order to achieve their goal of achieving a planning permission. Larger scale Placemaking projects will have more investment in PR and communications upstream. It is not unusual to try and retrofit communications and PR when a proposal isn’t landing well! Nor is it unusual on large initiatives for the different stakeholders to have communications and PR approaches that don’t always gel together. You can have the developer, Council, major agencies eg Network Rail sometimes not on the same communications page – using different language, different engagement techniques and just generally confusing the audience.

TD: From what you’re seeing, what are some of the biggest drivers of change, disruption or innovation how Places are developed and communicated?

HS: The basic ingredients of great places remain pretty much the same – the physical form, its people, what is in it and so on. Innovation can bring disruption in how all these moving parts fit together to make great places. Technology will increasingly become a major disrupter in the development of place and we are on the cusp of more intelligent places with AI (smart roads, homes, spaces, schools). Places can become more energy efficient, safer, cleaner with these technology developments.

NG: Technology will also drive further changes in communication with social media sales, virtual reality promotion and purchases, house apps and so on. In human terms our places will become increasing dominated by an older demographic. This will change the dynamic of places. What should our town centres be as places for the over 55s with time and disposable income. What homes, spaces, services are needed increasingly in places for the over 80s? This is the key challenge that places will have to address in the coming years.


West Waddy are an interdisciplinary practice with a purpose of delivering Placemaking through design. They offer expert Planning, Urban Design and Architectural advice with an impressive track record in delivering consistent and creative results for clients across all sectors from Universities, to private individuals to housebuilders and developers. Sister company, Archadia is a specialist architectural practice with extensive experience in housing, health and special needs, education and public buildings.




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