Last edited 05 Nov 2020

Main author

Alex Harvie Other Consultant Website



[edit] Introduction

As the global population continues to rise, people increasingly migrate to cities. With the pressure on these spaces increasing, the necessity of having an established and widely understood theory for the design of a conducive urban environment is clearly important.

[edit] Historic context

The consideration of how cities should be laid out is not a new phenomenon. Historians record the first urban formations at least 6,000 years ago. These early cities evolved from a conglomeration of settlements with accepted routes providing access to water and common land. As human society developed, so settlements changed to reflect cultural, trade and defensive requirements.

The layout of many cities have common elements: a central fortified area such as a castle, town quarters and suburbs. Open areas were established at the crossing points of trade routes to facilitate the exchange of goods. These open areas became public squares, and many of them also served a political function, enabling the ruling elite to gather and be seen by those they ruled, in processions, parades and religious ceremonies.

These squares are also credited with facilitating the exchange of ideas between traders and city-dwellers as they swapped goods. For example, it is generally accepted that writing was developed to facilitate the record of trades made in such squares by the early Phonecians. As cities grew, industries and trades concentrated in particular areas within the urban zone.

In spite of the many similarities in the development of the world's cities, there were also subtle differences in how particular societies and groups arranged the built environment; and historians draw on these these differences to infer cultural, religious and attitudinal differences. For example, in Islamic cities from the fourteenth century, squares were often near the gates because they were associated with bazaars or markets, whereas squares in European cities tended to be in city centres because they were associated with cathedrals and municipal buildings, such as St James's Square in London, shown below in 1722.

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The development of the fabric of a city was a complex interplay of many factors. It depended on the historic local context, geography and politics. For instance, the contrast between capital cities in Iran and the UK demonstrates how power, history and geography interact.

In Iran, Shah Abbas moved his capital city from Qazvin to Isfahan in 1597 as a demonstration of his power and in order to locate his capital at the heart of Iran. His architects set out to design an inspirational city which would demonstrate Iran's preeminence. The city's entire layout was arranged around an eight-hectare square, Maidan-e Shah, known as ‘The Square in the Image of the World’ (shown below).

The masterplan considered how citizens’ lives could be connected to create a productive integrated whole, with governmental, religious and commercial functions interconnected through the vast central square. The layout was deemed a perfect expression of the civic ideal: it was in the square that people could excercise and trade as well as meet with the shah and nobles every morning and afternoon.

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“The shah attended the public recreational activities such as polo, archery and gorgbazi (the wolf game). The city’s famous coffee houses opened their doors from door to dusk a couple of hundred metres from the Imperial Palace. Here, besides various games and amusements, poems were declaimed, sermons delivered, politics discussed; there was conversation, singing and dancing.” ‘The Splendour of Iran’, p90, Volume 2, Islamic Period, published by Booth-Clibborn Editions.

In contrast, London was a medieval city which had grown up on the banks of the Thames. It was hampered by a layout which had evolved rather than been planned. When fire swept through the city in 1666, planners immediately suggested ideas for creating a more coherent masterplan. However London's many conflicting stakeholders complicated the issue of redesign, forcing compromise on those with more radical ideas. Richard Newcourt was one of these individuals, and his plan for a rigid grid layout with churches in squares, although rejected by London, was later to be used as the layout for Philadelphia in the US.

King Charles appointed a group of commissioners, including Sir Christopher Wren, to oversee the rebuilding. This group issued proclamations determining the width of the streets and the height, materials and dimensions of secular buildings in an attempt to create a safer cityscape. A Fire Court was convened to resolve the many conflicting claims from owners and tenants and distribute compensation. The fire had destroyed a third of London's wider conurbation and four fifths of its centre, which meant that the centre benefited most from the rebuilding. Historians cite the new, more organised form as one of the drivers which enabled the British Empire to rise to preeminence in the decades which followed.

These examples are intended to demonstrate that urban planning is a long-established subject which has been addressed by different cultures in different ways through history. Placemaking is a relatively new element of this complex subject.

[edit] What is placemaking?

A sense of place (genius loci) is the essential character and spirit of an area.

Placemaking is a term used to describe the process by which an area in the public realm is given a unique and attractive character. In itself, placemaking is a generic concept which could be said to embrace the work of a number of professions, including architects, town planners, masterplanners, urban designers and landscape architects.

Placemaking emerged in the 1960s when commentators, theorists and writers began to call for a greater consideration of the individual’s experience of the built environment. In 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' (1961), for example, the American-Canadian writer and activist Jane Jacobs argued that the practice of urban renewal was not taking into consideration the needs of most city-dwellers. She drew on sociology concepts such as ‘social capital’ and ‘eyes on the street’, and advocated a grass-roots approach to urban planning.

Another New Yorker, William H. Whyte, noted discrepancies in the use of public spaces built around the new high-rise blocks while working for the New York Planning Commission. In 1969, as part of 'The Street Life Project', he used timelapse photography, film and timed observations to create a detailed picture of how the spaces were actually used by people through the day, and what different individuals and groups did. Some short extracts can be found on the internet, for example:

Whyte published his findings in the seminal 'The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces' (1980). The book included unexpected observations, such as the fact that women are, "more discriminating than men as to where they will sit, more sensitive to annoyances, and women spend more time casting the various possibilities." (page 18). From this he concluded that a reduced female presence in a plaza indicated it was not functioning, and that a high concentration of women indicated the success of a public space. The book proposed a series of steps to the design of effective public spaces.

[edit] Current practice in placemaking

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Camden, London - what makes some streetscapes popular and full of life?

Placemaking is the task of making an area feel attractive to inhabitants, visitors and the wider public and currently tends to be used to describe a stream of work which runs in parallel with the technical and practical work of designing the built environment. This process can apply to large-scale, national or city-wide developments, as well as small street-level initiatives.

Because placemaking bridges the technical and practical work of designing a place with processes as varied as public consultation, marketing, PR, branding and events management; the practice is interpreted and described in a range of ways by the different groups involved. It is sometimes described as a process and sometimes a philosophy, and this lack of definition can lead to confusion with clients, stakeholders and other professionals.

Some practices have a clear agenda for placemaking; for example, the US-based practice PPS (Project for Public Spaces) ( has created an eleven-step approach, closely following the work of William H. Whyte. The company states: "The goal is to create a place that has both a strong sense of community and a comfortable image, as well as a setting and activities and uses that collectively add up to something more than the sum of its often simple parts." (ref.

Other practices specialise in emerging fusions of architecture, placemaking and consultation. The Glasgow-based practice WMUD offers a service it describes as "strategic urbanism" and promotes a "collaborative, contextual and research-based approach to urban and strategic design – working across disciplines, in liaison with local communities, businesses and organisational stakeholders, and respecting local context and heritage."

In contrast, some practices work with a more intuitive interpretation of placemaking, responding to the local context, community and history, as well as the stipulations of the client, to create a tailored placemaking and consultation process.

The UK-based landscape firm Gustafson Porter, for example, starts every project by researching the area’s cultural, social and historical contexts, as well as factors such as climate and topography. The designs they create evolve through consultation with users, neighbours, vested interest groups and stakeholders; and they fuse an artistic, sculptural approach to land with a respect for the local context, overlayed with a pragmatic assessment of everyday requirements.

Neil Porter:

Urban spaces need to be robust, easy to maintain, they need to feel safe, they are loved by users when they change with the seasons and draw on the site's history and association. These are all considerations in a complex process which deliberately crafts space to support a range of uses and encourage people to feel ownership of shared spaces.

"Open spaces are under increasing pressure in the urban realm, and we create layered uses, where one space serves a wide range of functions at different times of day and on different occasions: a market in the day can transform into a ballroom; a pond can become a skating rink in winter or a hard surface to accommodate festival crowds in the summer. We connect with local groups and include elements which are important to them. We create these layers to be functional as well as beautiful, robust and enduring.”

Their work in Woolwich aimed to transform the area into one of London’s best-connected, most sought-after riverside areas. Developed with the local community, the landscape masterplan draws on the town’s rich architectural and military heritage to create two multi-functional, fully-accessible spaces called ‘Garden’ and ‘Ballroom’, connected by Greens End’s revitalised streetscape.

Gustafson Porter Woolwich 1.jpg

Above, a scrim of water can be drained to accommodate festivals and left to freeze over for skating in winter. Images below, spaces be layered with different uses, including specialist markets and public events.

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Above, Beresford Square is a more formal space supporting a daily market. Its east side illuminates with the setting sun and changing patterns of light encourage local residents to linger and meet.

[edit] Measuring the success of placemaking

A potential area of difficulty which arises when a field of work crosses disciplines and lacks a precise definition is that it can be problematic to judge success. How can the ‘attractiveness’ or ‘uniqueness’ of an area be valued in absolute terms? How can people’s feelings about a place be accurately measured?

It is essential for the client and the team to agree at the outset which measures are practicable and appropriate for their development. Not only does this avoid misunderstanding but it also gives the team the potential to conduct the same test before and after the works – giving the potential for an accurate measure of change/acceptance by target groups.

These measures of success should be closely linked to the issues which prompted project’s initial brief:

  • Why is money being spent on this project?
  • What does the project hope to achieve?
  • Who is it for?
  • How will this be achieved?

The project team may want to consider the red line for the project and whether placemaking is an appropriate means of extending the benefits of the initiative outside the construction area.

Specific measures will vary from project to project and depend on its scale, some suggestions for approaches include:

  • Involvement and acceptance by wider community – those within 5 mile radius, 10 mile radius to visit at least once a month, once a year. If the project is of national significance, questions could be included in a Mori poll, for instance, to guage attitude and awareness.
  • Involvement and acceptance by younger, older, working people – this would need to be quantified in a visit audit or poll - see above.
  • Involvement and acceptance by specific local resident groups – as above.
  • Reduction of crime – this would be an analysis of statistics.
  • Visibility in regional, national, international media – this would be an analysis of press cuttings and web mentions.
  • Public to accept the place’s sustainability credentials – this would be a combination of public questionnaire and audit of press coverage.
  • Public to see the area as easily accessible from town centre – this could be audited by analysing visitor journey times, including a question in the public questionnaire and an audit of media coverage.
  • Popularity – this could be on numbers, inclusion of positive words in questionnaire to an anecdotal question about impressions.

Methods of conducting a placemaking audit could include:

  • Observe (watch or film) visitor numbers during set times of the day.
  • Observe dwell time of visitors in particular areas.
  • Create a questionnaire (see below for ideas of questions) and ask a pre-agreed number of visitors at set times in the day.
  • Audit mentions in the media.
  • Analyse takings in shops/local trades.

It should be noted that some projects currently being tendered connect education and work opportunities provided by the development with placemaking.

[edit] Placemaking at different stages in a project

The process of placemaking can occur at different stages in a project. If a project is a new development in a previously unoccupied area, then it may include less consultation than a project in the centre of a densely occupied space.

[edit] Placemaking at concept and design stages

The project team may commission a Placebook from a specialist consultant. This book will provide an overview of the project’s context, the history of the site, as well as setting out the aims of the project and providing a demonstration of its brand values.

Some Placebooks are created following consultation with groups of experts, local people and stakeholders, and include distillations of the outcomes of these meetings. A placebook is often organised thematically, such as: history, vision, brand values, design, culture, community, commercial, sustainability.

The publicly-visible element of placemaking at concept and design stages tends to fall under the heading of ‘Community engagement’ and be defined by the Localism Act which specifies that before a development can take place the local community should have its say.

This kind of placemaking may include:

  • Presentations of initial concepts for the project in boards, on notices, on the internet.
  • Meetings / workshops with local residents (these may be held regularly through the life of the project).
  • Request for comments and ideas.
  • A phone line / email address / social media space (#) for people to contact the team.

For an example of this placemaking, see The website offers an overview of the project, as well as detailing specific areas of work, providing construction updates and news and events.

[edit] Placemaking during construction

It is best practice to continue to involve local stakeholders and the wider community during the construction phase. The involvement could range from a simple notice on a hoarding setting out the project’s aims and timetable, to a commitment to invite local people to provide skills and services to the project, to the provision of a bespoke community space offering a community information hub during the life of the project.

For example, 'View Tube' was set up during the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Park during the 2012 Olympic Games to offer a space for groups to meet and view progress as well as bespoke education programmes tailored to the curriculum. A cafe and small community arts space were made open to all. The popularity of the space has given it an unexpected ongoing life as a cafe and community hub.

[edit] Placemaking to launch a new development

When a development launches, it is important for its popular image to change . The new development may offer new services or commercial opportunities, or it may simply be aiming to attract different people.

Successful launch placemaking strategies include:

[edit] Long-term placemaking

Although a one-off event is important in setting the tone, long-term detailed work is essential to effective placemaking, just as much as the consideration of placemaking in the initial design. It is important to note that much of the long-term placemaking work should have been planned at the outset. This is because relationships take time to grow.

Planning in a long-term strategy from the start also ensures practical issues have been considered and the design of the space is able to accommodate the likely range of end uses required.

Long-term placemaking activities should be developed in consultation with the local and targeted people affected by the development.

Strategies might include:

[edit] Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki

[edit] Further reading

[edit] Advice

[edit] Awards and best practice

--Alex Harvie 20:52, 23 Jul 2018 (BST)

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