Beyond placemaking: 7 dimensions of “Place Performance”

Notes from a talk at the Bartlett Real Estate Institute, University College London, 24th April 2019.

Placemaking is the art and science of planning and designing spaces for human activity, however that is done: ‬

– by a single hand (usually not a good approach) or by multiple hands (usually a good approach)

– by academics, professionals and non-professionals. ‬‬

‪But beyond placemaking is “place working”, or “place functioning”, or “place performance”: when the planning, design and construction work is finished and the place becomes operational. When it fills with the mysterious liquid called human behaviour. ‬‬‬

And key to which is human transaction: the everyday social and economic exchanges that take place between people – these transactions not only sustain lives but bring about inventions that shape cultures.

Place Performance has many dimensions. Here are seven that I have seen work in practice:

1. Create transactions between people, using places as “Transaction machines”. The first function of a place is to create the conditions for human interaction and transaction.

2. Reduce traffic speed and make it easier for people to be in places. Alongside its health and safety benefits, a 30km/h speed limit is a key method to enhance Place Performance.

3. Avoid fragmentation and the risk of over separation between people, created by well-intended but divisive environmentalism. If not, places will be built where there is little everyday human transaction.

4. Enhance functionality so that, as with single use plastics, we avoid the creation of single use places. This has two parts: first, that there should be more than one activity happening in any place and second, that any place should be adaptable to new uses.

5. Build people-centred main streets as the lowest common denominator of place. The people-centred main street has not been part of urban planning practice in recent history and needs to be reinstated in planning policies as well as in the toolkit of designers.

6. Plan grids because, if effective human transaction is the goal, then the continuously connected grid of streets is the fundamental input mechanism. In so doing, plan integrated cities of continuously connected neighbourhoods, bound together by people-centred main streets.

7. Develop a science of place so that the Placemaking industries are provided with better tools to a) understand the value of place and b) create the policies & plans that will deliver Place Performance. The more we study places – their street networks and their use patterns – the more we understand their value. Connected layouts generally create higher property values. Knowing this means that policies and plans can be presented in terms of how effectively their human performance will deliver a return on investment.

Until there is an established science of Place, the Placemaking industries are acting like Galileo in 1610, trying to understand the detailed surface of the Moon with little better than his eyesight.

We need a new science of space exploration – focused this time on place.

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