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"Placemaking": bringing it all together

Atkins | 12 Dec 2013 | Comments

Over 50 per cent of the world’s population now lives in urban environments and that percentage is only set to grow. How can cities accommodate this steady influx while creating places where people can live, work and thrive?

In the long-established cities of the world’s mature economies, most public places evolved organically, from open plazas to well-connected train stations, growing in clusters around places of worship, transport hubs or intersections. Few were intentional; people simply gathered there or travelled through them on their way from A to B.

In some cases, their popularity worked against them: the more people who flocked to a public area, the more cluttered they became. Transport routes backed up, imperfect short-term fixes outstayed their welcome and what was once a perfectly suitable public space became an unruly mess.

At the other end of the spectrum, new-built cities in emerging economies had the opportunity to design and build bespoke public places, only to find they weren’t being used to full capacity, whether due to a lack of public interest or developers being unable to deliver on their original plans.

How do you strike the right balance when it comes to “placemaking” in urban planning? How do you satisfy that instinctive human desire to gather while taking advantage of all the benefits it can bring – from sustainability to vibrant commercial activity – without producing a city-sized white elephant?

It’s all in the approach

“The creation of a ‘place’ is about more than technical issues on a particular project, like land use zoning or individual building design,” says Mark Harrison, design director with Atkins in Beijing. “Placemaking involves multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder approaches – that’s one of its key features.”

Peter Heath, design director of public realm for Atkins in London, echoes this sentiment: “This type of work moves beyond a single professional design discipline or isolated group of disciplines – architect, landscape architect, highways engineer, urban designer, artist – imposing a physical design solution on a site for a single client. Instead, it’s a partnership of multiple experts, working with multiple end users and their clients and other representatives to develop and implement the making or remaking of somewhere with an acknowledged, sustainable design life.”

This approach was at the heart of the Trafalgar Square masterplan, designed and written by Heath in a partnership of consultants and then implemented by an Atkins-led co-disciplinary team with client partners.

Despite being a focal point for London life, Trafalgar Square had become an unwelcoming place by the 1990s. Six lanes of vehicle traffic, pollution, poor sight lines and difficult access meant fewer people were visiting and those who did wouldn’t stay long.

Collaborating with a multidisciplinary group of experts, Heath and his team designed linked spaces that were safe, convenient and attractive: “These provided a place that could serve as a stage for a wide range of cultural activities and stimulate existing and new uses, while supporting an increased number of visitors and users,” he points out.

Since work was completed in 2003, the revitalised Trafalgar Square has regained its spot at the centre of national celebrations (free concerts and public events have returned) and enjoyed a significant uptake in both visitor numbers and satisfaction. In effect, it has become the place it was always meant to be.

Changing face of China

This approach may work wonders where collaboration is commonplace but what about cities that have traditionally been more difficult to crack? For example, while developers and designers in China have looked to the wider world to see what works and what doesn’t, the door hasn’t always been open to outside partnerships. But now, population pressures have begun to shift the situation.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development estimates that 300 million people currently living in rural areas will move into cities between 2010 and 2025.

“We’re seeing more acceptance of the multidisciplinary approaches that have proved successful around the world,” says Harrison, whose team has been increasingly engaged in such projects in Beijing and beyond in recent years. “The authorities are looking at how to apply them in ways that will work in China.”

This means that organisations taking on such projects must adapt any collaborative approaches to the different cultural and social factors that govern Chinese life when working on any placemaking projects. As Harrison points out, “what works in London or Budapest may not prove successful in Beijing”.

By way of example, he highlights the long-held Chinese tradition of holding communal activities within public spaces: “Personal space is generally perceived differently in Asia compared with Europe. In Europe and America, people tend to prefer a bit more distance. First-time visitors to China might see groups dancing in a public square in the evening or doing early morning Tai Chi together in the morning. These are all unique to the Asian – and specifically Chinese – experience and need to be accommodated in any placemaking process.”

Recent Atkins projects have reflected the specific demands of Chinese culture, history and urban tradition when it comes to placemaking. The National Advertising Industry Park project, which sits alongside the Tonghui River and began in 2012, is typical. Atkins was asked to develop a masterplan for a new advertising and creative arts zone on the edge of the central business district (CBD) in Beijing. The plan includes over 30 buildings, ranging in size from small scale creative industry studios, to a museum and conference centre as well as a series of landmark towers and office buildings.

And while it takes some inspiration from creative hubs like Soho in London and New York’s Madison Avenue, the Beijing project has a distinctly Chinese aspect. It lies on the edge of the historically significant Grand Canal, which extends all the way from Hangzhou to Beijing. The Atkins plan opens onto the canal and incorporates it within this welcoming and important public space. A public square and pedestrian zone sit at the heart of the plan, with a bridge connecting the CBD and a new museum and conference centre.

“Our aim was to create a place that is unique while giving it an urban feel and a sense that was related to its history – in this context, the setting by the canal,” explains Harrison. “What could have been a ‘campus style’ area now looks and feels like it’s part of the surrounding urban space, giving it a ‘streetscape’ feel. This was a deliberate attempt to create an urban feeling within the development while remaining sensitive to the local culture and history.”

A place in the middle

Setting a team with a mix of disciplines, expertise and cultural sensitivity is fundamental to any placemaking project, no matter where it’s happening in the world. For example, Janus Rostock, associate design director with Atkins in the Middle East, has been working with developers to create new places in a city better known for its latest skyscrapers.

“Dubai is recognised for the iconic buildings towering over the skyline, but very little placemaking activity has taken place around them,” he says. “Now, there is growing recognition that they need to tie the spaces between those buildings together.”

Much of the work has focused on converting existing rights of way for cars into public spaces, by re-zoning neighbourhoods and developing public squares that offer natural shade and ventilation – critical in a country where soaring temperatures make sitting outside problematic for half the year.

At the same time, teams working on these placemaking schemes had to keep in mind the “wellness” agenda that is currently taking root in the Middle East: “The whole region is suffering from a lack of exercise in daily life,” says Rostock. “The UAE has one of the highest rates of diabetes among young people. People eat rich food with too much sugar and it creates a downward spiral from a health point of view.”

In response, Atkins’ placemaking activity in the region has focused on incorporating walking, cycle and public transport links into the Middle East’s growing cities: “For example, we are working on a masterplan for central Jeddah and our client has mandated that every component of the plan has to be measured against how it contributes to overall wellness of the community.”

Ultimately, the best, most technically advanced solutions to the problems of urban life will only work if they address the needs of a city’s most important stakeholders: those who live there. In an ideal world, placemaking projects such as these will be able to incorporate input from diverse sources and deliver a solution that works for city dwellers, businesses, transit systems and visitors alike.

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