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The Importance of Place

by Keerat

by Simon Marks – City Executive, Birmingham – Arcadis

Simon Marks is the City Executive for Arcadis responsible for over 350 staff in the Birmingham office. With 30 years construction and property experience Simon helps clients make the best of their built and natural assets in relation to achieving their vision, strategy and key priorities. He has led and delivered a range of projects across the public, private and infrastructure sectors and has a deep understanding of the housing and regeneration arena. Simon is a Board member of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership and Chair of the Executive Board of the City Centre Enterprise Zone.

 

How important are the places we interact with?

Places impact on the quality of people’s lives. Whether a park, a building, a town or city, people and communities thrive when the spaces in which they live, work, move and play are designed and managed in a way that best meets their needs. I wrote this paragraph in the middle of 2019, as a foreword to Arcadis’ Placemaking Report – Liveable Places. The report, released at the start of 2020, was the result of extensive research, consultation and engagement with a wide stakeholder group involved in Placemaking.

At the time we recognised that the traditional approach to Placemaking wasn’t working. It seemed the most important aspect of place – how it enables people and communities to thrive – was somewhere near the bottom of the list of considerations. Yet we knew, and research had proven, that there was a direct link between the quality of a place and its impact on health, wellbeing, life expectancy, education, economic outcomes and overall quality of life.

Fast forward twelve months and one pandemic, and this topic is probably the number one discussion in the real estate sector. Whether local authority, developer, housebuilder, consultant or commentator – COVID-19 has brought the importance of Placemaking into sharp focus. Several years of change has happened in a few months, and the question is no longer whether the way in which we plan and deliver places needs to change, but rather; what does change look like and how do we do it?

This isn’t just speculation. Recent surveys have indicated that 15% of people are considering moving house as a result of their experiences during lockdown. The last six months have seen people interacting with their homes and their environment in a completely new way. For many, as evidenced by the current boom in the housing market, the shortcomings and inadequacies of their current situation has prompted decisive action.

 

What is happening in our towns and city centres?

The way we think about ‘place’ has been turned upside down, and the future of our towns and city centres sits at the heart of the debate. Before the pandemic, we were already seeing a decline in the high street, prompted not least by the changing and accelerating shift in how we shop. Where a town centre was predominantly retail-led, with little in the way of alternative uses, we saw more and more empty units, reducing footfall, falling management standards and antisocial behaviour.

It was evident that too many town centres were too big to be sustainable without introducing different uses. A range of Government initiatives and funding packages were launched in response, including the Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund. Yet with the advent of COVID-19 came a new dynamic. It wasn’t just towns and smaller cities suffering. Large economic powerhouses were left reeling when “work from home” became the new normal and – overnight – thousands of office workers stopped travelling into cities.

 

The statistics back this up. Centre for Cities research shows that London, Manchester and Birmingham were at the bottom of their Overall Recovery Index at the beginning of September. Birmingham’s Workers Index, which records the number of workers in the city weekdays Monday-Friday was, at the start of September, still only 14 (against a pre lockdown baseline of 100). The ease and speed with which many office workers switched to digitally enabled working has been incredible. Some large employers are now saying they will not be returning to pre lockdown levels of office occupation, and that their offices will be smaller and used for more collaborative and creative activities in future.

In contrast, many smaller cities and local town centres have enjoyed a reversal of fortunes. Even though many people have shunned travelling into larger metropolises, they still want a break from their homes, to pick up groceries, have a cup of coffee and engage with their local environment. The Centre for Cities Index reinforces this, with many towns seeing their Overall Recovery Index bounce back way beyond the 100 baseline. Does this mean that the time of the larger city is over, and that local decline is reversing? Probably not. The fundamental weaknesses of town centres are still there and the need to reinvent remains, but the mix of uses has once again evolved. So where does this leave us?

 

Our cities and town centres need to change

At the start of lockdown, many of us thought home working was for ever and going into the city was a thing of the past. Move on six months and things have changed. People are missing interaction with colleagues, have discovered their dining room isn’t a replacement for a purpose-built office, and building new relationships with partners and clients is more challenging. But do they want to rush back to the city centre, often spending hours on overcrowded public transport? Definitely not. The general consensus seems to be heading towards the 2/3 rule. Two days at home and three days in the office, or vice versa. And that office doesn’t necessarily have to be in the heart of the city centre. For many, it is about having choices.

It seems that the future may be shaped around an ‘ecosystem of place’; cities, towns and local centres that complement each other socially, economically, and culturally. They will likely all offer employment, living and entertainment experiences, but differing in nature, scale, price point and density. There has been an excellent piece of work looking at this produced by Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership called “Towns and Local Centres Ecosystem: Growing Our Towns”.

As we start to evolve the mix and proportions of use – for example, increasing or introducing new homes, providing digitally connected ‘drop in’ workspaces, or thinking about retail and leisure experiences – we need to consider the types of places we are creating. Given recent experiences and learning the lessons of the 1960’s, we need to create places that meet the needs of the community not just today, but in the future. Places need to be agile, flexible, adaptable. The digital revolution, the climate change emergency and the more recent impact of the pandemic have all demonstrated just how quickly our lives and environments can change – and our places need to respond.

 

 

How do we deliver this ‘New Place’ agenda?

When I reflect on the last twelve months, much has changed. In writing our ‘Liveable Places’ report last year, we debated even using the term ‘Placemaking’. It had become a little tired and carried too much baggage. But to us, it still seemed appropriate – so we took a risk. As I write this piece today, I don’t think we could have chosen a better descriptor. We are at a tipping point, and have to ‘make our places’ such that they address some fundamental challenges. Time is up for climate change; we have to act now. The digital revolution is upon us and will fundamentally disrupt people’s lives. Social inequality must be addressed if a whole tranche of society isn’t to be left behind.

Placemaking it is then. We need to make places that are conceived, designed and delivered with people and communities at their heart – but that can also adapt to the needs of tomorrow and how future communities will live their lives. We need to make places where waste is limited and consumption of carbon, water and other natural resources are carefully balanced. We need to make places where everyone can access digital services, high quality education, health care, green space, and public transport. We need to create spaces where people feel welcomed, valued and safe. This isn’t easy, but it is achievable. It will take time, commitment and a long-term view. It will require us to recognise that value and return on investment result as much from improved health and education, as from development profit.

With this in mind, we see five fundamentals for successful Placemaking:

  • Community – put people first, work with communities, and give them a stake in creating place;
  • Funding and Delivery – take a long-term, holistic view to value creation and return on investment. Develop a delivery strategy specific to the opportunity;
  • Design and Public Realm – create beautiful, flexible, agile places that bring people together and which can be maintained and stewarded long into the future;
  • Collaboration – bring stakeholders together to collaborate and develop funding and value creation strategies, underpinned by effective but not overburdening governance;
  • Sustainability – create resilient, adaptable, net zero carbon places that are sustainable in every sense – physical, social and economic.

Some considerations – such as responding to the imperative of climate change – are non-negotiable. But if we get this right, the rewards are many and diverse. There is no silver bullet to placemaking, but if we put the needs of local people at the heart of everything we do, we can succeed in creating great places that improve quality of life for everyone.

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