Why Placemaking Studies should come first

What’s a Placemaking Study I hear you ask? Well I’ll explain in a minute. But first I want you to consider how you might feel if you spent $400m building a place you just want people to love, for it to remain an essentially empty ghost town some 10 years later. Not great I’d suspect. But, that’s not some theoretical situation – that’s very real and it’s called the New South China Mall in Dongguan. Built by a billionaire noodle tycoon it remains one of the worlds biggest grey elephants and at time of construction, the largest shopping and entertainment centre in the world.

What’s that got to do with Placemaking? As it turns out everything. Placemaking Studies have various definitions, but ours is simple: A multi-faceted investigation into the planning, design, and management of a place. Not just the physical structure and its ergonomics, but also community, logistics, integration, brand and emotional resonance. It’s a philosophy about the creation of place, and its also a process that helps you understand what really helps to build places that people love – places that promote their health, happiness, and well being. It’s a study which culminates in a report document which looks at your audiences, what content you need, what your brand DNA should be and how you should tell that story. Then it also looks at what you might build and how that would integrate with community and catchment.

So what’s the problem with the New South China Mall. Where did it go so horribly wrong? Well reports suggest that the local transport infrastructure can’t support the movement of the 100,000 or so people per day need to make the shopping and entertainment centre work. So, no people, no business and no mall. Sounds nuts I know – and perhaps there’s more to this than meets the eye, but if you do want to insure yourself against costly mistakes like this, early studies become pretty important. Start the process with your customer or community heart and everything will stack up from there. Even if it’s bad news and your vision doesn’t stack up financially – better to find out now.

Whilst placemaking studies are about logistics (and the New South China Mall appears to have fallen over on that one) I believe what’s equally important to work out how to create emotional resonance with community – and that means thinking about a lot of things at the same time, talking to a lot of people and really getting under the skin of what will make a place tick. Consider what a place should mean to its visitors. What do they need or what might they want in the future? How do we support the community and become an integral part of it? How can we form a place that they come to rely on, one that sits within their hearts and one they will love to visit and return to? Equally applicable to a place that has yet to be built, or a place that needs regeneration. We work on both.

Where do you start and do you need professional help? Start with your customer; then look at your product and what content you need so you can do more and be better than your competition. Understand what your brand DNA will be. Once you’ve done that you can then look at your building architecture and you can see if you can deliver a project that will have long term viability. Can you do it yourself – yes maybe if you have access to to information and you apply a logical process. But also consider professional help. Whilst there’s a cost involved, this can save time and, importantly, you get the benefit of their experience and you can avoid the common potholes.

And if I may be so bold as to offer a last bit of advice, please, please do it before you bring the diggers in.

By Alan Robertson