Members joined us at Hammerson's King's Cross offices to hear three practitioners share their perspectives on planning and designing destinations with purpose and personality.

Traditionally associated with town planning and the creation of public spaces that meet the needs of local communities, the concept of placemaking has more recently been seized upon by retailers, property owners and leisure providers — all keen to turn their physical spaces into exciting destinations that visitors feel a connection with and keep coming back to. 

A prime example is one of the capital's biggest redevelopment projects, King's Cross, which has seen an 'underused industrial wasteland' transformed into a thriving new part of town, providing a new home for individuals, businesses, cultural destinations and educational institutions alike — from the University of the Arts London to Google and The Guardian. Crucial to the project's success has been the creation of a diverse and dynamic community, where the people who use and inhabit the space feel a sense of belonging and ownership. 

On the evening of 17th April, it was the perfect setting for our panel discussion on placemaking — the latest in a series of retail-focussed events we've been hosting in partnership with members Hammerson. 

We invited three speakers to their King's Cross offices, where they shared their perspectives on designing and planning spaces that have a real sense of purpose, community and personality. Together, we'll be discussing the importance of properly identifying the needs of people using a space: how to curate the right mix of businesses, amenities and services to meet these needs and the role of design and branding in bringing a destination to life and giving it an identity that they can relate to. 

Joining our panel were: 

Robin Dobson – Development Director at Hammerson, which owns and manages retail properties across Europe.

Ryan Tym – Founder and Director of brand and design agency Lantern, which has completed success branding projects for regeneration projects in Dover and Newington.

Morag Myerscough – founder of Studio Myerscough, whose eye-catching placemaking and wayfinding solutions are designed to help people connect with physical spaces, whether that's at The Old Vinyl Factory incubator and workspace, the Royal London Hospital, or the Barbican. 

Here’s what we learned.

YCN’s Director of Insights, Sheena Patel, opened the discussion by deconstructing the term “placemaking” and what it has come to mean in recent years. Although traditionally associated with town planning, placemaking is more than that. It is, literally, making places: identifying or creating “a sense of purpose and identity” for an area - whether that area is a town square, an empty unit in a shopping centre, or a whole housing estate. Successful, modern placemaking is about transforming an area in a way that reflects and respects the heritage that informs it and benefits the community that inhabits and surrounds it. 

Spaces for retail

To discuss placemaking from a corporate perspective, we heard from Hammerson’s Development Director, Robin, on what it means to design and build retail spaces in an ecommerce era. Just as retail behaviour has evolved, so has strategy for placemaking businesses like Hammerson. “How do we physically and socially integrate retail in our area?” It’s true that physical stores, said Robin, are no longer the number one destination for sales, however, their “showroom” function is still important: the physical shop drives online sales as consumers still like to handle a physical product, even if they prefer to complete the actual purchase online where they can compare prices and retailers. Staying relevant in the physical retail world is about creating spaces that offer more than just shopping, explained Robin.

“Embracing other leisure facets” – food destinations, events spaces, sculpture, outdoor theatres – are all interactivity-inducing ingredients that go into Hammerson’s “product experience framework. Robin was keen to stress that, yes, corporate placemaking needs to be financially viable, and no, residents aren’t always going to be onboard straight away, but that successful placemaking is always underpinned by heritage, local values and a view to long-term regeneration. He gave the example of projects in Birmingham, where the large-scale Bullring shopping centre was created to make the city centre a retail destination, rooted in the city’s heritage (the Bull Ring has been an important feature of the city since the middle ages, when the first market was held). The talking point is the bronze bull sculpture that taps into the area’s history; “today it is in the top ten most photographed sculptures in the UK”, added Robin.

Embracing the truth

Next to the floor was Ryan, founder and Director of branding agency Lantern, whose experience spans both corporate and community initiatives. He spoke largely about the importance of “embracing the truth of an area” in regenerating, renewing and reviving areas. To illustrate his point, he used the Snowbird case study: the Utah ski resort’s marketing team played on its notoriety by incorporating negative Tripadvisor reviews into an ad campaign: embracing the unique aspects of the resort, Snowbird created a series of humorous digital and print ads featuring one star reviews imposed on juxtaposing images of spectacular mountain views: “too advanced,” reads one, by Greg from Los Angeles. “I’d heard Snowbird is a tough mountain, but this is ridiculous.”

Another example of “embracing the truth” of a place is car giant Chrysler’s Super Bowl commercial that played on the underdog spirit of Detroit (“We’re from America. But this isn’t New York City. Or the Windy City. Or Sin City. And we’re certainly no one’s Emerald City”), featuring Eminem. In Ryan’s words, “it’s an ad for a very average car that gets into the heart of what Detroit is about.” To accept the challenges that an area faces and turn them into sellable points is exactly what Ryan and his team did with their Newington Estate regeneration project. The council estate, “one of the UK’s least funded and most forgotten areas”, received a £1 million investment from the National Lottery Fund in 2014 to fund “community regeneration” with “literally zero council involvement”. Ryan says Lantern were brought in for three reasons: “to capture the spirit of what Newington’s about”, “to engage with the local community and get them to come up with ideas for how the money should be spent” and to create a “stepping stone for the future”. 

Challenging perceptions

Ryan’s team played on the fact that “estate is such a loaded word”, and “there was no getting away from the fact that this is an estate.” The challenge was to change perceptions, so they heroed Newington’s “estate” status and built it into the rebrand: they used bold black graphics and bright colours (a practical choice, “easy to reprint on coloured paper to put up in community centres”) and phrases like “Estate of Enablers” and “The Revolution Will Be Monetised” (the cover for a participatory budgeting pamphlet) that captured the sense of “a movement” became the brand’s visual identity. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Lantern worked on the rebranding of Leicester Square’s identity as “London’s heart of entertainment.” The challenge here was to counter the negative perceptions and tourist-saturated, gateway-to-somewhere-else feel of Leicester Square and play on its strengths as an entertainment hub. Ryan said that, in this case, tapping into the area’s history – as Robin described in regard to Birmingham’s Bullring centre – was a key part of the process. A neon Timeout wrap with the slogan “Anything but square” and digital and print ads boasting “52 premieres a year”, “6000 cinema seats” emphasised the area’s “truth”: “it exists to entertain.

Spaces for connecting

Our third panelist, artist Morag, took us through three examples of her own placemaking work, all of which were rooted in community values and creating shared spaces and experiences: “for the last ten years I’ve worked to put narratives and stories in buildings and spaces”. First, a community space in Graz, Austria’s second largest city, where Morag was commissioned to create a space (“in the People’s Park, which no people go into”) as part of an arts festival centred around immigration and the bringing together of Graz’s “very very divided” communities. Wanting to inspire openness, Morag had the idea of making “all these doors, and all the doors were open”, which she then had “ten different communities from Graz” decorate the structures in a communal workshop environment. Morag described the benefit of “making things together” and “getting people involved”. 

Dazzling spaces

She also shared with us her work at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, where she collaborated with poet Lemn Sessay. The results of his poetry workshop with child patients were incorporated into vivid, playful graphics splashed across the walls of communal spaces in the children’s ward of the hospital, such as a child’s poem written half in Urdu, half in English. Another example was the word “Dazzle” on the wall in neon letters: “the kids just really, really, really loved the word ‘dazzle’. That was their word. I couldn’t have made this work without the kids.” Her final project (“this one affected me the most”) took place in Sceaux Gardens estate, in Peckham. As part of a collaboration between the estate and the South London Gallery, Morag took over an empty space, formerly a shop, on the ground floor of a housing block and made it “The Art Block.” Here, she worked with community workers to get resident kids to “take ownership of the space” by making art and engaging in a collaborative creative experience together. Her motto? “We make belonging together.” 

Q&A

With plenty to think about, the Q&A session kicked off with a question about how we figure out the identity of a space. For Ryan, it’s about talking to residents. For the Newington project, he said, they ran a workshop with locals to get a feel for local values. He also listed Tripadvisor and, surprisingly, Mumsnet, as useful, authentic sources of “polarised opinions on an area.” For Morag it’s about “opening up the history of a place and building upon it to create a narrative.” Robin agreed. “The most successful projects have social roots,” integrating design into its surroundings. 

With everyone in agreement on the importance of “growing” and “not losing the community,” the conversation turned to gentrification. While such a huge topic deserves its own panel session, our panelists touched upon the “fine line” between regeneration and gentrification. Morag was succinct in identifying the main differences between the two: gentrification is alienating communities and “forcing people out with obscene house prices”, while regeneration is more about putting in lights so that people aren’t scared to walk home, creating safer spaces, and generally improving areas. 

Challenges

In response to an audience member asking about the challenges of placemaking, the panel agreed that the biggest challenge is “challenging existing perceptions”. In Robin’s line of work, that’s about creating change that people will “learn to embrace” – in order to get people on board, you have to “bring them along on the creative journey.” Morag’s view was that it is important to “get out of the boardroom” and get people to engage with a space in order to understand her vision – “physical interaction is essential.” 

Ownership

It also became clear that “ownership”, whether that’s who legally owns the land, or the sense of ownership among community over a public space, is essential to the longevity of art in public spaces. Robin’s go-to example was the “instagrammable”, visitor-friendly bull sculpture at Bullring, while Morag’s philosophy was similar, in that art should reflect and complement its surroundings. Of her own work she said: “colour goes a long way in London. It makes people happy.”

For Ryan, establishing ownership in a busy central location like Leicester Square is about “curating flexible, multifunctional spaces that are adaptable”. This is particularly interesting when we think about the rise of pop-ups; Robin described a low rent, “temp-let” arrangement that allows for food and fashion pop-up retailers to set up shop in spaces that are empty between longer term leases held by the bigger brands at Hammerson’s retail-cum-leisure centres. This short-term use of space breeds interesting, creative new projects. 

Learning from the past

The takeaway from all of this? The panelists reflected on learnings, concluding that there is no strategy for “what not to do”, but that we need to learn from past mistakes when it comes to designing spaces for people. Placemaking has always been, and continues to be, about “experimentation.”