In the planning world, terms tend to enter the lexicon and embed themselves. They become so established that they quickly lose their meaning; or at least they become accepted almost universally. One of these terms that is firmly ensconced in the dictionary of planning (a cracking read if you like that sort of thing) is ‘place-making’. It is the doyenne of what planning strives to achieve. You can meddle around with this and that, but proper, grown-up planning seeks to attach itself to the place-making label.
Sometimes though it is necessary to step back and ask yourself what this term means and what it is for. And this is where my discomfort lies. In simple terms (and you will gather from my blogs that ‘simple’ is my default setting), the term sounds wrong-headed. Place-making implies that place is not in existence at the outset. Now, I’m a social geographer for whom society and the world is made most interesting by the presence of people. Therefore I am always going to argue that people ultimately define place (those for whom a view of a totally unspoilt wilderness is the ideal place should probably flick onto a different page now). What is the point of place if not to serve people? So why does place-making feel like an exercise in changing places and, in the process, getting rid of all the good things that are there before the professionals arrive?
Place – and more importantly the people that make it what it is – are always in existence and should be part of any process of facilitating physical change. Yes, of course place-making has been born out of a need to address social problems – a lack of housing being the main one – but to use an approach of wiping the slate clean and starting again is social cleansing in all but name. Of course, one of the major reasons why this has come to pass is because the main actors in this play are private corporations for whom profit and shareholder value has to drive them. The planning system has been complicit in this, with the National Planning Policy Framework placing developer and landowner return almost above all else (whilst seems to chip away at the concept of sustainability with every planning inquiry and legal challenge). With the free reign it has been given, the private sector has demonstrated a limited ability to recognise and plan for the interests of those groups in society that have little financial clout (if you need convincing of who new development is aimed at, have a look at this video promoting a new development in Dalston – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6q-4ry6O13s). Many would observe that it is not in their interest to do so because they hurt the balance sheet, end of story. More successful examples, where organisations such as Housing Associations, not driven by profit, are the key players, show what more positive outcomes can be.
It is this narrative that has predictably shaped ‘place making’ and what we are told represents good examples of the exercise. Scratch off the shiny veneer though and the untreated wounds are plain to see. Rarely does it recognise that many of the places that are the subject of place-making may not necessarily be the most aesthetically pleasing places and certainly do have problems that need addressing. But they still have strong community networks and for many people that live there, they represent pretty much all of the networks that bind their life and the life of their extended families together. The fact that these networks do not necessarily conform to the common notion of what a ‘good’ community is – the glossy marketing brochure – by those initiating change is no excuse.
Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe place-making can show itself to work in some places (although whether any sensible measure of the change in community cohesion can ever be included in the ‘square-peg-into-a-round-hole’ exercise that is an impact assessment is doubtful). But the narrative around the need for change leaves me feeling very doubtful. David Cameron’s insulting but popular caricature of ‘sink estates’ is a prime example of this. So let’s get away from this term place-making and get back to the proper job of planning for people. One of the most important groups in this are the people that are already here and they need to be given a voice and a role in change.