Nick Ebbs: Placemaking


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Placemaking is the art of arranging spaces to enrich the urban experience. Continuities and changes will impact that experience. Changes might include more sustainable ways of living and new social networks but greater polarisation. Expect more of the same from globalisation, information technologies and demographic change. Cities could become more gated and ghettoized or more compact, integrated and cohesive.

Nick is a director of Igloo Regeneration and CEO of Blueprint, a partnership between Igloo, the Homes and Communities Agency and East Midlands Development Agency. Igloo are specialists in the development of sustainable places including Phoenix Square Leicester.
Nick was previously a Special Professor of Sustainable Development at Nottingham University and has a degree in Philosophy and Theology.

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Nick Ebbs: Placemaking

  1. 1. PLACEMAKING ---- Nick Ebbs CEO Blueprint and Director of Igloo The word “placemaking” has always slightly troubled me. In part it is because of vagaries of meaning associated with the word „place‟… so lets deal with that now …for the purposes of today I am going to equate „place‟ with „City‟. More significantly my discomfort is because the word carries the connotation that places are made in the way that you might make any other artefact – a chair or a car for instance. Whilst it is a truism that places are human constructs such a narrow conception belies their proper significance. Places are not inert objects but are dynamic; places do not have fixed edges but have blurred boundaries, are complex and multilayered; places are not created at one point in time but have usually evolved over a very long period of time at the hands of very many agents. In some respects places, especially at the city level, are better regarded as organisms that grow, pulsate, metamorphose. My other discomfort is that the language doesn‟t quite capture the notion that cities are about people. Certainly successful cities are places where people flourish, where there is life, vitality, exchange, creativity. It is not just about buildings or transport networks. You can have a wonderfully ordered neat and tidy place but if there is no life, if it is dull and monotonous then the place is a failure. Alternatively a neighbourhood might look tired, a bit shabby even but if there is bustling activity on the streets, if people look out for each other, if they share and engage then we have a successful place.
  2. 2. For now I am going to put aside my semantic hang ups but I am going to ask you to think of cities as organic places shaped by many hands and above all else think of them as places for people. Since time immemorial Cities have been shaped by the needs, ways of life traditions, technologies and ideas of its citizens. This is as true of an ancient Greek city as much as it is for Leicester in the 21st century. Today is primarily about looking at these forces that shape cities. It is about speculating as to how they might change over the next decade and what the consequences of those changes might be for our built environment. In some respects this is a daunting task because so much of human thought and activity can have an impact on place. I am going to start by looking at fairly obvious and well established trends that one can with some confidence extrapolate and then introduce some more speculative thinking. First up technology, not because it is the most significant agent for change but it does have wide ranging consequences. It is a sure bet that some current technologies will continue to improve whilst others will emerge which we have not yet thought about and this is especially true for ICT.
  3. 3. We can be pretty confident that future ICT technologies will (i) deliver even more ubiquitous and powerful communication platforms and (ii) that these platforms will enhance connectivity worldwide. These advancements pose both a threat and an opportunity. The opportunity is the ability to access a bigger world and a bigger market place. But equally this improves access to our own markets from competitors in far off places where operational costs are much less than in the UK. New ICT technologies have and will also continue to erode jobs in administrative and clerical functions. The “typing pool” is now an historic memory and how many “call centre” operators actually don‟t operate in a centre at all. Many operate from their home. Offices are a relatively new phenomena and have grown exponentially over the last half century or so. They were initially repositories for workers and enabled distribution and supervision of work and communication both within the office and externally via physically connected telephone cables. Whilst it would be wrong to predict the demise of the office it would not be misleading to suggest that this original function, because of new technologies, is changing. In the future expect offices to be smaller and for there to be fewer of them. Expect them to be more about places for networking, training, sharing knowledge or for enjoying social contact. As technology and then
  4. 4. subsequently globalisation dramatically shrank the need for factories so will these same trends impact on offices. Offices will however remain important. Increasingly in a globalised economy our prosperity as a nation will depend on our ability to live on our “wits” and that means nurturing the creativity at the heart of innovation. That is what UK plc is good at and we have an enviable world wide reputation for research and we have class leading universities. Indeed three such eminent institutions in Leicestershire. In the main activities associated with R&D and innovation take place in offices or in office like structures. But herein lies the challenge. Not much of our existing stock is suited to the needs of the 2020 office occupier. Much is in the wrong location on anonymous anodyne business parks adjacent to motorway junctions and not much built space is conducive to the flexible, informal congenial spaces that future workers and their employers will demand. So in 2020 expect lots of empty space (something Leicester has previously been plagued with) but also need for new flexible, stimulating space in City Centres close to facilities and readily accessible. I have already referred to globalisation as an agent for change and it is this trend I want to focus on next. Demographic and economic growth in India and China will in particular but not exclusively impact our futures bringing both opportunities and threats.
  5. 5. Together these two countries account for a third of the world‟s population and 40% of its total working population. To get a sense of the scale of impact just reflect on these numbers in relation to car sales. In 2005 Asia accounted for 16.8m cars sold compared to 39m in USA and Europe combined. In 2020 the projections are 48.6m in Asia compared to US and Europe of 47.6m. These figures are, I would suggest, a reasonable proxy for other economic indicators. So what? Well the opportunity is about hugely expanding markets especially in India where Leicester has historical and cultural ties. The threat is (i) further migration of work overseas (ii) competition for resources especially energy and (iii) accelerating environmental risk and degradation. Let‟s unwrap some of this. If growth in the world economy continues at recent levels it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that,in a world of finite resources, increased competition for supply will increase scarcity and drive up cost. Whether or not you subscibe to the view that we are close to reaching “peak oil” it is inevitable the price of energy will rise disproportionately to all other costs over the coming decade. The other challenge equally unpalatable is further strain on our battered planet. Whether you belong to the apocalyptic camp or the slightly sceptical - few can deny that global warming is a risk and we ignore it at our peril.
  6. 6. These threats demand an intelligent response. Business as usual is not sustainable and in any event Government has got the message so expect change. Sticks (tightening building regulations /CRC and others) and carrots (feed in tariff) are beginning to change agendas. Fundamentally we need to both curtail and reshape the nature of our demand for goods and services. We need to respect ecological limits and impose caps and control and we need to invest in green jobs, assets and infrastructure. All this has huge implications for placemaking. Commitment to a more sustainable urban form will require us to live in a more compact way and in a way that is less wasteful of resources – we need to extract more from less. We have a tendency to discard difficult brownfield sites as we might an unfashionable garment and we seek out new greenfield opportunities with fewer problems. Not only do higher densities mean less use of land but they also reduce the need for travel and it becomes more economic to provide localised services. All this helps the environment. A more sustainable urban form would also favour where possible walking, cycling, and public transport. Overall there should be much less use of the car which even as a hybrid or electric variant is hugely consumptive of resources and for most of the day is unused. More local power generation – which is inherently more efficient – and renewable energies should be commonplace.
  7. 7. As for buildings, technologies already exist to produce cost effective super insulated structures with great air tightness that require minimal energy to run and create minimal CO 2. We can now deliver zero carbon homes. It isn‟t that difficult. Population change is another key determinant of placemaking. Whilst substantial population growth is anticipated across the globe the UK population is likely to remain fairly static – some growth but not a lot – although the demographic profile will change. Firstly the number of non workers as a % of working population will rise sharply because we have a rapidly ageing population and that will impact on work. Second we will have an increasing number of single households. By 2020 expect over 40% of households to comprise single people and single people have differing housing requirements than both families and couples. In a world where we have a shrinking workforce and where economic advantage in an increasingly connected and competitive world relates to our ability to innovate, the future success of Cities like Leicester will revolve around their ability to attract and retain knowledge workers with creative talent and to attract and nurture businesses which can compete on a world stage. For this a successful City will need to offer a good quality of life measured for instance in terms of cultural offer, range of housing and facilities, aesthetic mileu, vitality, diversity and openness. A successful City needs above all to be a congenial place that permits, invites and encourages the greatest number of
  8. 8. meetings and encounters -- and this I would submit needs to be one of the principle targets for Leicester in 2020. The final determinant of change to which I want to draw attention has to do with culture and philosophical outlook. It isn‟t yet a trend and it might not emerge as one. Given all the tumultuous fallout that has arisen and will continue in the aftermath of the UK‟s deepest recession since the 1930s (I am acutely aware the CSR is just days away ) I sense citizens from all walks of life are beginning to question the efficacy of our current economic and social systems. Systems that brought us close to economic meltdown, a system that seems to punish the least advantaged but is lenient on perpetrators of economic mistakes and a system which comprehensively threatens the long term well being of the planet. Assuming this line of questioning, this earnest enquiry for alternative approaches to living gathers pace then expect new demands and new ideas about how we organise place; how we use energy and resources and dispose of waste; how we relate to our neighbours and where we want to live work and shop. As I hope you will have gathered so far there are many determinants and facets of place and Cities are fabulously complex but also quite fragile constructs. I have tried to highlight what are in my view some of the more powerful forces – I will have omitted some and possibly over emphasised others but lets move on.
  9. 9. Pulling all this together what might these drivers for change mean for places in 2020 and more specifically what might it mean for Leicester. A fairly obvious target, that would respond sensibly to the many competitors for our attention, would be to turn Leicester‟s unloved and sterile stock of underutilised and derelict land (some 115 hectares of it) into new mixed use neighbourhoods. The vision (which is actually not that difficult to imagine) is for those post industrial sites located in or on the edge of the City Centre to be re-energised by new sustainable development (I am thinking of the opportunites at Leicester Waterside, Wolsey Island, around the station and here around St Georges). I invite you to put in mind for instance a whole new neighbourhood at Leicester Waterside as an example of the possibility. Conjure up a vision of new streets creating a framework of interconnected routes that integrate seamlessly with the surrounding area, imagine streets which optimise access and visibility to key assets including the river and canal. Then envision alongside each street a variety of built form with some houses and small scale apartments suited to a whole range of citizens needs from singles to families and all with a wide range of incomes and amongst the homes there are small office buildings. The whole area is compact, but privacy is protected and there are trees on the streets. The car is subservient to the pedestrian, there are electric charging points and a popular car share scheme (the majority of residents do not own a car). On some streets there are small wireless
  10. 10. enabled cafes and elsewhere a cycle repair shop, an artisan bakery , a tailor who repairs clothes, a small convenience store selling locally grown produce, a local doctor and others. All rainwater is recycled and provides brown water for toilets, energy is sourced from a local energy plant supplemented by renewables on individual houses. There is a communal vegetable garden, greenhouses on flat roofs and the majority of residents work part time at home or in the local café hub and when needing to meet or train or socialise they walk to their corporate office in the City. The office is more posh hotel than anonymous open plan box. Surprisingly but highly successfully the offices have been created out of the husk of a once much despised 1960s office monolith which has been reclad and re engineered to provide some of the most desirable space in the City. Who would have thought St Georges tower could have had such a renaissance!