Young Planners Conference: Workshop 6: Place Strategy

Hosted by John Till, Thinking Place

John Till runs a company called Thinking Place. This is a place consultancy, a very rare type of organisation and one which helps clients answer such questions as:

  • What is your place for?
  • Whom is your place for? And;
  • Why is the place different?

John began by asking the audience: what is place? Several people offered suggestions. Every place has a story created by its environment, its community, their behaviour and the products they produce. Strong leadership is an essential part of place making, as is partnership working.

The nature of place consultancy, John says, has changed forever. Local authorities no longer have the ability to be place leaders any more. Similarly many developers are abandoning much of the UK in favour of the South East and London – business cases that once existed are no longer there. Place-making requires leadership; this is a challenging requirement at the best of times. As well as the crumbling of the old empires of local authority, there are other distractions, such as passive nostalgia, silo thinking and parochialism.

Looking forward, Local Economic Partnerships (which are purely economy driven) may benefit from place-based thinking. While it is hard for people to be engaged by a masterplan, a place vision can have a much wider appeal. Entrepreneurialism must therefore play a crucial role. By working together and using place strategy, local authorities and developers can ensure that the story of a place continues. New development must relate to this story, and the community must be taken along on the journey. Places exist in time. While developments come and go, places are forever.

John explained that places should have a shared sense of purpose, as this gives the community a sense of ownership. Places can re-create themselves through development, but this needs to continue the story. By truly understanding a place, a strategy can be put in place to improve it which in turn makes it more desirable to visit. Simply running marketing campaigns to try to attract visitors is less likely to bring success.

Lack of leadership is a major obstacle to creating and developing places. Other obstacles to include a fear of change and a tendency to only ever look inwards. Such unrelenting introspection is ultimately inadvisable since part of the issue is that no place is perfect.

In relation to urban planning, the biggest challenge in towns and cities in the Midlands and the North of England is the centre. Part of the problem here is the entrenched view that “town” equals “shopping”. Animation of the spaces between the buildings, and refocused attention on what it is that makes city centres into places may prove to be conducive to success for local place leaders.

John was an engaging speaker and the subject clearly resonated with the audience. The ensuing discussion was cut short by time constraints, but it could easily have run for a lot longer. An excellent, thought provoking workshop.

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