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Placemaking: Is the City facing an identity crisis?


By Martha Grekos, Planning Law Partner at DAC Beachcroft LLP

Post pandemic, the City is facing a unique set of challenges. The dual challenge of the impact of  online shopping on our high streets alongside what hybrid working means for office space means that  the City is grappling with a sense of identity. 

The identities of places change over time as buildings are added, trees grow, new technologies are  introduced, fashions shift, and events happen that are incorporated into place memories and  meanings. These changes are mostly incremental so that place identity, somewhat like personal  identity, has continuity and persistent sameness. 

But the shift for the City has happened pretty quickly and unexpectedly due to the lockdowns and  travel restrictions. Even if you take Fleet Street, where the area’s newspaper industry relocated in the  1990s from that area elsewhere which had a consequential impact on the pubs, restaurants, shops  and small business, the current impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this pattern of  decline. 

The City now needs to cultivate a sense of place and my view is that this goes beyond just having a  ‘Destination City’ vision that the City of London Corporation has launched to make the Square Mile  more attractive by hosting events on weekends to attract footfall.  

I believe that a sense of place has to be created through placemaking. We have to build our  community – the workers, residents and visitors – around public spaces. As both an overarching idea  and a hands-on approach for improving our City, placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine  and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between  people and the places they share, placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can  shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban  design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical,  cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution. 

I believe that placemaking will facilitate a range of planning-related outcomes, such as: encouraging  economic vitality, enhancing well-being, fostering engagement and a sense of belonging, and enabling  better physical health. This can only attract footfall back into the Square Mile and help with the  Destination City vision. 

Planning has traditionally had a strong role to preserve or protect places with a recognised sense of  place, most typically natural environments via designation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty  (AONB). But, more recently, the importance of design in creating built environments that exude a  sense of place has also been recognised in planning policy and practice -and the City can get back on  its feet by harnessing growth and opportunities to breathe new life into the area. I believe that the City,  and especially in the Fleet Street area, a vibrant, resilient, inclusive, green and sustainable district can  be created through modern placemaking and good use of planning. This area has a rich history, and it  presents us with an opportunity for reinvigoration through the modern renewal of its past. 

And this is happening. 

Launched on 13 January 2022, ‘An Area Based Strategy for the Fleet Street Quarter’ sets out an  implementable vision for the improvement of the public realm of the Fleet Street area over the short,  medium, and longer terms. The vision is based around three interconnected strategies – improving the  public realm, encouraging activation, and connecting to surrounding neighbourhoods. This vision aims  to reinvigorate the area into becoming a memorable, sustainable and vibrant part of London that is  welcoming, inclusive, supportive of various uses while providing a high-quality public realm for the area’s remarkable history and future. 

What is now needed is to turn this into a masterplan – a framework for all public realm proposals in the  area to be drawn up in consultation with the City of London Corporation, developers, landowners,  occupiers/workers, residents as well as our arts, cultural and historical institutions. For example, look  at London Wall Place – the photo of me is taken sitting right in the centre of it – with an offering of 45,000 sq ft of new gardens. It is a commercial development where public realm is central to the  scheme design, where retail thrives and people flock to enjoy the terraced gardens set amongst the  restored realms of the Roman city wall and medieval St Alphage church tower. The ‘highwalks’ of the  1960s, meanwhile, have been reimagined as 350m of gently curving Corten bridges through and  beyond the site. Loved by the Barbican residents, delighting workers, enjoyed by visitors to the  Barbican Centre.  

It is a new destination in the City that I helped gain planning consent for. Its strength is that it is not  exactly like other successful open spaces. The reason for this is that its architects drew on what was  already there. And this is what the City now needs to do. Draw on what is there and go forward. 

I believe that the public realm can and should do more to support the growth and evolution of the City  and especially the Fleet Street area. It is not just about what happens within buildings, but what  happens in the spaces between them. 

Great public space cannot be measured by its physical attributes alone; it must also serve people as a  vital community resource in which function always trumps form. When people of all ages, abilities, and  socio-economic backgrounds can not only access and enjoy a place, but also play a key role in its  identity, creation, and maintenance, that is when we see genuine placemaking in action. That is when  our City will thrive and we can say that it is truly a place for all people to work, live and visit. Elected  members and planners will need to show strong leadership to steer development in this direction. 

Meaningful and transformative change, creating the City of the future is possible. Our City has not lost  its identity; it just now needs to be reimagined. We can build on the rich heritage and culture to ensure  that it remains a world leader in professional services and finance through enhancing it as a place for  work, rest and play. And that means every day of the week, Mondays to Sundays.  

See below link for a copy of the Area Based Strategy for the Fleet Street Quarter:

11th May 2023

Placemaking: is the City facing an identity crisis?