England & Wales Economy and regeneration, Health and social care, Housing and planning

Place of clear water


My ‘place of clear water,’
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass

and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings.
(Seamus Heaney, Anahorish)

Seamus Heaney’s Anahorish is where he lived as a small child, his ‘place of clear water’, and in his poem linked to Ireland’s distant past and its landscape.

Place matters. Well of course it does. For Heaney particularly (he wrote on the Sense of Place in a famous essay) but also for many other poets.

But not just for poets and artists.

A place that works is surely where the people who live there have a sense of affinity with it, and one where the past, the present and the future are connected: so that its history is part of what makes it special to the people who have lived there for a long time, but where it welcomes new people and communities, and embraces change.

Promoting a positive sense of place is critical for very many aspects of local government. This is what local government, as compared to central government, is all about. Local government is inherently place based – we are custodians of place.

We are putting together a series of briefings and blogs about the sense of place – what do place-based approaches mean when we are talking about regeneration and new developments, about healthy places, about community engagement and social cohesion? The challenges facing local authorities are increasingly complex, especially where finance is so stretched and the outcomes of brexit so uncertain.

Let’s look briefly at planning.

In a LGiU briefing, we said that creating a sense of place can help to achieve a range of planning-related outcomes, such as encouraging economic vitality when designing urban areas. It can enhance wellbeing through designing green space, active space and social space into cities. Encouraging a positive sense of place fosters engagement and a sense of belonging.

Is there a blueprint for making a place work? Clearly not, but there are very possibly characteristics that successful places share. Why do some interventions work well and others do not? Do successful places and effective regeneration schemes evoke a sense of pride and feelings of ownership and identity?

We can use tools for finding out what residents think about where they live – like the Scottish Place Standard which is used to hear the voices of everyone in a community and to discover how they perceive where they live. Understanding how and what people feel about where they live enables councils to discuss with them priorities and to negotiate disputes to try and achieve some kind of consensus about local decisions around, for example planning or resources. They can be used therefore for community engagement, participatory planning, and to ensure planning isn’t seen as just imposed on residents but facilitates their involvement.

There are design guides too – like The Design Companion for Planning and Placemaking, UDL, (RIBA publishing, 2017), and Building for Life 12, Design Council. And design here is the crucial word – designing for places that are successful and inviting – from principles to practice.

Again, none of this is strictly new. The goal of much urban planning has always been to create a sense of place – city parks and squares played a central role in the layout of new urban areas for example. The big question is will new places become places which people remember and care about?

Do some places create the opposite effect – where people who live and work there – create a sense of not belonging? There is a growing debate about the increase ‘privatisation’ of public space – the Guardian refers to this as pseudo public place, where large squares, parks and thoroughfares that appear to be public are actually owned and controlled by developers. Can planning or regulation help to create or preserve the positive sense of place where the ownership of it is private?

“Cities shape our experiences. As we drift through the winding streets of our capital, our mood is affected by the bustling, menacing or inert environments we encounter. Stumbling upon a quiet square in the middle of a busy day can feel like finding water in the desert. In the days and weeks that follow, we might seek that spot instead of chancing across it, making it ‘ours’ in a meaningful way. Over years living in a city, we all weave mental maps of the squares, parks, paths and gardens where we pause, recharge, and meet. These are our public spaces”. (Bradley L Garrett The Guardian)

Our briefings on a sense of place will be practical, but also we hope will capture the values of place in ways that can’t be put down in bullet points or design guides.