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What we talk about when we talk about placemaking

What does Good Growth mean and how do we set about achieving it?

September 19, 2017 |
Gensler Dialogue Blog

As we wait to see the full effects of Brexit take hold, London keeps growing, and over recent decades, the capital’s population has reached uncharted levels. Birth rates continue to accelerate, citizens are living longer, and more and more people still look to move to the capital for work. If we continue to grow at this pace, we’ll hit 10 million people before 2030—a figure that brings many challenges.

We require places to live that match our way of life. We need housing, workspace, local services and infrastructure to help us go about our daily activities. The silver lining here is the many opportunities to strengthen London’s position as world class city.

I recently had the honour of being selected by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, as one of his 50 Design Advocates to help support his ‘Good Growth by Design’ programme. The initiative sets out an integrated programme of work that ultimately seeks to enhance the design of buildings, spaces and neighbourhoods for all Londoners by drawing together existing design and place shaping expertise, and using the skills of the advocates and the built environment sector as a whole.

So, what does Good Growth mean and how do we set about achieving it? Well, ultimately, it’s about building in inclusivity within our neighbourhoods, towns and cities—places that are home to people of mixed incomes, from diverse backgrounds, and at all stages of life.

Good Growth is also about creating and redeveloping spaces with strong cultural offerings, supporting jobs and economic prosperity. These places will promote public health by encouraging people to walk and cycle, thus improving health. They will also be resilient, sustainable and liveable. And this doesn’t just apply to London, but to neighbourhoods, towns and cities all around the UK and beyond.

In his ‘Good Growth by Design’ manifesto, Khan defines six pillars by which Good Growth can be achieved in London. These are:

  1. Setting standards - using design inquiries to investigate key issues for architecture, urban design and place-shaping to set clear policies and standards.
  2. Applying the standards - ensuring effective design review across London, including a London Design Review Panel.
  3. Building capacity - enhancing the GLA Group’s and the boroughs’ ability to shape new development to deliver good growth.
  4. Supporting diversity - working towards a more representative sector and striving for best practice while designing for diversity.
  5. Commissioning quality - ensuring excellence in how the Mayor and other public-sector clients appoint and manage architects and other built environment professionals.
  6. Championing good growth by design - advocating best practices to support success across the sector.

Having worked over many different geographies for the span of my career, it is evident that the success of good placemaking runs deeper than having progressive ideas, but rather, it is rooted in the fundamentals of sound governance. Having closer, more creative collaboration between government and the real estate industry leads to better placemaking. If you look at some of the best examples of placemaking around the world, the golden thread is governance.


Copenhagen has created a city that its people are proud of. Image © Nick Karvounis.
Look at Copenhagen for instance. Its municipal government is powerful, and that enhances the city’s ability to make strategic decisions that span decades and mayoral terms. The capacity of the public sector is strengthened by an educated workforce with deep technical knowledge. And collaboration across political parties, levels of government, and sectors of society is common and consistent. By using an approach of intelligent, human-centric urban planning, Copenhagen has created a city that its people are proud of and show off.

There is no silver “design” bullet for successful placemaking. It’s all context dependent and we should certainly be cautious about trying to simply ‘recreate’ successes—even from Copenhagen—that don’t align with the community’s needs or the local environment. The ultimate challenge is creating a framework that balances the planned and the unplanned, allowing flexibility to change. A place’s greatest attribute is choice—it’s all about capitalising on an area’s diversity in a way that fosters creativity while injecting newness through more strategic guiding principles. This creates an urban environment that is able to evolve and adapt.

As Italo Calvino writes in his novel, “Invisible Cities,” “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning roads, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

Successful placemaking is about weaving the physical and non-physical qualities into a collage that builds on the richness and diversity lying dormant, allowing a place’s eccentricities and networks of activities to bring about a transformation. Ultimately, cities should be places for everyone. Everyone that has gone before. And everyone that is yet to come. They should be reflective of both their heritage and their present, growing community.


Hiro Aso is a leading UK-based specialist in the architectural design and delivery of regenerative transport hubs, with more than 20 years of experience. He has led major railway infrastructure projects in the UK, most notably as lead architect overseeing the multi-award winning redevelopment of London King's Cross Station for Network Rail and Crossrail Bond Street.

Gensler Dialogue Blog | Gensler

Published by Gensler, a global design firm with 5,000 practitioners networked across five continents, Gensler Dialogue Blog features insights and opinions of architects and designers on how design innovation makes cities more livable, work smarter, and leisure more engaging. Our contributors write about projects of every scale, from refreshing a retailer’s brand to planning a new urban district, all the while explaining how great design can optimize business performance and human potential. For more blog posts, visit: https://www.gensler.com/research-insight/blog.

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