A long time ago – that is, a long time in the life of our wee devolved Scottish Parliament – a Culture, or Planning or Housing or some other Minister got up and asked “Where are the Conservation Areas of Tomorrow?”

It was and remains a great question and, maybe, even, the great, big, central question for those who care about the built environment in Scotland. I do know who asked it, but it’s more significant who wrote it for him: Jim Mackinnon, I think, Scotland’s Chief Planner. It concentrates the mind nicely. Where indeed?

Granted it can take a bit of distance and perspective to learn to love what’s new around us… but, really, what have we built in the last 30 years but car-dependent business and warehouse parks and diddy box estates. And, if we puzzle at why they are unlikely to ever be loved and look at those places we do love, is it not that what these new and soulless places lack, is any sense of place – of a place for us to be in them, rather than sleep, shop or work in and drive between?

Publication / SPEL

Article for the specialist Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL) Journal, in response to the Scottish government launching its “Placemaking” policies.

The first question to ask about Placemaking is, then: do we know what it means?

If “Where are the Conservation Areas of Tomorrow? is the question, then “Placemaking” is the Chief Planner and his colleagues’ route map to an answer, promoted with consistent political support through different administrations and explained to us by an emerging set of Planning Policy and Design Policy documents – “Designing Places” and “Designing Streets” with Planning Advice Notes 65 (on Open Space) and 83 (Masterplans) being particularly important. Two new Design Guide documents, on “Green Infrastructure” and “Rural Design”, have recently been released, and the opportunity is taken, here, to review these “Placemaking” Policies and what might flow from them.

The first question to ask about Placemaking is, then: do we know what it means? I would argue that we do. In achieving a sense of place it builds an environment where we feel well-served and connected, when we are in it as pedestrians – which, as we all are at some point in any journey, is the truly democratic way to experience a built environment.

I also maintain an unfashionable view that “Placemaking” means much the same as “architecture”. Many of my Planning and Urbanist colleagues maintain that it’s different (“it’s about something more important than architecture” I get told, being put in my place). Granted, many of my architect colleagues do our profession no favours by caring for nothing beyond the solipsistic glory of their creation. But, on a practical level, when I walk through my hometown of Edinburgh I experience some magnificent places made by architects; and on a structural level I note that we can talk about the “architecture” of the Welfare State (and its possible destruction, of course) or the architecture of the web and so on; but it seems that the one place that we are not allowed to talk about architecture, is architecture – or, at least, “the architecture of place”.

Which phrase is a nice way, I think, to open-out what we mean by “Placemaking”, and start to discuss how we achieve it.

Placemaking, as all the best architecture, from the Leonardo man at the centre of the classical Architecture of Humanism to the social heart of modernism, has people at its heart. This may sound obvious; but my great concern at the form of Placemaking promulgated by the Planning hierarchy through these documents, is that it hopes to achieve good new places – to make the Conservation Areas of Tomorrow – by mimicking the scenic aspects of places we love from the past.

Let’s take one: an East Neuk of Fife fishing village, for instance – the sort of model a housebuilder loves to reference and the sort of model that the charettes and other techniques promoted through these initiatives, tries to engineer. However the great irony about the lovely, scenic nature of such a village, is that it was not created out of any concern for its scenic qualities, but rather a deeply pragmatic concern for utility. A village like Crail, for instance, is ordered by some simple patterns: a place to shelter boats; land to dry nets; a market to buy and sell goods; a yard in which to keep a pig; common grazing; available and durable construction materials and techniques.

Most of these patterns no longer apply to the way we live now and though the townscapes they have made often adapt well, pastiching them, without their original utilitarian justifications, can only give us lifeless stagesets. Put simply: a yard that suited the keeping of a pig might suit us and our kids; but only if it gets a wee bit sun, and has a bit of a view. So why have some charrette, or “enquiry by design” that includes the pastiching of yards for pigs when we could go straight for placemaking based around a sunny urban garden?

We will only create the conservation areas of tomorrow when we find our own patterns to guide us, that suit how we live now. So, instead of yards for pigs and the like, if my practice has a wee community to plan we think of patterns such as south-facing living spaces spilling into sunny, overlooked gardens, connecting out to shared, protected space for children to kick a ball with their pals or neighbours to share a barbeque in – the patterns of a contemporary utilitarianism, based around maximum urban happiness for all.

Perversely there is much in the “placemaking agenda” that mitigates against this. The “scenic” it basis itself on is the still-dominant Victorian one, which was essentially about controlling wheeled traffic as it became more problematic – hence the “New Urbanist” obsession with Streets first, before people. On a conceptual scale we therefore lose the ability to creatively re-use mediaeval Scottish urbanism, its mercats and closes based around pedestrians rather than wheels, its vigour supplanted by the “English pattern” (as it was originally called by Georgian Scots) of street-and-block urbanism. And on the detail scale we lose, for instance, the insight that sees the cul-de-sac as the smallest unit of urban community, a few neighbours controlling the entrance to their own, shared close or mews.

I like the concept of “Placemaking”. I think I understand the positivism of the word and its power to lift the minds and efforts of Planners, Architects, Urbanists, whatevers, up from individual buildings and away from the rigidities of Planning and the negativism of “development control”. But my plea is for Placemaking with people at its heart: an architecture of humanism that is modern and radical, open and outward-looking as well as local and intimate.