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Transforming Spaces to Places

  Published: 12 October 2021
  Theme: Placemaking
  Written by URA

A three-day virtual Place Management Seminar was organised by URA’s Place Management Department in August 2021, as part of ongoing efforts to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and experiences on shaping precincts into vibrant, attractive, and distinctive destinations.

Here, we summarise key insights shared by the speakers.

This year’s seminar focused on the theme “Transforming Spaces to Places”. Public spaces have always been an important element of creating vibrant and socially connected neighbourhoods. These days, public spaces have become even more critical in contributing to the health and well-being of the community and restoring life in the cities, as we learn to live with COVID-19. Good places imbue in people a sense of identity and attachment and create opportunities for them to connect and engage with one another. The history, culture, architecture, economic activities, and users of a place are bought together by different stakeholders, such as architects, planners, conservationists, and place managers, all of whom bring with them ideas and tools to create people-friendly places.

Overseas and local experts and practitioners were invited to speak and share their experiences and insights on a range of topics. They included:

  • Prof. Christopher Turner, Chief Executive of British BIDs (UK), on how Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in UK have evolved over time, and recent adaptations to the post-COVID-19 landscape.
  • Ar. Seah Chee Huang, CEO of DP Architects, on the role of architecture in placemaking and creating everyday spaces and how well-designed spaces contribute to the mental health and wellness of their users.
  • Stella Gwee, co-founder of Shophouse & Co, on the importance of taking a more ground-up approach in placemaking and using quicker and easier ways to transform spaces to support local economies and communities.
  • Jeffrey LeFrancois, Executive Director of Meatpacking District (New York), on the importance of context in placemaking and staying relevant with changing times to embrace the identity of a place
  • Winnie Yeung, Head of Heritage Management at New World Company Limited (Hong Kong), on how heritage and placemaking come together to create stronger community relationships and enhance the identity and vibrancy of a place.

Leveraging precincts’ strengths to make them more endearing

Traditionally, placemaking has tended to focus on enhancing the physical characteristics of the place. In recent years, this has shifted to include other goals such as promoting healthy living, community capability building and economic revitalisation. This can be seen in the growing prevalence of public-private partnerships like the Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).

The taxonomy of the 320 BIDs in the UK is diverse in character and spatial locations, with some having tenures of 15 to 20 years. One important aspect of the BID model in the UK context has been its ability to curate a variety of businesses and spaces in the public realm. They have funded the creation of large open green spaces, multi-modal transportation that is environmentally friendly, as well as internet-driven marketplaces that cut across geographical precincts. This drives consumer spending and creates significant shifts in the value of commercial places.

Over the last two decades, the UK BIDs have transitioned from their traditional role of maintaining clean and safe precincts to focus on marketing and branding, and more recently, to create unique experiences. Over the last decade, BIDs in UK have also become more involved in major strategic projects to drive the redevelopment, growth, and prosperity of precincts and cities.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, dwindling office crowds in the city has had a major impact on city centres and property developments. The Bristol BID has been working with its local municipal offices to make office developments more attractive, cleaner, and greener to entice people to return to the city centre. Property owners and businesses in the Cheapside and Digbeth BIDs have also contributed their own capital to the BID funding to invest in creating public green spaces, in hopes of encouraging people to return to city workplaces. The concept of ‘shared office space’ is also becoming a norm in some of the BIDs like Winchester, where a church has been refurbished and repurposed into a business centre.

Data analytics and technology are actively adopted by the UK BIDs through the use of apps. Additionally, the return of consumer hubs – which are essentially a mixture of living, working and social spaces much like ancient street malls and arcades – has resulted in the gradual phasing out of big departmental stores.

British BIDs
Examples of consumer hubs in various British BIDs that blend living, working and social spaces. (Photos: British BIDs)

Designing everyday spaces for people

Everyday spaces can be created through thoughtful design and application of appropriate strategies. These include:

  • Leveraging nodes and networks
  • Providing permeable and conducive spaces
  • Organising multiple ground and elevated streets
  • Introducing synergistic programming
  • Enabling the participation and stewardship of stakeholders and the community

For example, the connection of nodes and networks is evident in the extension of the streetscape into compounds of buildings like Our Tampines Hub. Such a design feature helps draw people from the street into the building. At Paya Lebar Quarter, the thoroughfare next to the MRT station opens up seamlessly into the urban space, providing permeable and porous spaces where people can explore and enjoy themselves.

This is similar to the concept of a ‘city room’ – where there is an open ground floor for the community to move around and use freely. The idea is also to give the prime space on the ground level back to the community for their enjoyment. Another example is the Goodlife! Makan project, which demonstrates how a HDB void deck, with its natural porosity, can be transformed into an everyday space such as a community kitchen where seniors can come together and socialise.

Goodlife! Makan
Features of Goodlife! Makan, a community kitchen at a HDB void deck for seniors to socialise over meals. (Image: DP Architects)

At the Singapore Sports Hub, the concept of multiple ground and elevated streets enables gathering spaces to be inserted at different levels of the building, allowing people to interact more easily. The inclusion of a sports promenade on the third floor also creates a concourse space which can hold crowds that spill out during events, thereby extending the public realm in the vertical sense.

Programming synergistically for in-between spaces and common areas allows different user groups to come together to engage with the spaces. Elements like open green spaces and water features can be inserted between these programming spaces to break the monotony and introduce character and variety. At Our Tampines Hub, this is demonstrated by the multiple uses of the Town Square for activities like sports events, bazaars, concerts, and community events. This also addresses the issue of efficiency and resiliency in design for the functionalities of this mixed-use complex. With spaces being used for different functions, users can explore multiple ways to share the spaces.

Participation and stewardship are also key to designing everyday places for people. It is important to bring different communities and stakeholders onboard the journey to co-create everyday spaces. Members of the community become stewards in the design process and play a part in creating spaces for themselves. For Our Tampines Hub, extensive engagement was conducted with close to 15,000 residents over a year, resulting in thoughtful design of the building and spaces that were able to serve the diverse needs of the community.

Another approach explored in placemaking is place visioning and prototyping. It is important for place visioning to be carried out with stakeholders and the community, as this allows everyone to brainstorm ideas for the place, identify and address issues and concerns, then prototype ideas to improve the place.

The project named "Transitional ____" at 115 King George’s Avenue is one such prototype where an empty warehouse space was transformed through fast and cheap methods. Materials were sourced from the nearby hardware stores and the transformed space was used by neighbouring restaurants and start-ups to cater to a wide range of user groups.

Temporary event-based and tactical initiatives are also ways to encourage community involvement and civic collaboration, as demonstrated by the “Junctions 803” project implemented at HDB blocks at King George’s Avenue. The void deck space was brought alive by various enhancements like wayfinding elements, light fixtures, art installations. These features created a more conducive environment and encouraged residents to interact more with one another as well as the places around them.

Activation of public spaces at King George's Avenue
Examples of how the King George’s Avenue neighbourhood was activated together with the community. (Photos: Shophouse & Co)

Celebrating the local identity, culture, and heritage of precincts

As each neighbourhood or precinct has its unique characteristics and needs, the work done by each BID is also contextual to the place it operates in.

The Meatpacking District in New York City is a BID located in a historic precinct where modern developments featuring contemporary architecture are juxtaposed with century-old buildings. Here, international luxury fashion houses and global corporations coexist harmoniously with local vintage shops and businesses. This unique profile is considered the strongest asset of the BID.

As a historic precinct, pedestrian-oriented districts are important to enable the public to experience and identify with the rich history of the neighbourhoods. This would also enable the precinct to increase the amount of public space made available to businesses to operate. One initiative introduced to enhance the streetscape was the Open Streets programme, where New York City’s Little West 12th Street was transformed into a ‘future street’ with the help of urban design organisations. Design improvements included laying artificial turf on the road and installing canopies with tables and chairs. Live entertainment and mural paintings were also introduced. The project helped increase footfall to the area by 10% to 30% and boosted overall sales by 15% to 25%. Such prototyping demonstrated the transformative possibilities of placemaking.

Activated street in New York City's Meatpacking District
An activated street in New York City’s Meatpacking District. (Photo: Meatpacking District)

Simply closing streets does not always ensure success. It is also important to identify key economic drivers of the precinct and amplify opportunities for them to expand their footprint. A case in point is the closure of Ninth Street to vehicles to hold a three-day flower festival. Pop-up markets were set up along the closed street to draw crowds, resulting in a 200% increase in foot traffic, and 50% to 300% increase in income for businesses. The success of the festival was in part due to the participation of local lifestyle brands and a historic food community hall that connected the festival to its local partners.

In Hong Kong, re-purposing old and unused buildings has helped breathe new life into them, and by extension, rejuvenate the wider community. For the Tai-O project, a former police station in one of the last remaining fishing villages outside the city was refurbished into a unique boutique hotel. Apart from the refurbished features of the heritage building, the selling point of the hotel was also the stories behind it, in particular the close relationship between occupants of the former police station and residents of the fishing village. Programmes to encourage hiring of local talent at the heritage hotel were also implemented to create employment opportunities for village residents.

In another project, a site-wide approach was adopted for the adaptive reuse of buildings in the Tai Kwun conservation cluster – the largest heritage cluster in central Hong Kong. The property consists of three main buildings – a police station, courthouse, and prison compound with a central public space. The buildings were originally closed to the public, but when the site opened up, many small pockets of vacant spaces were created for heritage activities to be held.

What was once a quiet and restricted area evolved into a place that celebrated history. Nearby residents were welcomed to use open spaces for arts activities, and exhibitions documenting the stories of the nearby residents were held. Creative installations of iconic Hong Kong street features such as old trolleys helped engage visitors. Additional buildings were also constructed to allow more activities and programmes to be held, thereby generating revenue for the project.

Tai Kwun heritage cluster
Activities held at the rejuvenated Tai Kwun heritage cluster. (Photos: Tai Kwun)

These projects demonstrate how thoughtful planning and creative programming can enhance the identity of the place, leading to successful placemaking and economic revitalisation.

Conclusion

It is important to assess the impact of placemaking models or initiatives through surveys and performance data, in order to gauge the benefits, they bring to the neighbourhood, and continue to secure more support. It also helps to identify things that do not work, so that we can consider alternative approaches to enable positive change.

A place or precinct is transformed when the historical, cultural, architectural, and commercial qualities come together and are integrated holistically. When stakeholders and users become part of the larger narrative of the place, the result is often vibrant spaces that are meaningfully used and well-loved by the community.

Historic areas can be purposefully conserved and readapted by leveraging its history and buildings, as well as incorporating suitable modern elements to ensure its continued relevance. For the long-term sustainability of such initiatives, the participation of the local community is key. It is also important to integrate history, culture, and life stories of people into the heritage programming. This reinforces the link between conservation, regeneration and placemaking, and helps strengthen place identity.

In conclusion, placemaking is about communities with a shared vision coming together to create socially and economically vibrant precincts. It is about shaping meaningful and endearing spaces that celebrate the unique identity of each place. It is a continuous process involving constant engagement and experimentation, and everyone has a part to play.

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