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A keen sense of place

By Sue Green

A little-known town-planning role keeps a community's heart beating, writes Sue Green.

When Kylie Legge tells people her job is "place making" they often look bewildered and, thinking of pacemakers, ask whether she works with hearts. In a way, they are right.

Place making, little known until recently, is about making towns and cities better places for people to live in. "Place makers liaise with governments, developers and communities to work out exactly what is needed to keep people happy, make communities thrive and ensure the best result - both economic and lifestyle - for all involved," Legge says.

It emerged in 1960s New York, but here, as developers learn from mistakes such as Melbourne's soulless Docklands, it is just taking off. Private practices such as Legge's Place Partners are emerging, with major development companies - Stockland, Mirvac and GPT, for example - and state and local governments using place makers.

Place makers, who Legge says care about "making urban environments that human beings want to spend time in and are meaningful to them", have diverse backgrounds: architecture and planning (her background), social sciences, marketing, economics, even event management.

Stockland's national place making manager, Jody Summers, came to place making 10 years ago from landscape architecture and urban design. Her interest developed while working in the US - she says she felt there was "something missing" from the process of building communities.

"We listen to our customers and aim to achieve a high level of 'liveability', improving the quality of life for our residents in our communities," she says of her role with Stockland. "We do this by marrying the social and built environment together."
Legge, who recently published Urban Trends: Doing It Differently (Place Partners, $24.95), says place making has two aspects. The tactical involves supporting community-led revitalisation such as markets, street closures and small parks. "Strategic is about creating a framework for government and developers to create better places for people."

Melbourne place-making pioneer Gilbert Rochecouste set up his business, Village Well, 20 years ago and has been involved in activating Melbourne's Flinders Lane and Degraves Street, the Queen Victoria Market night markets and the revitalisation of Sydney Road, Brunswick, and High Street, Northcote. And he worked on Melbourne Central and Sydney's Rouse Hill with developer GPT.

Yet the term "place making" was unfamiliar then. "I think the world is changing and people are looking for more integrated ways of designing, planning, architecture, how we live," he says.

"Before, it was very separate, [but] as we change we start to join the dots together and need a new set of professionals with new sets of skills."

Mauritius-born Rochecouste says his work has returned him to his roots, after working in store design and then as general manager of Chadstone shopping centre during its expansion. Working with the giant Mall of America in Minnesota in 1992 made him reassess things.

"I was born in a village, I had those values and was interested in cities and I suppose Chadstone gutted Melbourne in many ways and people kept reminding me of that, what I had done to the city centre."

Now he has been involved in creating about 30 community gardens, and worked with more than 3000 local businesses. Recently, a major recruitment firm with clients wanting place-making positions consulted him. It now has a staff member handling those.

Dr Beau Beza, RMIT's program manager - international urban and environmental management, says place making is "focusing on people and that is often forgotten". But it should be part of a holistic approach to projects, rather than a buzzword. And while it is partly about intangibles - feeling safe in a place, feeling welcome, for example - they can be measured and made tangible by place makers. For example, crime statistics measure whether people actually are safe. "That helps other communities and professions to see we can start to identify what it means to be part of the community."

Legge says her work is research focused. "For example, observational studies - watching what people are doing, counting who is there, what age they are. People are sometimes surprised because they think they know everything about the place and we provide fresh eyes."

Legge's work is about one-third corporate, one-third local government and one-third state government, with some overseas commissions. Her projects have included creating more open space in Drummoyne, after local residents said they would spend more time in the town centre if there were somewhere to sit, and working with Mirvac on its Yarra's Edge project, incorporating parkland and even a community garden.

She says place making is trending now but in future may either remain a separate discipline or be incorporated into governments' and organisations' processes.

Published: 19 January 2013

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