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Place-making for today's commercial and retail centres

By Paris Rutherford - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001

Place-making isn't obvious or easy. It is not a "product" but an experience - where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, where people shop and are entertained and live.

It's about creating centres of community that are active, engaging and fun. They are memorable places.

In the early days, place was defined by city planning. It was fully mixed use, a lot of activity, and that activity defined the place. Retail was the glue that held the community's core together.


And then things changed: we became mobile, the lifestyle of the car ruled. The development patterns of most cities have been defined by that lifestyle, certainly the suburbs. We expanded and there was a paradigm shift. Retail went from being an experience or a place to being a product. But the product lacked its traditional appeal. It was single-use in nature and the design wasn't very nice.

With the mall, the activity of the main street was enclosed and controlled. Regardless of how well these places were designed, that format is starting to lose its legs. The mall as we know it has passed on. This has created fear: what does it all mean, what is the next pattern, will it perform?

It gets back to the quality of the experience. We still want memories. The industry has progressed from being a producer and a manufacturer to "staging the experience". We have gone from being space providers to being content providers.

It's about urban vitality: synergy of use and activity, daytime and night-time action, a strong street focus, particularly in a mixed-use environment with housing and offices and retail. The mixed-use environment where people are able to live above the shop delivers authentic experiences.

It has to be visually orchestrated. It's more than just bricks and mortar. It's a choreographed visual experience in a totally integrated environment - integrating the landscape, the architecture and the tenanting.

It creates an authentic messy excitement. You have to allow for the unexpected, promote diversity of interactions, and blur the line between public and private. It's about having fun with the design (the design doesn't have to be nostalgic), with indoor-outdoor flow - providing diversity of experience, promoting interactive merchandising and creating opportunities for different types of tenants to exist.


The experience must ....

  • build on or augment the content
  • contribute to a sense of place (the shoppers suddenly feel transported)
  • increase through-put (extend the dwell time, keep people there as long as possible)
  • connect to and foster the community
  • understand what makes people move (if it's a static place people won't feel like walking around)
  • understand how people relate to the environment
  • broaden the demographic
  • individualise the character of the place (through graphic signage and art work)
  • create brand equity (and realise new revenue sources)
  • ultimately tell a story and make the experience memorable

It's about creating a community experience so that it's a place for gathering. Retail is the glue.

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This is an edited version of a speech given to the Cities For The New Economy Leadership Summit at the Marriott Hotel, Surfers Paradise, 23-24 April 2001.

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About the Author

Paris Rutherford is Director of US Architectural firm RTKL Associates Inc.

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