Curating Place: Beyond Placemaking

by | Sep 21, 2017 | Featured Slider, Latest, News

Written By Guy Adam Ailion

Curating Place: Beyond Placemaking? When it comes to the way we design public spaces we need to recognize how the ‘Experience Economy’ is changing the way we see placemaking, regeneration, tourism and even retail design.
Sometime ago, on a cool winter’s morning in London, I walked through a small market that was dexterously tucked underneath and in-between, railway arches and a small service thoroughfare. I had been absorbed into a comfortable sized crowd of people. A large enough crowd to lull one’s city walking pace into a slow and calming dawdle, while small enough that I could clearly still see all the stalls displaying their carefully crafted food goodies. Strands of bunting hung above me intertwined with fairy lights glowing orange against the cool grey sky of winter. I could smell the cinnamon and mulled wine in the air. It made me feel warm and excited. This was exactly the place I wanted to be. The atmosphere so comforting and magical, I knew that I would return again and again.
The urban context surrounding the market was not particularly special; the architecture was by no means worthy of an abstract Instagram on it’s own and the railway was perhaps even an eye-sore. The space was almost entirely flanked by a blank wall of a towering residential development, but I hardly even notice this at first. I realised that it was not the design of physical place alone that had made it a successful place, but rather my emotional experience of it. What was it that made my experience so good that I considered it a good place?

Featured Image: Maltby Street Market.

When we have a good experience, the feelings of desire stay with us longer. I wondered how designers could curate better experiences when designing places, and whether we re-position Placemaking no longer as a means, but within an ‘Experience Economy’, it becomes a tool.
I’ve referred to the step of going beyond Placemaking as ‘Curating Place’, where a healthy and positive experience is the objective for a development or project. Great places can be anywhere — our home, a private courtyard, a bustling public square, a secluded footpath. The key is understanding people and their interactions with each other and the physical environment around them. I’ve adopted the word ‘Curating’ here with the intention that it’s meaning aligns with Hans Ulrich Obrist’s description of modern curating in this article from The Guardian. Obrist’s suggests that curating has evolved to encompass the considered selection and organising of elements to create an experience that references heritage, context, new visions and meaningful narratives.
‘’It’s worth thinking about the etymology of curating. It comes from the Latin word  curare, meaning to take care. In Roman times, it meant to take care of the bath houses. In medieval times, it designated the priest who cared for souls. Later, in the 18th century, it meant looking after collections of art and artefacts.
Today, curating as a profession means at least four things. It means to preserve, in the sense of safeguarding the heritage of art. It means to be the selector of new work. It means to connect to art history. And it means displaying or arranging the work. But it’s more than that. Before 1800, few people went to exhibitions. Now hundreds of millions of people visit them every year. It’s a mass medium and a ritual. The curator sets it up so that it becomes an extraordinary experience and not just illustrations or spatialised books.’’  Hans Ulrich Obrist: the art of curation. The Guardian  Interviews by  Stuart Jeffries and  Nancy Groves
With careful curating, any place can become a great experience.
Feelings associated with an experience stay with us long after we leave a place, and determine our desire to return. It is our desires that drive our decision making; where we go, where to live, what to buy. Desire adds value.
A good city is like a good party — people stay longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves- Jan Gehl.

We all understand the definition and requirements of our Homes, and our places of Work, but it is the space In-between encompasses our play and leisure time and interactions with the urban and rural landscapes around us. It is here that we build connections to our cities, towns and villages, and these connections promote healthy communities and great experiences.
While these 3 worlds used to be very separate, today The In-between is merging Home, Work, and Leisure together. Howard Shultz of Starbucks dreamed up the idea of creating The Third Place where people could work, relax and feel at home whilst drinking coffee. More recently, WeWork developed the concept of the shared workspace community with organic workspaces that look like extensions of Starbucks lounges but with free coffee.

As is championed by Simon Sinek in his book, Start With Why, It is the WHY question that is often ignored by practitioners and designers but is our starting point. Once you understand WHY, you can establish HOW you’re going to achieve it, and only then will you know WHAT the correct product is.
‘’Today the concept of selling experiences is spreading beyond theatres and theme parks.’’  Welcome to the Experience Economy by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore
To truly understand the process for making great places desirable we need to start with why we want to do something, to better understand the end result. To get to the essence of making a place, we believe that it is important to start by questioning WHY: why is something is important within a locality, why is change being driven, why do people react in a particular way? Once these questions have been considered and the profound demands and desires understood, we can consider HOW to respond appropriately and only then contemplate WHAT can be produced to facilitate this as buildings, homes, neighbourhoods and communities.

The real estate mantra for home owners, buyers, and renters of:
is changing, and might be re-framed today as
Simply creating great places is not enough — we need to create great experiences. Because great experiences are desirable, and what is desirable is valuable, it goes that places that invest in great experiences are places that generate a return on investment. To get to this we use a method we call curating place.
Once we know WHY we are creating a great place, we can look beyond Placemaking to the experience of the location. When you search online for a holiday, the marketing strategies of two of the largest accommodation/ hotel websites reveal the changing landscape of how we interact with the places we visit. Whilst Trivago’s advertisements (below) remain traditionally cost focused, Airbnb’s (below) has recognised that what people are now looking for is an Experience, and an opportunity to feel a deeper, more intimate connection to their destinations.

To begin to form an approach to Curating Place we move beyond placemaking as a means, and begin to see it as a tool like urban design and volumetric and unvolumetric architecture.
Here are six potential, overarching principles to successfully Curating Place, whether it is a market, public space, new development, regeneration project or private amenity space:

1. Preserve and Enhance Heritage
Curating Place recognises that history can add character, vibrancy and a sense of permanence when it sits comfortably with community aspirations. Successful designs rely on good communication and collaborative discussions with local conservation and design officers.

2. Understand People and Communities
Curating Place recognises the need for consultation to understand the needs and desires of both the community and the local authority in order to assemble the right kit of parts.

3. Empathise with User Experience Design
People like to be seen and they like to watch others. Curating Place demands empathy and respect for the user experience. Knowledge of ergonomics and psychology is fundamental to
spatial-development and placemaking.

4. Enrich Diversity
Curating Place celebrates the diversity that makes places distinctive. Designers need to build in interest, wonder, history, culture surprise and play along with a diversity of tenants and functions that can respond to the time of day, the day of the week or the season.

5. Provide Quality, Not Quantity
Curating Place is about having an eye for detail, tone, composition and control, but also knowing when to stop. A large quantity of ingredients does not necessarily add to the enjoyment of a burger. There needs to be a good balance of social, economic, and commercial value, with freedom and tensions to fill the gaps.

6. Flexible and Adaptable Control
Curating Place ensures a long-term return on investment (ROI) by retaining control while having the design tools and willingness to adapt and change according to the pulse of the community you service. Control also means choosing the right tenants not just the highest paying to provide diversity, localism, variety and character. Diverse rent options, or tiered rents, should be considered to encourage a sustainable future.
The idea of Curating Place described in this article is a only an exploratory introduction, and the topic is considered in it’s infancy. This is not a manifesto just yet. I consider this an open conversation where we can contribute to a linear discussion of what Curating Place is, and I look forward to it.
This is an expanded article first published on and originally written as a blog post at


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