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Playing out in the street: successful retail destinations and places

Bassendean Village: Working with the local authority to deliver convenience retail as part of a redevelopment strategy for the town centre.

We all agree on the desirable attributes of ‘place’ – vibrant, beautiful, memorable, authentic, interesting, alive, safe, clean, inclusive, accessible, human scale, adaptable, convenient, sustainable, green… and with minimal life-cycle and maintenance costs. All too often, however, such ‘motherhood’ aspirations are neatly filed in the bottom drawer marked ‘vision’, as projects progress through the realities and constraints of commercial development.

When we take a step beyond these broad aspirations we ask:
What is the retail property owner’s understanding of place, and which aspects of place influence the success of his centre?
What is the city planner’s understanding of place, and which aspects of place does he value?
What is the consumer’s understanding of place, and what attracts him to visit a place?
What is the retail tenant’s understanding of place, and which aspects of place are critical to his business?

The success of a place can be measured from varying reference points and by many criteria. Our experience working for retail and local government clients and communities has given us an understanding of the different drivers and aspirations of the many stakeholders in a town centre as it evolves.

As a business, we respond to the specific opportunities and challenges presented by the location, connection and amenity of a place and of a proposed development by defining a vision and objectives that are tailored to the place, resonate with all stakeholders and are referenced throughout the project. These objectives form the basis of a guiding framework for development and ongoing place management, to enhance long-term asset value.

 As the built environment in our cities and around our shopping centres intensifies and diversifies, space is becoming scarce and each square metre is tested for its highest value and best use. Urban space is now shared with more people, operates over longer hours and must adapt to constant changing activities and technologies. We carefully consider the interrelated aspects of activity, movement and character of the place, with a focus on efficiency and flexibility in what is now a complex and fluid development environment.

Activity in a town centre can be permanent and located in a defined space behind the shopfront, or temporary and spontaneous in the street. Retail centre managers have always understood place activation. Mall promotions have traditionally provided a program of entertainment to draw customers into the centre and away from other centres in a competitive and exclusive way, and with little concern for the outside world.

The retail centre is now finding itself entwined into the life of the broader town centre, full of other activities and destinations, people looking for experiences beyond purchase, and people living and working around the centre. A partnership in place activation is becoming essential for the retail property owner, in collaboration with the city fathers and the local community.

Movement is critical to the design of successful places. Retail centre owners inherently understand movement criteria such as passing trade, anchor locations and convenient access. The town centre operates in a similar way, but the desire lines are far more diverse and the streets cater for many modes of travel. Conflicts often arise between pedestrian priority and local amenity, as well as the desire for convenient parking and delivery access. A successful place activation strategy will address both accessibility and connectivity. 

The design of activity and town centres as unique local places is becoming more important in a globally connected world of rapid and disruptive technological change. Regionalism and ‘genus loci’ or spirit of place is increasingly sought after, and seen by many as integral to a sustainable future. Vibrant city and street life, a beautiful landscape and unique experiences are becoming key place assets in attracting discerning consumers, home buyers, knowledge workers, innovators and wealth generators who have locational choices.

Defining a contemporary, local identity through place design can foster a sense of belonging and civic pride, and can increase the place capital which is embedded in the assets of a place: the streets, malls, parks, and squares. Investment in the shared wealth or place capital of a town centre can offer a setting to support the retail and evening economy, entertainment, food and culture. It can create a ‘living room’ for citizens and support the local economy and small business by providing attractive meeting and working places.

Our approach considers the built environment as a spatially connected and complex system that is influenced by the social, cultural, environmental and economic context, and we tailor a specific strategy for each project that is responsive to contextual influences.

The urban environment does not just comprise buildings, infrastructure and transport; it includes human community, cultural experiences and interaction of people. With a focus on people, we are careful to ask, listen and respond to users and others who will be impacted by the future place.

Cities and developments are becoming more complex, layered and impacted by their context. A new place character cannot be simply imposed as a stage set or borrowed from elsewhere. It is essential to define the intrinsic qualities and aspirations of a place and translate these into the design of the future place. It must be integrated and connected into its surroundings and the wider landscape, while forming its own identity.

Time and staging plays an increasing role in place-making – what happens around the development during the construction or reconstruction phase, what happens on ‘opening day’ and what continues to happen after occupation are now factors in project and place delivery. A strategy to retain existing custom during construction, which can be lengthy and disruptive to business and movement patterns, is a key part of a retail place activation strategy and is considered in our design process.

While the masterplan and vision for an activity centre indicate an attractive, well-connected and vibrant place, the early stages of a retail or town centre offer the biggest challenges. There are often gaps in the street and long distances between destinations. There may be a lack of residents or any local community, and public transport may not be available. The surrounding place may not have developed any place character or capital. A place strategy closely integrated with a branding and marketing strategy can address these staging issues and their impact on customer appeal.

Place Activation GraphicAs regeneration becomes the norm in our Australian cities, a partnership approach is essential in developing successful places that deliver return on investment, meet the aspirations of diverse stakeholders and operate efficiently and cost-effectively over time. Myriad influences drive the success of a place from political, social and environmental issues to industry trends and conditions and investment aspirations. From the decision to invest, through approvals and construction and beyond through the life of any place, stakeholder relationships are key to a successful place.

Partnerships can be formed and strengthened during collaborative design and delivery of new retail and mixed-use places. The design process enables issues to be put on the table for everyone to pick up the 6B pencil and explore each other’s ideas. A place activation strategy developed in partnership with stakeholders and with a foundation of embedded place quality will endure well beyond opening day.

About the author

Rachel Seal

Rachel Seal is one of the country’s most versatile and experienced thought leaders in Urban Design, Master Planning and Architecture, with a quarter of a century of experience. During this time, Rachel has masterminded some of Australia’s most iconic town and activity centres, bringing together retail, residential, commercial and cultural aspects to create dynamic and functional spaces.

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