Software vs Hardware: Why the UK government is in danger of getting it wrong on placemaking.
This article originally appeared on BE News June 29, 2023.
Although many people will claim that the British planning system is already overly complicated, I believe in the positive ambition of DLUHC secretary of state Michael Gove and the UK government to assess the quality of place experience as part of the planning process. However, their recent endorsement of the Policy Exchange’s Matrix for Measuring & Delivering Placemaking Quality is misled.
Guided primarily by architects, this approach will give limited and inaccurate assessments of place and move the government no further along its quest to build better places. Gove kicked off his new initiative by assessing three projects against this matrix: London’s Nine Elms redevelopment, Cambridge’s Accordia development and the regeneration of Lochgelly in Fife.
Architectural factors dominate through the assessment, with Nine Elms reportedly suffering from ‘gleefully display(ing) a shocking array of the architectural aberrations housing does best to avoid’. I worked on nearby Battersea Power Station for 15 years and in my view, the report authors incorrectly assess the shortcomings of Nine Elms as architectural, when the real root of the problem is based in the place’s software.
What I mean by software is things such as a lack of long-term stewardship, abandonment of ground floors and the late delivery of the central park – the latter problem flies in the face of the Start With The Park policy from another government agency, CABE.
Placemaking quality is critically about human experience – and experience is driven by software, not architectural hardware.
Placemaking quality is critically about human experience – and experience is driven by software, not architectural hardware. We have a functioning planning system that deals with the hardware of building design, massing, façade treatments and infrastructure. Meanwhile, successful place experience is based on the software of public space curation, ground floor planning and phasing for place.
Elsewhere in the report, Accordia is rightly highlighted as an ‘accomplished example’, but the success here should be attributed to its broader vision-led approach rather than focusing on the cited ‘power of architecture’. One of the key problems with the framework is that it conflates place hardware with software and fails to differentiate architecture or design engineering from the very different skillset of experience engineering.
We are obsessed with buildings and architecture, but consider your favourite place: how much about what you love about it is really driven by architecture? There are so many great places surrounded by old or ‘bad’ buildings, while equally there are many soulless places surrounded by newly delivered ‘great’ buildings. If the alienating legacy of modernism has taught us anything, it is that no one discipline has all the answers.
Instead, co-creation and collaboration are central to our approach at MurrayTwohig. As one example, this month saw the opening of the Mission Rock district in San Francisco, delivered by the developer Tishman Speyer and the socially minded baseball team the San Francisco Giants. There, our ‘software first’ approach helped sculpt a shared vision and a unified ground floor strategy that ultimately empowered a group of four talented architectural practices to realise a place that is the best of hardware design combined with a rich experiential offering.
The ambition of this placemaking quality matrix is admirable, but the execution is misguided and risks being overly focused on architecture. On this path, in 10 years’ time, we will still fail to understand why there has been no measurable benefit. A next iteration must prioritise experience over built form.
David Twohig is the co-founder of MurrayTwohig. He was previously Chief Development Officer and Head of Design and Placemaking at Battersea Power Station.