Peter Smith, Principal at Place Governance Partners


How do you differentiate between ‘Place making’ and ‘Place Governance’?

Place making is a sustainable urban development strategy, where we’re looking at both human and ecosystem interactions. As cities become denser public space becomes more important. Place making is making sure that public space provides people with a range of positive experiences.


This is quite different to the Place Governance process which is about who controls or decides what happens in public space. This links back to my view about what governments should really do. They should focus on building community capacity or an ability for the community to fend for itself. If you look at what happens in a community after a natural disaster and what government does, you’ll find it actually shrinks back to doing the things it has to do. The community fills the space with its own creativity and there’s political support for the urgent things that need to happen.


The Place Governance process we use is like a place pilot planning process, it starts with mapping the place’s capital by understanding the social and cultural value which you don’t pick up through traditional design processes. We can see the physical design elements, but tell us some stories about the intangibles. If you are able to understand the meaning of ‘place’ before the ‘uses’ then you can be careful to protect it, which ultimately de-risks proposed outcomes and processes.


How can we get council to focus on the ‘place experience’ and ‘place governance’?

It goes right back to what I believe the central role of government is? The central role is leadership. Governments and politicians are elected as community leaders. Leadership is about building the capacity so you’re not needed to lead anymore and this is no different when you talk about governments. Your central task in any federal, state or local government is to build community capacity. By building community capacity instead of providing support services you’ll get co-contribution and participation. Today governments have become too focused on control which creates dependency rather than builds self-sustaining capacity.


Take Rundle Mall for example, council established an authority as the place manager. This was led by businesses and property owners who were in a better position to engage with their members and shoppers on a daily basis, as opposed to council who were not. The mall authority now programs activation spaces; cleans the mall; and the issuing of busking licenses. The businesses and mall community are collaborating together, while we as council simply step back and facilitate the rest. This is ‘place governance’.


There is no set formula to place governance, the process is an iterative one where you provide the tools and means for stakeholders to manage decisions about their space. An essential part of this is having a ‘place facilitator’ on the ground who is dedicated to the whole process. Their role is to engage and understand what is annoying people about the place, what people like about the place and together in a working group generate a ‘place plan’; which is the vision for that place. It’s important that this person works in council, because it is also their job is to be the machine driving change from within council.


This process might take six months, however by this time you have de-risked your design ideas as you are already working with the cohort, who have now connected with each other, and have somebody they trust inside council.


You must not forget to focus on quick wins from the get-go which helps build trust. This is not a one off gesture to amuse the wider public; it comes from listening to people talk about their place. The first place pilot meeting I went to in Adelaide the businesses complained that the lighting had not been fixed in three years, we fixed it the next day. We had an activation budget to do things from the get-go that demonstrated we were serious.


How can you gain community trust?

I’m a great advocate of temporary interventions as a way to test how a city wants to evolve; and decide whether that’s temporary use or temporary infrastructure, I think you should keep testing things until you reach 80% agreement on what people want. At Adelaide we started from a positon of huge distrust of government. By making things happen quickly and delivering on community ideas, even in a very temporary, low risk way; we were able to build that trust and start talking about bigger the picture.


Without this level of trust then you’re missing the opportunity to build soft infrastructure. This includes social resilience, social inclusion, liveability and the soft intangible things that a great place can give to people.


Who needs to be in the visioning team?

You need to include everyone who influences what happens in that public space, along the edges and interfaces including the private buildings. Naturally the council must be there, but you have to shift council from saying ‘It’s our vision,’ to, ‘it’s a collaborative vision’. This is the collaborative process I’m talking about.


What culture should councils cultivate to support collaborative partnerships and innovative thinking?

If council administrations continue to operate in the way they have done then they are going to get the same results – distrust, deception and trying to avoid the system by working their way around it. If you want to swing the pendulum a different way, you’ve actually got to operate differently on the city administration side of things.


One of the first things we did at Adelaide was go through all the policies and rules about what happens in public space looking for what percentage actually say, you’ve got permission to do this, versus you can’t do something?


Around 98% of the policies and rules were about saying you can’t or couldn’t do something, and yet we had council wondering why there was a lack of innovation and entrepreneurship in the community. As I said earlier you will continue to get the same results operating the same way, so fundamentally you’ve got to turn that upside down; and when we did we got hugely different results.


How do you gauge the health and activism within a city?

The city is actually an aggregate of the value of each of the places in the city. Most city governments are focusing simply on a city scorecard, but this only measures the value of your cities economy and productivity. Compare this to the productivity of innovation which actually comes from an aggregate of what happens in every local place; this is a completely different lens to consider a city through.


Cities should be like a Tapas Bar, with a dish for everyone from age eight to eighty. It’s about letting people unleash their creative potential, innovation and authentic solutions. It’s really about getting a shared sense of the identity. What’s that place going to be? What is that dish going to be? And making sure it has the flexibility to become different dishes at different times of the day.


The most successful ideas will reach such a level of community support that they achieve political immunity and become part of the adopted culture. A lot like the Melbourne laneways.


If you could change one thing in the creation of new communities what would it be?

Design for positive human experience, which is different to use. Start with being very clear on how that place is going to add to the menu of the city? What’s going to attract people there? How it’s going to differentiate itself? What is going to be the identity and meaning? How will we create strong place attachments so people come back to it and recommend it? That’s where the conversation starts for me.



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