Local Government Magazine

Keeping ‘placemaking’ in focus through reform

Draft New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy

By Garry Dyet, chief executive at Waipa District Council and Robert Brodnax, senior principal advisory at Beca.

Placemaking is, ‘The process of strengthening the connection between people and the places they share … a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximise shared value.’ 

In practical terms, placemaking connects people and the places they share, be it a workplace, town centre, suburb, or region. The characteristics of placemaking link the physical, cultural, and social identities that make each community unique, going beyond the physical form and aesthetics to the function of the space. 

Placemaking requires collaboration and community input to create spaces in which we want to spend time, work, live, visit, play, or socialise. In short; it’s about creating a place for the people, by the people. 

In this article, we look at placemaking in the New Zealand context, its current role within local government, its place in our reform process, and how we can learn from lessons elsewhere, to ensure it has a place at the table as reforms are developed further.

Local government’s current role in placemaking

In its first report on the future of local government, the Future for Local Government Review panel has emphasised the importance of local government in placemaking. 

This function is often implemented by town planners and urban designers, and no-one would argue they are more than qualified to create spaces that optimise land use, highlight local features, provide efficient transport and walking connections, or plan for retail and other services we need. 

Yet, even the best urban design principles cannot achieve effective placemaking without engagement at grass-roots level, and the report recognises this. 

Local government has long since recognised the value of community consultation and feedback when developing Local Management Plans. Spatial planning/placemaking provides an opportunity to extend this further and to invite input that helps create a place that reflects its unique demography, location, and history. Without this, planning risks taking on a utilitarian approach to place and the loss of identity for communities.  

Placemaking in the context of reform

The challenge we face in the various planning and infrastructure delivery reforms underway is how do we receive the benefits of the trend towards centralisation/regionalisation, but maintain the ability of communities to shape the outcomes that are important to their place, as well as influence planning and investment decisions that affect them?

Centralised organisations often become driven by national standards and can be perceived as less responsive to the needs of individual communities. This has certainly been the experience in Scotland, where a centralised planning framework established over 20 years ago is being reformed again, this time to strengthen the role of local communities in placemaking. 

In the context of our own reform, the proposed Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA) and the Strategic Planning Act (SPA) will impact how placemaking is delivered at a local level, and the level of input communities can have on decision-making in the future. At the heart of this lies the mandatory requirement for regional spatial strategies – the outcome of strategic spatial planning. 

The SPA provides a potential framework to enable local authorities to engage with both their communities and central government and to plan more effectively for their future prosperity. It means they can agree long-term objectives for urban growth and land use change, while responding to climate change and respecting the environment and accommodating Maori values, and directing investment where it is most needed. 

According to the current Government reform model, representatives of central government, local government and mana whenua [Crown recognised Maori mana rohe] will ‘collaborate’ to develop a series of Regional Spatial Strategies. In turn, these strategies will inform and guide combined plans that are prepared at a regional scale and replace District Plans.

Losing the community voice

Significant stakeholder and community involvement will still be needed in the preparation of a region’s spatial strategy. However, where territorial authorities currently engage uniquely with their communities, the new system suggests that all parties involved in spatial planning (central government, councils, and Maori mana whenua) would have a role to consult with the public, not just councils. With this uncertainty of role and scope of local authorities in the public participation forum comes the potential risk of community voice being lost. 

For instance, Waipa District Council has a vision of Waipa Home of Champions: Building Connected Communities and is advancing with a community spatial plan that sets out spatially how the District’s Community Outcomes will be delivered in the different places that make up Waipa. How this community-led planning will be reflected in the new planning model is uncertain. 

While significant stakeholder and community involvement in the preparation of Regional Spatial Strategies is recommended, there is no indication that communities like Waipa will have a huge amount of influence in the regional spatial planning governance structure. Also uncertain in the current available detail, is how existing council placemaking tools like Structure Plans or Local Area Plans will be prepared, who they will be prepared by, or the weight that will be given to them in decision making. 

These plans often sit at a level of detail lower than the emerging Regional Spatial Strategies, so their status is unclear, as is the role of territorial authorities in their preparation. For places such as Waipa, we may find a community with less opportunity to have a meaningful role in placemaking.

Where does placemaking fit?

What is also not known currently is if, where and how placemaking will be reflected in the Regional Spatial Strategies, or planning, or decision-making process based on the current proposed reform.

Regional Spatial Strategies are without doubt an essential element to successfully delivering the four well-beings (cultural, social, environmental, economic), that requires a dedicated focus by all levels of government. 

Several local authorities have already embraced the concept of spatial planning, and are preparing Regional Spatial Plans (e.g., Queenstown, SmartGrowth and Futureproof). Yet there is little to no mention of placemaking in the material produced to date. Rather, the focus remains on identifying core infrastructure and land for housing. 

While placemaking is not required to be part of a Regional Spatial Strategy, the latter needs to provide a framework and platform that local area planning and placemaking can build from. This will enable the myriad of aligned actions to be undertaken by central and local government and communities to create an identity and deliver well-being – because housing and infrastructure are not the only aspects to achieving this. 

For example, providing a hall is not the same as acknowledging the cultural significance of marae, and providing for their role in supporting the well-being of a community. 

Or to quote from the classic Australian film The Castle; “It’s not a house, it’s a home. When a property is built with more than bricks and mortar – it’s built with memories and love.” Similarly, while a District Plan provides a settlement pattern and blueprint for the construction of houses, it is the community spatial plan that describes how people will live there and transforms a ‘house in a new subdivision into a home’. 

Lessons from other places

Placemaking as a concept is emerging as an important component in planning reform in many places, as central and local government and communities grapple with an increasingly complex world. 

One example is Scotland, where its planning system is being reformed to strengthen the role of placemaking after 20 years working in a centralised planning model.  

This system has recently been reformed to place a significant weight on the role of place and the activity of placemaking, and attempts to integrate national issues such as housing supply and infrastructure with the importance of place at a local level, through a range of policies and guidance.  

While some aspects of the Scottish system provide pointers towards a possible similar approach for New Zealand, there are also valuable lessons local authorities and central government can take from this in considering further development of the reforms. 

Governance of place in Scotland is delivered through an integrated framework that links national priorities to local place planning. The National Planning Framework sets out where development and infrastructure are needed to support sustainable and inclusive growth and achieve the long-term objectives and vision of the Scottish Government. It also informs the policies and spatial strategies used by local authorities in making their own plans and when evaluating planning decisions.

The integration between national, regional, and local development plans enables decisions to be made at the appropriate level; ranging from large-scale public works (national), to transport and other large infrastructure (regional), to changes to individual houses and community-related developments (local).

Placemaking in Scotland’s planning system

Unlike here, placemaking in Scotland is now identified as a ‘Principle Policy’, which means that design and placemaking principles are to be at the forefront of all development. 

Recent research found the concept of placemaking was well represented through development plans and widely considered a useful policy by local authorities. 

Nevertheless, pressures on local authorities to meet housing targets sometimes results in difficulties applying placemaking to development; resulting in the compromise of placemaking to streamline housing development. 

To address this, the next version of the Scottish National Planning Framework will require that Regional Spatial Strategies adhere to the proposed ‘Place Principle’.

This ‘Place Principle’ effectively requires these spatial strategies to focus on placemaking and to embark on a more joined-up, collaborative and participative approach to planning and development. The ‘Place Principle’ is designed to encourage better collaboration and community involvement and further embed placemaking as a statutory requirement in the Scottish planning system.

Next for placemaking in the reform process

As highlighted by the Scottish experience, the focus on centralised or regionalised decision-making runs the risk that the function of places/placemaking will be over-ruled by utilitarian national concerns such as housing and transport at the cost of quality of life and sense of community. 

The Scottish planning system has responded to these concerns and continues to evolve to address those risks.
At present our reform does not acknowledge these issues to any great degree. However, we have an opportunity to learn from Scotland and develop the reform such that we can achieve the balance between the advantages of funding and planning that comes from centralisation, while retaining local identity and connections to place. 

There are also clearly some advantages in a centralised/regionalised approach when it comes to achieving national outcomes. The challenge for us is how do we create the right balance, so we continue to maintain community involvement to develop the places that define us? 


As we have learned from the Scottish experience, by adopting a more regionalised approach to planning, we run the risk of following a utilitarian planning philosophy.  

We may end up with new housing and infrastructure and protecting the natural environment, but at the expense of the role of placemaking for neighbourhoods. 

We are encouraged by what we are seeing in the Future of Local Government’s interim report, as well as the Draft New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy, which both give a nod to placemaking. It is positive also to see the importance of placemaking acknowledged in the Select Committee report on the Natural and Built Environments Act, with reference to well-functioning built environments (albeit with specifics to be defined).

However, success in making sure we keep focus on the needs and aspirations of communities in this regard, will rely on these acknowledgements being followed through. 

In order that it remains a key component of local government, placemaking must not be forgotten, and remain firmly on the reform agenda.

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