The Trust has been talking with people from different backgrounds and with different skills about their views on how the Old Town should develop, and in particular about its ideas for the Word Bank in the disused Canongate Venture building on East Market Street. One of these conversations was with Diarmaid Lawlor, Head of Urbanism at Architecture+Design Scotland, based in the Canongate. In particular we wanted to understand some of the language that specialists use about building or re-building places - essentially the jargon of ‘placemaking’. This was his response.

It takes a long time to write the fewest words that mean the most to people. This is because we often use a lot of words to cover the fact that we are not clear what we mean. The language we use to talk to one another is important.

Language ‘becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easy for us to have foolish thoughts’ [George Orwell, 1946]. Is it a foolish thought to think we can make places? What does placemaking mean?

Like sustainability, resilience, competitiveness, and other modern words, placemaking is used a lot these days. Lots of words and phrases lose meaning because we fail to stop and argue what we really mean. So what do we mean by placemaking?

Place is a word that is used to describe something about the environment we inhabit. For some, place is a local geography, it is the immediate set of spaces around your home or work. You can say you are in this place or that place, and it means a different ‘local area’. For others, place is about meaning. It is less about breaking down a town into local chunks or neighbourhoods, and more about bits that mean a lot: places your family came from, places your community values, places you had your first kiss, places where battles happened, graveyards, views. This is more about emotions than simple geography. Maybe a simple way of saying all this is that place is a way of looking at the world. It helps us locate where we are, what’s important to us and how things connect. In this sense, placemaking is about building meaning.

If we accept this way of thinking, then it is easy to see that every place has its own story. The people there are there for some reason, and they are doing what they are doing there because that place matters to them in some way. How they do what they do, and what they create in these places creates more stories, rumours, legend. They become the histories we all create, the stories you access when you are ‘in the know’.

If places are about people in a location doing things, then making places is about making stories that people believe in. Unless you see yourself in a particular location doing something that matters to you, you probably won’t go there. It doesn’t speak to you. You go somewhere else. This is the key thing about place making; it is not about buildings and spaces. It is about the things people do that require buildings and spaces. It is about how people lead their lives. Once we have that clear, the next level of placemaking is about how we build the buildings and spaces, the quality of those ‘interventions’. How we build anew, and manage what we already have, says a lot about what we value, what we think is important. It also says a lot about what we don’t think is important. Buildings are nothing except physical expressions of values. Values are about cultures. Cultures are about people. If places are about people, they are about cultures. You have to start there.

Understanding any culture requires two things. The first is the humility to listen. People are the experts in their own lives. Children are experts on childhood, neighbours on neighbourhoods, teachers on teaching and so on. Listening to what matters to peoples lives is the key to understanding what people value, what they desire. Listening is an essential part of good conversations. Conversations carry stories. Stories pass from person to person when there is listening, when there is interest. The second ingredient is local data, information which explain the pattern of where and how people do what they do. Bring both things together and you have a good foundation for any action designed to make an impact on peoples lives.

If places are about people, and impacts, then there are four elements that we need to think about to make places that people want to be in:

The first is the story: how do people live their lives here, and what attracts people here? A simple question, often not asked, and if asked, unfortunately, the answers not adequately listened to.

The second relates to services. If we are clear on the story of the lives people want to live, then what are the best services that can support people in achieving this? This not just a question of the services of the state. It is about the civic and community interactions we create to support ourselves, the quality of business services, the freedoms and responsibilities we create to make life easy or hard to live.

The third is about assets. If we know what lives people want to live, and we are clear on the services needed to support them, then the next question is what spaces do we need to contain these services, hopes and dreams? Can we share spaces, connect with other, or do we need new buildings? How do people use these spaces, what works best for this place?

Finally, we need to look at how all these things connect. How do buildings, streets and spaces, activities, lives and stories all connect up to give as many people the best chance to connect with the most opportunities in the easiest way most of the time? This is about the public realm, the common weal, our responsibility to each other.

The order of things is important. Lives first. Build the story up, bit by bit, then connect everything together. Show impact at each stage of the journey. Be accountable.

There is a famous book on design in countries that have been hit by natural and man-made disasters. In these places, there is often a significant amount of volunteer effort, philanthropy, and assistance, sometimes misguided. The book is called Design like you give a damn. Its starting point is that the purpose of everyone involved in rebuilding these places is to give the people in these places the best chance to live their lives, their way. The book urges people to get that purpose straight. The purpose is not to preach, cajole, ridicule, insist, inhibit or get in the way of people. The purpose is to create the conditions for lives to flourish. If this can be achieved, then the collective actions of everybody involved results in a good place to be.

Maybe then, placemaking is about caring enough about the public space, of how we live and who we are to give a damn about how all the parts to support people’s lives come together.