Curating and creating great spaces is at the heart of what industry players in the built environment sector do every day.

Speaking at the Placemaking Forum at the ULI Asia Pacific Summit 2023, Edwin Loo of Cistri noted that asset owners, investment managers, government entities, developers, architects, and consultants all contribute to the value and importance of great places to society.

Placemaking, he said, is the “art and science” of turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Other speakers and panelists at the forum, which examined private-public cooperation, innovative developments, and community-led placemaking, also shared what placemaking meant to them.

For Albert Chan, Shui On Land’s director of development planning and chief sustainability officer, placemaking represents the “making of places for people to feel a sense of belonging.”

Chan made his comment during the forum’s closing panel discussion, on developing multi-generational spaces to better respond to the demographic shifts expected as the Asia Pacific’s populace greys further in the coming decades.

For Jason Chen, director, Place Management, at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), placemaking involves multiple stakeholders banding together and stepping forward to do what’s best for their precincts.

Chen spoke on a lively panel about the impact that Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs. can bring to cities seeking to add vibrancy to their commercial districts.

And for Chris Law, Founding Director of The Oval Partnership, who will be chairing an upcoming Placemaking Council, it’s a matter of how “the city and the corporate world and the community can all work together, to provide the opportunity and framework” to equip and empower everyone “in the art and craft of placemaking”.

“There is a placemaker in all of us. We are all normal but we are all [capable of being] extraordinary,” said Law, who presented three inspiring case studies of community-based placemaking initiatives in Hong Kong.

Innovation and Transformation

Two common themes that featured prominently at the forum were innovation and transformation, concepts that were evident in the projects and initiatives from around the world that are revitalizing spaces, honoring heritage and culture, and prioritizing well-being.

Digital transformation, now accelerated in the post-pandemic landscape, has raised questions about the future of the office – why is it that people are coming to work now?

Ray Lawler, CEO for Hines, Asia Pacific, said that workers are not going into the office just for “emails and phone calls” anymore. Rather, the emphasis at the workplace is now on culture, connection, collaboration, and wellness.

Lawler, who presented a case study of how Hines has been reimagining spaces with wooden commercial buildings, called the reality we all face now a “once-in-a-multi-generational” moment of how the employee and the employer interact.

“The digital and physical worlds are colliding, and sustainability is everything,” he said. “And so that [interaction] is so key. We’re all in the service business and people are coming to work for the experience.”

He added that Hines’ T3 solution—T3 representing a confluence of timber, transit, and technology—which has seen 26 mass-timber buildings completed, in design, or under construction around the world since 2016, attempts to address the workplace needs of businesses and workers today.

Quaiser Parvez, Chief Executive of Nucleus Office Parks, spoke during the BIDs panel and said that connectivity and experience were two operating words his firm kept in mind for an urban transformation project in Mumbai.

Adjacent to the One International Center business hub that Nucleus was developing was a stretch of neglected spaces underneath a flyover.

Originally intending to improve commuting conditions around the business hub, Nucleus commissioned a project that has transformed the spaces formerly rife with informal settlements into fresh, green community spaces and playgrounds suitable for leisure.

Parvez’s fellow panelist David Buffonge, co-founder and executive director for Lead8, added that as an architect, in designing public spaces, it is worth remembering that “sometimes the spaces between buildings are more important than the buildings themselves.”

Mindset Shifts Needed

When it comes to placemaking and placekeeping, mindset shifts are needed in many aspects, for different stakeholders, in order to make effective, innovative, and sustainable changes.

When it comes to good intentions to improve a business district, URA’s Chen spoke about the challenges that arise when some parties are willing to drive BID initiatives forward, while others choose to sit on the fence or even hope to benefit without pulling their weight.

In his mind, such potential “free riders” need to “touch your heart, look at what’s happening and get some assurance that we are doing things right” and believe in the long-term benefits of actively supporting BID projects.

Another change of thinking involves embracing a new material for construction, which could have both tangible and intangible benefits that ultimately respect the natural environment.

Lawler said that Hines’ T3 buildings are “the future of construction” because they are cleaner to put up, greener to operate, and more sustainable in light of decarbonization efforts and in terms of yield and profitability, as well as in tenant attraction and retention.

He also posited that the sensory experience of buildings made with sustainably sourced timber promotes well-being. The first thing new T3 visitors do, he said, is to take a deep breath and smell the timber.

“That’s the first thing. Then you see the wood. And then, what you do is, you feel it,” he said. “You don’t tend to do that in a traditional steel-and-concrete building. [The timber] speaks to you viscerally. So the health and wellness piece is really powerful.”

One more mindset shift was called for when it comes to conceiving and developing multi-generational spaces for people divided by years and decades. The number of older persons (aged over 60) will triple between 2010 and 2050, reaching close to 1.3 billion people – one in four people in Asia Pacific – according to the Asian Development Bank.

Shui On Land’s Chan had shared during his panel that the central premise of his company’s Rainbow City project, a redevelopment of an old district in Shanghai, was for different generations of families to live close enough to one another and maintain familial bonds.

“The idea that we had was to keep multiple generations within the ‘distance of a bowl of soup’”, he said, citing a Chinese saying.

His fellow panelist, Dr. Emi Kiyota, an Associate Professor and Deputy Executive Director for the Centre for Population Health at the National University of Singapore, then questioned the very notion of “multi-generational” and “intergenerational” spaces.

Currently, she said, there are too many spaces that are age-segregated, or designated for younger people or older people. She added that a new normal is needed to see more older people as enablers rather than folks who have to be cared for.

‘Incompleteness’ by Design

Then, there is the rethinking of what to do with aging heritage buildings.

The Oval Partnership’s Law said that one of the community-led placemaking initiatives in Hong Kong, the Viva Blue House in Wanchai, had withstood intense pressure to demolish or otherwise drastically gut the century-old tenement building before it was recently declared as a national monument for its successful conservation efforts.

In so doing, it had preserved the homes and livelihoods for many of its longtime residents, unearthed stories relating the history of the neighborhood, and saw public-works improvements to the buildings, and thus retained the “urban fabric” of the area.

Only after engaging with residents, more than 15 years ago, did Law start to understand the reluctance of these residents to be displaced was due to the “complete social and economic ecosystem” they lived in, and not borne of a romantic view of heritage and tradition.

“My learning before that day [I first met residents] was actually all wrong. I had studied as an architect and urban planner, but I didn’t realize that the social bonds were so strong and that the social capital was so important for everyone,” he said.

The case study demonstrated how placemaking initiatives, be they BIDs, residential developments or redevelopments, or heritage conservation projects, can benefit from stakeholders that help complete the “last mile” of these projects, so to speak.

There is value, then, in leaving some aspects of placemaking seemingly incomplete, such that stakeholders can take ownership and fill in the “gaps” as they see fit.

Chan and Seah Chee Huang, CEO for DP Architects, who had shared about integrated community hubs in Singapore, agreed that while inclusive strategies are important, urban planners should be mindful not to over-institutionalize certain areas or zones.

In fact, spaces should have an inherent “incompleteness” that allows for organic community building and human connections to take place.

“As we plan and design, something that we are manufacturing has a counterpoint in something that grows organically,” Seah said. “[Through] different experiments and explorations, I think professional humility is important here, for us to continue to learn.

“As long as we are open and willing to explore, there is great hope.”