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Retail Insight – Nicole Gordon – Better Bankside Business Improvement District (BID)

Effective Placemaking

Retail Insight - Nicole Gordon - Better Bankside Business Improvement District (BID) 1

In this month’s Retail Insight, Nicole Gordon, CEO of Better Bankside Business Improvement District (BID) discusses with us the pivotal nature of creative detail in effective placemaking and the importance of authenticity in these designs.

For Bankside and for big cities in general, it is the major redevelopments, such as the recently completed Borough Yards retail destination, that can have a transformative impact on the way people use and experience destinations. However, to effectively stitch the streets and places together, there must be smaller, more strategic and creative human scale detail when it comes to placemaking. It is these details which make an area vibrant, add to the distinctiveness and therefore act as an attractor for visitors, employees and businesses.

The motivation for place-makers should be the experience of a neighbourhood for everyone and their needs to be a decision taken about an area’s identity. Our approach has been to celebrate otherness – doing things differently to set us apart. Developing this unique character for areas is what brings in people – to visit, to work, to run businesses and to invest.

Creative detail in the urban realm adds vibrancy to a place and streets and spaces can become your canvas. Over time, various projects and artwork within a place become layered and it starts to build a critical mass, to the point that it is something the neighbourhood becomes known for. Critically however, this must fit with an area’s authentic heritage and narrative. Effective placemaking should tell the story of an area.

In Montreal, the main shopping district is one of the city’s most historic neighbourhoods with a rich heritage. The cultural capital is celebrated with an annual Mural Festival where graffiti artists create live public art reflecting the authentic character of the neighbourhood and animating the streets day and night. The area which is home to a mix of generational family businesses as well as contemporary fashion brands, vintage shops and local restaurants, is pedestrianised for the festival and much of the summer to allow for art, music and performance to take to the streets. The incorporation of these strategies demonstrate how creative elements can redefine urban experience.
When it comes to creativity and culture, punctuating the streets with pops of public art, certainly both adds and plays-into the spirit and character of the area. But for us, using Shakespeare’s quotes for a public art trail is authentic and in-keeping. Bankside is home to Shakespeare’s Globe and hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare himself.

Public art can also serve a practical function and innovatively influence how people move around an area. One recent commission, for example, focused on Borough High Street and its medieval network of inns and yards which provide a route to London Bridge station. These alleyways, though historically significant, often went unnoticed and were generally uninviting. By commissioning artist Farouk Agoro to create a mural at the gateway to Mermaid Court, this transformed the underused thoroughfare into something worthy of attention, alleviating the pressure of high footfall from one of the busiest high streets and into its lesser-known capillaries.

Similarly, Melbourne’s Hosier Lane has attracted international attention due to its street art, stencils and art installations. It has become a must-visit street and a destination for delicious restaurants and interesting bars. Art has transformed the street into a siphon for pedestrians, especially tourists.

As well as moving on pedestrian traffic, creative detail can also encourage visitors to dwell. Greening initiatives don’t necessarily need to be solely about incorporating natural elements into urban locations. Streets and spaces can be punctuated with places of exchange and elements of interest – whether public art, places to sit or unusual planters. When faced with a maze of historic streets which were not known it becomes important to think of creative details which would add interest, to encourage people to spend time in areas outside of the landmark sites. Particularly effective were our Better Air benches. These functioned as both colourful seating areas and unusual planters, even if they were put in the most unlikely of places, people would notice and use them.

One of the larger urban regeneration projects, The Low Line, drew inspiration from global examples of city-making. A local resident was inspired by New York’s “High Line” and saw the potential for the mighty railway viaducts that characterise south east London. The Low Line transforms a major piece of city infrastructure bringing to life the Victorian railway viaducts creating opportunities for innovation, culture, connection and biodiversity.

While the High Line in New York runs above the city, the Low Line focuses on the base of the viaduct and surrounding urban realm. It has become a flagship project for the area and as an example of an intention to innovate creatively, while staying true to the character and identity of the area. Well known ‘stops’ on the Low Line include Union Yard Arches, home to two theatres, The Africa Centre, an aerial trapeze gym and places to eat, Flat Iron Square with live music venue and street food, and retail and leisure destination Borough Yards. But the Low Line is also home to a diverse and mixed economy servicing businesses along its length and it is soon to support green business operations from one of its arches.

Importantly, the style of creative approaches cities employ is significant. Choose the style to match the character of a place. Uniqueness, vibrancy and lack of homogeny in the creative detail plays into the spirit of an ‘alternative’ area and reflects unusual destinations. Borough Market, for example, is one of the most defined and most famous features. It brings together a diverse array of traders and small businesses, each contributing their own flavour to the eclectic mix.

In a post-COVID world, where the concept of “place” has taken on a new significance and people are using areas differently, the ability to offer something genuinely different is what will attract people to individual districts. For us, creative detail has meant amplifying what is already there and that is why it is powerful. Matching creative decisions with an area’s spirit will resonate with people.