Cultural capital: Understanding the value of heritage and digital placemaking for regeneration projects


7 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Insights

Understanding the value of heritage and digital placemaking for regeneration projects

In his 2017 London Plan, Mayor Sadiq Khan put culture at the centre of his vision for the capital. As well as promoting London as a true ’24-hour city’ and protecting and promoting the creative sector there, the plan also provides for new Cultural Quarters. These ‘attractive and vibrant areas for residents, workers and visitors … will build on the existing character of an area and encourage a mix of cafes, restaurants and bars alongside cultural venues.’

This emphasis on the significance of culture is echoed by the Government’s Culture White Paper, which explores how ’the development of our historic built environment can drive wider regeneration, job creation, business growth and prosperity.’

The heritage or historical identity of space plays a central role in building culture within it. This view is not shared by all developers, however. According to the Culture White Paper, some stakeholders see culture-led regeneration programs as ‘too risky to take on … a particular issue in parts of the country where the property market is less buoyant and where there may be a lack of local expertise to call upon.’

Engagement with the cultural history of space can add considerable short to long-term value to development projects there. New digital placemaking products, services and experiences make it simpler and cheaper for developers to integrate site heritage into their redevelopment projects.

Here’s why – and how – developers across the globe are harnessing heritage and digital placemaking approaches to make their regeneration projects more attractive, authentic and inclusive.

Heritage for urban regeneration

Every community has multiple cultural identities, which manifest as overlapping interpretations, histories and traditions about the space they exist in. In this way, culture is embedded in the space shared by the community, which in turn reflects and shapes culture itself.

The Government report People, Place, Culture explores this relationship between individuals and their environment at length, highlighting the important role developers can play to nurture and grow the level of cultural engagement communities have with their space. ‘Cultural identity is strongly tied in with a person’s sense of engagement, belonging, understanding and appreciation of their ‘place’ … What is local and unique [therefore] has a special value and should be supported and encouraged’, says the report.

This is, in simple terms, what placemaking is all about: ‘capitalising on a community’s unique assets, inspiration and potential with the intention of creating public spaces, places, events and activities that promote people’s health, happiness and wellbeing.’

Heritage-focused placemaking schemes can express and serve the needs of a diverse range of stakeholder communities, by helping those communities forge a deeper connection to their shared past, and a greater sense of belonging in the present.

In this way, placemaking creates social value, by building spaces where people want to live, work and play. This, in turn, creates economic value, by creating a need for local services and businesses. Placemaking and heritage are therefore key strategic assets for developers working on regeneration projects.

The regeneration of Gloucester’s historic quay as a pedestrianised, mixed-use space demonstrates the social and economic value of heritage-focused placemaking. Creating 3,500 jobs and attracting an additional £25 million of retail sales to the region each year, the Quay redevelopment programme has seen historic buildings reappropriated for modern usage, with the site history providing both the theme and identity for the new development.

The heritage of a place provides both the context and a source of inspiration for placemaking programmes. As such, the tools and methods used to deliver placemaking approaches change from site to site, depending on the history and nature of the space, and the goals of the developer.

U+I’s redevelopment of EMI’s former vinyl factory in London is a case-in-point. As well as refurnishing the 17-acre site to offer commercial and residential space, the developers added outdoor sculpture, created a startup incubator space and music studio, and implemented a live music programme that reflects the scientific and musical history of the factory.

Richard Upton, Deputy Chief Executive behind the project, is clear on the importance of careful research and community engagement for successful heritage-focussed placemaking schemes. ‘We started the placemaking process early on … [engaging] with the local community to dig into the history of the site.” The value of this approach is clear, Richard says: “it’s places like [the Old Vinyl Factory] that leave a lasting legacy for the benefit of local communities.”

Digital placemaking for heritage programmes

U+I’s scheme for their London site is an inspiring example of good placemaking. As creative technologists, we are motivated by imagining how this project could be further enhanced by innovative digital storytelling services and experiences – part of what we call digital placemaking.

Residents could access an AR (augmented reality) view of the factory pressing rooms, using a smartphone app like the Heritage Trail we built for Battersea Power Station Development Company. Visitors could be offered an audio tour of the site’s history, like the mobile apps we’ve created for Soho, Florence, Belfast, Washington, New York and other sites across the globe. Stakeholders in the project could be consulted on future developments using software like our Heritage Eye programme for Bristol City Council.

In doing so, the communities who use the factory site would be even more closely engaged with and involved in its past, present and future. Placemaking ensures regeneration projects are respectful of the history of a site; digital placemaking makes that history accessible, understandable and unambiguous for the communities who use it. Narratives about space can be offered in a range of ways, using the most appropriate technology for the given story. Digital placemaking also offers local communities an opportunity to share their thoughts, memories and opinions about the space, thereby bringing multiple historical narratives into the space and ‘embedding a rich mix of cultural representation in the development.

In this way, development projects gain greater cultural depth and value, even when stakeholders are familiar with a site and its history. In our Ideascape placemaking study at Porth Teigr, Cardiff Bay, participants reported that our digital interventions had enabled them to view their neighbourhood in fresh, surprising new ways – especially when the digital content was offered over an extended period.

The flexible and bespoke nature of digital placemaking means that it can be tailored to individual regeneration projects, thereby focusing on the particular requirements of the development and the dynamic nature of the urban environment in question.

This flexibility is twofold. First, digital placemaking projects are truly multimedia, involving any digital technology – from animated murals to interactive fountains and responsive sculptures. Second, successful digital placemaking programmes are built following collaboration with, and in response to the needs of, overlapping communities who use a site. These factors combined mean that digital placemaking experiences are inventive, dynamic and meaningful for stakeholder communities – boosting their emotional connection with places in the throes of regeneration.

Too often, the results of urban regeneration schemes are criticised as insensitive, uninspired or exclusive – or worse, all three. The problem with such schemes is not necessarily in their design or execution; it’s instead in their failure to first understand the nature of the space they’re working in. This leads to schemes that are incongruous and even in opposition to the various stakeholders for whom they are intended.

Instead, developers must explore the cultural heritage of their site early in the redevelopment process. Building on this insight, they have a chance to develop digital placemaking experiences that truly engage stakeholder communities. In this way, digital placemaking can transform regeneration sites into more than the sum of their parts: environments rich in historical meaning, and in economic and social opportunity, too.


Explore the full value of digital placemaking for development, from consultation to site management, with our Ideascape study, here.

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