Engaging with businesses and placemaking

Small businesses are a vital artery to ensure cities thrive, but as rates increase and agile working becomes the norm, they move on. And so begins the slow process of placemaking somewhere new. But what will become of once popular cities and what can we learn from the past to safeguard our future?

If you think about areas of cities, especially those you have not actually been to, the brand of these places is created by businesses, especially SMEs.

Placemaking involves multiple partners, from national government, local councils, investors, developers, architects, landscape architects, public realm specialists, property agents and others – coming together to regenerate an area to make it a better place to live and work. But whilst all these agencies are important to get a regeneration project started and finished, placemaking is a slow, organic process. Like digging a hole in your garden and filling it with water creates a pond, it is creating the conditions for algae, plants and wildlife to thrive that turn it into a living ecosystem.

A balancing act

Much of placemaking concentrates on the residential elements within large development projects, but without viable and diverse commercial habitats, living in these new zones can feel like you have been sent to an open, modern prison. The balance of retail – relevant to the needs of the community – and commercial, offering work opportunities not just for the new incomers, but their children, looking for careers and the correct qualifications for prospective jobs, sow the seeds of generations settling to make a space their home.  These elements take time and cannot be parachuted in. But by creating the right spaces for businesses to address these needs can make the change happen more quickly and with deeper, sustainable roots.

The brand of an area is important as well as understanding the perception of an area. Like all brands, this will change without these placemaking partners remaining committed to assisting in its continual improvement. Much of the good vs bad reputation of an area is economic, alongside regulation and the policing of it. 

One lesson we learned during our Shoreditch engagement project was that the provision of a SPA – Special Policy Area – around licensing laws in Hoxton led to conflict between business owners and residents. Talent Lab attempted to act as moderator and mediator to find solutions in three key areas of dispute – permitting new bars & restaurants, public amenity provision and late-night opening hours. Often, we would facilitate discussion between parties on both sides, but policy and regulation – brought in with little or no consultation – made it difficult to find remedies that fitted the needs of the business community, residents and regulators.

Value local businesses

Making a case for businesses to have a voice in the initial and subsequent development of an area is common sense. They are the ones that will make residential properties more valuable. This is a reflection of both of the property itself, but also the area it is now in. The popularity of a city and the various towns/villages/boroughs within it, have significant impact on property value. A flat bought 25 years ago in Shoreditch is now worth over 800% more than its purchase price. In Manchester, the increase is around a third of that.  However, very few businesses from the mid-90s – especially in hospitality, media and digital – remain from 25 years ago. Most don’t own their leases and rising costs will have forced them to move out and onto other areas where they will help start the regeneration process again.

As the impact of Covid plays out across businesses sectors and the areas they call their homes, we can already see a drive to more working from home, assisted by new technology, and the plan to replace office space with residential as announced by the City of London. But without the businesses to serve these new residents, what will happen to the brand of the City?

Learn from the past

Times change. Areas change. Think about where the Romans had their main trading centres. Look at the history of English cities and towns since 1066, and the relationship between changing populations, wealth and commerce. People follow the work and the money. What is popular and populated today is no measure of what was happening 200 years ago or what will happen 100 years from now – with the notable exception of London as a whole.

As the government policies are focused on ‘levelling up’ in favour of the north, it is striking that it seems to be a rolling back to match the city population charts tracking changes over the past almost 1,000 years. But whilst governments can encourage wealth shift through policy, regulation, planning, and direct investment, the success will be determined by how many SMEs make a base there, the kinds of services they will be offering, and how long it is profitable to remain.

Take heed

By engaging with enterprises and entrepreneurs earlier in this process, government and its agencies will create the right kind of places for them to start or move their company in the midlands or the north. And for those areas in the south which face losing its business base, re-engaging with these communities of SMEs will be critical. Because the brand and viability of an area depend on the type of businesses that choose to make their homes there.

Mark Herring

Mark Herring

Co-Director of Talent Lab. Business and Brand Strategist. Connector-in-Chief at Urbano Network, leading on Zero Carbon Engagement Programme and Only Connect Podcast.

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