Place - value - quality

The place imperative

The urban places that most of us inhabit are made up of buildings, streets, spaces and landscape, various land uses and a community of users. There is a great diversity and richness in the nature of such ‘places’ across even single urban areas, but our individual experience of ‘place’ will depend on who we are and on where and how we live: whether in a village, town or city; suburban or urban area; as resident or worker; old or young; depending on our relative mobility; and, most profoundly, on whether we live in places of prosperity or poverty. Whoever we are, our everyday engagement with the places in which we live, work and play will influence the lives we lead, the opportunities available to us, and our personal and communal happiness, identity and sense of belonging.

This experience of place is fundamental to our physical and mental health and sense of well-being. Place underpins cultural activities and social opportunities. Place is political, influencing provision of and access to common assets, including to grey, green and social infrastructure. The quality of places influences and is influenced by housing conditions, real estate markets, and our use of technology. Place has an impact on the way we govern ourselves, on our democracy and local decision-making, on community togetherness and empowerment, and on much, much more.

This wiki brings evidence together to show that these and other impacts are not just a woolly wish-list of desired benefits quoted by those already convinced about the importance of investing in a high quality built environment. Instead they are statements of fact supported by a wide and growing range of robust and convincing evidence. In the face of such overwhelming evidence, policy makers, developers, and built environment professionals would be foolish not to make the pursuit of place quality a high priority.

What is meant by value?

The value of something is often equated to its worth in narrow economic terms, but value also has a much broader meaning that equates to its importance or significance or to the benefit derived from the thing being valued. Taking this broader notion of value, The Value Handbook identifies six different types of value that can be delivered by the built environment:

  • Exchange value - parts of the built environment can be traded
  • Use value - the built environment impacts on the activities that go on there
  • Image value - the built environment projects identity and meaning, good or bad
  • Social value - the built environment supports or undermines social relations
  • Environmental value - the built environment supports or undermines environmental resources
  • Cultural value - the built environment has cultural significance

These conceptual notions of value demonstrate the broad scope of the concept, but relate poorly to the sorts of very tangible policy and practice agendas within which politicians, built environment professionals and policy makers typically operate. Another way of thinking about value, therefore, is more straightforwardly the degree to which different interventions impact either positively or negatively on different policy arenas. As this wiki is meant to be immediately useful to those seeking to build a case for investing in place quality, this was the view taken during its construction.

The substantive sections that follow gather evidence together under four ‘big ticket’ policy arenas that governments (national and local) everywhere are typically concerned with: health, society, the economy and the environment. These are the areas on which elections are won and lost as they impact so directly on the daily lives of citizens. At the same time the evidence brought together in this wiki forcefully confirms that each of these agendas are profoundly influenced by the quality of the local built environment, in other words that place quality ‘adds value’ as regards health outcomes, social well-being, economic success and environmental sustainability. An intelligent approach to policy should therefore have a clear place quality dimension at its heart in order that more immediate national and local goals can be met.

What is meant by place quality?

It is equally important to ask what is meant by place quality? One way of answering this question might be that a high quality place is that which returns the greatest value to its users as regards meeting and sustaining them in healthy, socially rich and economically productive lifestyles that touch lightly on the environment. The research studies listed in this wiki define in many different ways what they mean by ‘place’, ‘urban design’, ‘urban quality’, ‘environmental quality’, or a whole host of other descriptors of the built environment. Most focus on particular very limited aspects or dimensions of what is a broad set of concerns.

Reflecting the variation, a deliberately broad and unconstrained notion of ‘place quality’ is adopted within which research studies are included relating to the value of investing in a high quality built environment. Consequently, whilst place quality might be strongly associated with the quality of design, it also goes well beyond by incorporating the processes and outcomes of development, regeneration and the long-term management of places (as well as their design). It expands beyond the purely physical built environment to the social workings of place and to their environmental sustainability.

Collectively the evidence not only suggests what are the dimensions of value on which better place quality impacts, but also reveals much about the particular qualities of place that add the value. This, arguably, is one way of defining place quality and is discussed here.