Adelaide’s Peter Smith on ‘place governance’

Peter Smith spearheaded Adelaide's approach to placemaking as the city's CEO. (Adelaide City Council)

Lots of city leaders say they want to use “placemaking” techniques to energize streets, parks and public spaces. But Peter Smith takes the idea much further. Smith, who until just a few weeks ago was the CEO of the Australian city of Adelaide, views placemaking as a tool for transforming a city’s politics, management and culture — the subject of Citiscope’s urban innovation feature this week.

Smith talks a lot about “place governance,” an idea promoted by the New York-based Project for Public Spaces. Essentially, he put livening Adelaide’s streets at the core of local government’s mission — and restructured the city bureaucracy around that goal. He also sees placemaking as the best path to a more productive way for local governments to engage with the community.

Before taking the Adelaide job in 2008, Smith worked for two state governments and the national government in Australia. In Adelaide, he managed a city workforce of about 1,000 and reported to an 11-member elected council and lord mayor who chairs the council.

Local elections last November produced a lot of turnover on that council and a new lord mayor. In March, Smith resigned and plans to begin a place governance consultancy. The new Lord Mayor, Martin Haese, tells Citiscope that Adelaide’s experiments with placemaking will continue:  “The activation of our city streets and public spaces is undoubtedly very important to the people of the City of Adelaide,” he says.

I spoke with Smith just before the local elections about how place governance works in Adelaide. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


Christopher Swope: How did you arrive at this concept of “place governance”?

Peter Smith: There are a few things driving my thinking. The pendulum is always swinging in government, but in terms of our relationship with the community here in Australia, we’re at the maximum point of distrust. The public service has become so distant and so wrapped up in itself that it’s lost its constituency. I say that across various levels of government here in Australia. And there’s a cost to that.

The other thing I see is governments increasingly wanting to look for silver bullets — let’s announce a playground or a new bridge or a whatever.

Those two things work together. If you have a government that’s disconnected from its constituency, then they’re not in touch with what the community needs. And if they’re chasing silver bullets, the decision is usually made before consultation with the public. Of course what happens is the project goes ahead, it doesn’t deliver the value that was promised, and the community get even more disenfranchised. And that just keeps pushing the pendulum further.

People can say that’s a deeply cynical view and maybe it’s time for me to leave the public service. But I’m of the view that if you don’t like something, you stay there and change it from within. And that led me to placemaking and place governance.

Q: How so?

A: We’ve got urbanization like we’ve never seen it before. In Australia, people are flocking to the cities, as we’re seeing globally. I think it’s the beginning of exponential growth here in Adelaide. As that happens, we’re getting increasing density, and that puts pressure on the public space.

But if you think of how the city works, the city works like a system. And the public space is like the nodes in that system where all the exchanges occur. They don’t occur necessarily in an office or in someone’s lounge room. The social exchanges and the creative exchanges and many of the economic exchanges take place in the public space. That’s where people come together in a city.

“The businesses are collaborating, and we step back to what we do the best, just the basics and facilitate the rest. That’s ‘place governance’. ”

So place governance for me is saying: How do you get to a place-led approach? How do we stop chasing silver bullets from a distance, and actually start to work where those exchanges are taking place in the public spaces, and work with the people who use and impact those public spaces on a day-to-day basis? It’s a way to start swinging the pendulum back the other way.

Q: What are some examples?

A: Three or four years ago, we started with our Splash Adelaide program. We put AUS$ 150,000 (US$ 120,000), not a lot of money, into “lighter, quicker, cheaper” stuff [targeted at pop-up entertainment, events and art projects among other things.]

For example, one of our streets here is a really popular street at lunch time. It’s surrounded by offices. There were three or four restaurants there, they used to open at 11 am and close at 3 pm, because they were targeting the lunch-time trade. At 5 pm, maybe 5,000 or 10,000 people would walk past those restaurants going to their car parks and heading out of the city.

This should be the sort of place where people go after work and have a drink. Early evening is often a dead time for cities. We said: How can we help you make money out of that?

We met with business owners and said let’s close the street on a Friday night, put outdoor dining and buskers out in the street. They said it’s too hard — we’ll have to pay for extra staff, we’ll have to get a liquor license. There were 20 reasons why they couldn’t do it. And they didn’t trust us.

That first year I said I’m going to show you that this works. We closed the street on the busiest night, in the middle of our big Fringe Arts Festival on a Friday. We closed the street at 3 pm, and started the event at 5:00. I took the liquor license for the whole street. People said I was mad and that people would not come. By 6:00, we had 10,000 people out there. By 6:30, the restaurants were running out of food because they thought no one was going to come. Now, three years later, they run that party themselves and they do it a couple of nights a year.

That’s the cultural change I’m talking about. Four years on, some of those buildings have upstairs bars, there are four or five new restaurants and bars and the area has become known as a place to go in the evening. It’s not just a lunchtime place, but an evening place and a weekend place.

And they’re running it themselves. The businesses are collaborating, and we step back to what we do the best, just the basics and facilitate the rest. That’s “place governance”.

Q: But aren’t you taking it beyond that, to where placemaking has become the whole lens through which local government works?

A: We are, we’ve come to that after three years. Our placemaking strategy has got three goals.

The first is the placemaking itself, which is almost a no-brainer if you’re running a city: How do you make better use of your public space? But the other two goals are the critical ones.

“Placemaking is almost the facilitator, the stalking horse. It’s the feather on the hat that says: Pay attention! Something different is happening!”

The second is creating community capacity to self-govern. I’m very impressed by New York City’s Times Square Alliance [a business improvement district] and its president, Tim Tompkins, and what’s happened there in terms of the amount of functions that the Alliance has taken over from the city government of New York. And one thing I’m working on is how do you build a financially sustainable place-led governance model so the community can run those things? If that means I lose 300 staff because there are business improvement districts or community-led groups running those services but we get a better outcome for the public dollar, then I’m happy to shrink and lose 300 staff.

So I want to challenge what the community can do and the readiness in the community. Some people are used to getting things done by complaining to government and the ones who shout the loudest get the funding or the subsidy.

Placemaking is almost the facilitator, the stalking horse. It’s the feather on the hat that says: Pay attention! Something different is happening! You’re building up the community capacity so you swing that pendulum back. You build trust first of all, and then you build capacity for the community to use and manage public space after the trust.

The third goal is cultural change within government. Part of that is teaching politicians that they can actually get a different type of political capital by changing the way they work with the community.

Part of this goal is also changing the way we work in the public service. It’s about deregulation, saying yes quickly and working with the community to find out how we can use public space to benefit them. That means not sitting behind a desk doing master plans and public-space design based on limited consultation, but, instead, getting out there and talking to people — particularly owners of property and businesses that interact with the public space. Often it’s also about expert staff parking the degrees and technical expertise outside the door until a solution has been agreed with place users, then bringing in the technical expertise later to implement the agreed solution.  

Q: So the politicians have bought in? What’s the evidence of that?

A: It’s on their campaign material: They’re saying, “We’re doing placemaking.”  “We’re building community capacity.” “We’re activating the city.” Politicians often chase political capital. What you’ve got to do is replace the short-term political capital that comes from silver bullets with something that’s more sustainable.

Q: How does placemaking position Adelaide among other cities?

A: We’re trying to find a different way to work with our community and we see placemaking as central to that. Because if you’re running a city, you understand that people relate to and are attracted to cities according to their experience in the public space.

If you say New York is your favorite city, you don’t mean the State of New York or even Manhattan. The first thing that comes to your brain is maybe a bar in Greenwich Village, or a nice walk you took through Chelsea on a Saturday afternoon. You don’t think about the quality of the lighting or the pavement or the traffic, unless it’s getting in your way. You think about your experiences. And that’s what attaches people to cities.

“I see the city like a tapas bar. The city is the restaurant but the places in the restaurant are the dishes. ”

On a strategic end of this, it’s a differentiator. If you understand that people will stand around at a barbecue and say, “You’ve got to go to Adelaide, and you’ve got to go to that street, and go to those three bars and go on a Friday night because there will be something happening.” Or, “When you go to Adelaide make sure you hire a bike and ride through the park lands because they’re the most beautiful parks in the world and there’s always something happening around the corner.” That’s how people relate to cities. It’s understanding that place attachment translates to economic capital, it translates to creative capital and social capital. Ultimately it differentiates your city and makes it globally competitive.

Q: What’s another example of how place governance plays out?

A: In the northern part of the CBD, we have a major shopping mall in the middle. To the west of that we have our late-night entertainment area, which gets pretty rough at about 2 or 3 am. And the next block west is an old night-club area that was the really seedy part of town. And one of our universities there had built itself almost like a fort because of the street outside.

On the next street over is our brand new hospital and medical research center. That street is going to have 24/7 probably 10,000 to 15,000 workers around there in the next couple of years. But it’s been a dead street. The businesses have really struggled, a lot of shops closed. And so we made that street a “place pilot.”

I see the city like a tapas bar. The city is the restaurant but the places in the restaurant are the dishes. One of the things we were trying to do on this street is we realized that in our restaurant, we had no set of dishes that were there for students or low-income workers or nurses.

And so we got all the property owners together, and started to work with state government. And we got the university, which had bought up a lot of the properties to use for future growth but had kept them closed until they were ready to go. And what that did is killed the street even more, to have all these boarded-up night clubs.

Now, number one in terms of those three goals. We have a place facilitator who has a full-time job working down there connecting up businesses and property owners. We’ve invested in slowing traffic and putting a million-dollar project there to connect the university from a new building across the road.

“If the city was going to get bombed, which would be the last place you’d like to see standing? What’s sacred?”

And it was sitting down with all the property owners and the university and saying: What do we want this street to be? And they agreed they want the street to be the go-to street for cheap eats, live music, and places for students. The university was planning more closed-in type buildings to solidify the fort. They’ve now decided to open up and make the street their campus. It’s a huge change.

Meantime we’ve gone in to work with community organizations to put temporary leases into boarded-up shops. And we’ve got the private property owners wanting to try different things — outdoor dining or some live music on a Friday night.

One thing we want to do with our 2,000 international students is to have an event like a Bollywood street party there on the street. We used to have a very formal reception in Town Hall. Now we’ll do an event for them, which is not just to have fun, but to say to those students: This is your street, this is your place. It’s about building attachment to their place in the city. Town Hall would never be their place. It’s a waste to have it here.

And that street’s starting to get a vibe.

Q: You’re also working on a “Place Capital Inventory” to measure impact?

A: When we started, I asked: How do we measure value here? Because we’re going to put some public dollars into this.

In that inventory we have the typical things like vacancy rates and tenancies and small business growth and things like that. And we can do the physical inspections like the condition of stuff.

But we also said look, when we talk about the success of the place, you have to define that for the people who use it. For example, one thing we want to measure is the first impression of a place: Does it feel like a welcoming place?

We are trialling this and it will take a couple of years to build. We’re looking at some different ways of measuring this. For example, one idea is to take people who’ve never been there before and put skin-conducting testers on them to see if there any biometrical indicators. This is a mad idea but it would be great to see if can we measure your instant reaction to a place if you’ve never seen it before?

Kathy Lofllin from the Knight Foundation, who’s done a lot of work on measuring place attachment, has been helping us. How do we measure the attachment? If you had a choice between going to this place and that place, which would you choose? If the city was going to get bombed, which would be the last place you’d like to see standing? What’s sacred? And how do you measure creative capital? How does a place encourage creativity and innovation is a question we’re trying to explore. We’re researching some of this stuff globally. We’ve got the three universities here tapping into academia to try and find good research.

So our place capital inventory has got five components: it’s the physical, the economic, the creative, the social and the sustainable. And each of those has got five or six different elements. (Read up here for more on the inventory.)

It’s very early days. But we thought the traditional ways we measure success were not valuable. If we’re spending public dollars, how do we improve the outcome? “Fun” can be one of those, but it’s not the only thing.

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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