Bringing the village to the city

Gilbert Rochecouste grew up in Mauritius, surrounded by extended family and with the daily rituals of visiting the local well and market. This idea of village life inspired Village Well, Australia’s first placemaking agency, which he founded 20 years ago. He spoke to Clare Goff about putting people at the heart of place

Place and placemaking were embedded in my DNA and fabric from an early age. I grew up in a small village in Mauritius and that’s where the idea for Village Well comes from. I was surrounded by my extended family, there were daily rituals and a sense of celebration and conviviality. There was not a lot of money in terms of infrastructure but it was rich in terms of place and beauty. That fabric is part and parcel of who we are. We all yearn for somewhere we can call home, for gatherings and celebrations and physical places where people can meet and connect, such as the village well. That yearning for creating beautiful places was planted in me at an early age. Growing up in Mauritius taught me that placemaking needs to start with people and place. If you start with design, infrastructure and transport – as many town plans do – then that’s what you get. But if you start with people and place that’s what you get.

When I came to Australia I lived in an industrial town, Dandenong. I began working in the largest department store in Melbourne and that taught me placemaking through consumption. I became manager of the biggest shopping centre in the western hemisphere and it was the commercial engine room of placemaking – internalised malls, whole landscapes, distractions to make you shop more, and beautiful food environments.. The dominant story of our time is consumption and I had to go through a commercial landscape to come back to the more democratic spaces of towns and cities. Malls offer a false sense of community, kicking you out when the shops close at 5pm. The high street on the other hand is a place for all.

Village Well was launched in 1992 as the first dedicated placemaking organisation in Australia. We’ve worked with 1000 cities and towns over the last 20 years and have developed a concept of place that is based on nature’s cycles, a living systems application. Given where the world is at – with the tipping points around peak oil and climate change and struggling economies – we’re questioning what it means to be human. The legitimacy of every institution is being questioned and we’re  all being asked to pause and check in how we live and consume. Our process of placemaking is about engaging people in a transformative way, a deep democracy that really embeds ownership. We work on the basis of co-design and co-creation with the community. In most places experts come in and do a report but to allow the community to own the process and delivery is rare. Before 1945 towns and places had a unique vernacular and a human scale and you could see that they had been created by many hands. Today, if you look at somewhere like the Docklands in Melbourne with its glass houses and iconic architecture, you can see that only a few hands have created it. Our placemaking approach is to uncover the narrative of a place and create meaning there. It’s about engaging poeple in an authentic and transformative way and building with the local vernacular.

We begin with the lay of the land, understanding the natural landscape of a place, whether it’s the birds and the bees or the community history and rituals. It’s about a deep level of engagement and that includes engaging the differently minded. It’s easy to engage with the easy-to-reach but culturally and linguistically diverse communities are harder. There are so many tipping points at the moment. Communities need to know these but it’s not about scaring them but showing them the positive tipping points too. These could be case studies of co-housing, collectives or sharehoods. Communities see these and get inspired. It’s about building the capacity of hope and possibility that starts by discovering the essence of a place and its story. Everything begins with a story – who we are, where we come from, what we want to be. These are powerful narratives to build hope and possibilities. We then break it down into an action or product. It could be a public plaza or some elements of programming, perhaps a farmers’ market. It could be about new governance or collaborative structures such as sharehoods. We focus on the experience rather than a grand plan. Masterplans are not able to unlock the sense of a place and its meaning. We use the 5 Ps – people, place, product, programme, product and planet – to help uncover and activate the essence of a place and  glue everything together and we focus on delivering small ‘wins’ driven by the community. It could be a cafe or market or pop-up store, essentially the low-hanging fruit that helps begin the activation of a community.  Usually the biggest strategies come out of that and are driven by the community. It’s different from creating a brief for an architect which assumes the architect knows best and there’s no sense of the magic of place. The wisdom lies in the community.

In Australia two supermarket chains own 80% of the market – the world’s highest. It’s an extreme situation but the fight back is happening on the high streets. We’ve seen the power of the cluster where high performing unique greengrocers, gourmet butchers and patisseries cluster together to offer the same as the supermarkets. Independent supermarkets now account for 20% of the market and growing. People are voting with their feet. The renaissance of the high street needs to be highly organised and hit the bullseye. So it needs to include a whole range of things such from branding and positioning to toilets and comfortable chairs. Major high streets need to have plazas and places to sit and connect. It’s very important to build place-based infrastructure based around a local vernacular. We need to re-frame place around citizens rather than just consumers. Business as usual is not an option. One way to revive local high streets is to focus on the ‘third place’ – the place after home and work where people go to hang out. People don’t go to church any more so where do they go to gather? Rituals can be created around libraries, cafes and public spaces, places where connections happen and rituals take place. If we don’t understand the ‘third place’ as placemakers we won’t succeed. We can bring pleasure back to the high street. Pleasure is the greatest human motivator and beauty is the greatest economic driver. Everyone loves to be in a beautiful place. Areas can also create new products for the re-localisation and the activation of place. For example, activating the night time economy is a really powerful catalyst for change and night time is now a huge economy in Australia even in winter. The Luna 1878 market in Melbourne has 5,000 people turning up in the rain and hail for mulled wine and fires. You can reclaim the night by creating a reason for people to come away from their plasmas.  Cultural retail is another area of growth. Dandenong in the south west of Melbourne has 159 different cultures living there. It has poor crime rates but is a vibrant place. During a development process with the council and development authority we were brought in and we called for the protection and expansion of diverse clusters. So we created Little India by branding 32 Indian shops which were in danger of being knocked down. Now there’s the Little Afghan precinct and Little Saigon. All these cultural retail clusters are very powerful.

One of Melbourne’s laneways

Creativity happens around the edges where no one wants to be. Even the big retailers and malls are rethinking their role and moving into cultural retail. Incentives, regulation and governance are the glue that holds it all together. Many of the successful high streets in Australia were created through councils imposing a special rate levy on property owners. This was combined with a focused community retail plan – for example recruiting a place manager or high street co-ordinator who understands where the town is going. The levies were introduced 10-15 years ago and retailers have even asked for them to be increased as they see the positive impact of that money on their businesses. One of our most successful projects was the Melbourne Laneways. It was a dead area with 50% vacancy rates but now the laneways are the lifeblood of Melbourne, its number one tourist destination. Some of the shops and spaces are just 10 square metres but they are thriving. People love tight spaces that are human scale and that offer a sense of connection. People come to see street art or to listen to music. Alleyways and edges are where innovation happens. We had a plan, built on the area’s sense of place and created public private partnerships to make it happen.


Governance needs to start with place. In many places councils are the biggest block to placemaking. They break everything up into parts and often can’t break through to communities. We need transformative leadership that gives people permission. It’s about telling a story and offering inspiration. They can start with what’s working and build on that and find leaders and zealots in the community who want to put in the time to do stuff. It’s about unleashing the energy of a place in the right way and it requires sophisticated place leadership  and civic champions, catalysts and generalists. In all areas – whether its councils or private sector development – we need powerful transformative place leaders with holistic skills. They need to be storytellers and networkers, they need to understand the commercial aspects of place but also its narrative and be able to join the dots. Powerful leaders are facilitators of positive change.

Doing good is good for business and you have to do it in an integrated way. It’s not just about green energy but about social sustainability and shifting consumptive behaviour to build resilience. It’s too dangerous in Australia to tell people to live simply – it’s seen as un-Australian – but the future of resilience and placemaking all revolve around a steady state economy. Growth that will keep innovation alive but will also sustain life rather than extract it. It’s about new principles and behaviours. The other thing is that business as a force for good is important and it needs to be reframed to attract those who are powerful. We work with large scale developers who are enlightened and who want to understand that tipping point changes are here. They are willing to make structural changes, to change the design vernacular and build community and towns and invest without direct return. In Rouse Hill for example we worked with an enlightened developer to create a new place with a plaza, community centre, library, community garden and secret garden. People love it, they stay longer and spend more time there and spend more money there.
It’s about putting in place incentives for patient capital. Businesses can do things like allowing cheap rent to young cultural operators to inhabit a place early on, which helps build a level of diversity and a richness of palate and authenticity. Smart developers ensure a larger percentage of unique traders and people who live in a place are given priority. Traders who get involved in local philanthropy – giving away food for events for example – see that more than paid off in increased custom and footfall.

By vasting increasing the amount of public space and accessibility, introducing trees, city centre living and kerbside cafes and by reclaiming its waterfront area. It had a vision and the people who came up with that vision are still there. It’s important to have a bold plan and then produce a capacity map to find the leaders who will pull it all together and join the dots.

Placemaking is about powerful transformation, about allowing communities to take control and giving them the skills they need. There are strong cultural groups in the UK and opportunities for clustering and making streets beautiful places. When austerity kicks in often people go to the lowest common denominator but we can create places that focus on wellbeing, simplicity, beauty and low carbon living. The things mentioned above do not require much money and every dollar spent can be quadrupled through gifts and through energy of people if you unleash creativity. People want to contribute when they know the place will be improved. You have to create the conditions and the generosity for it to happen. Small makeovers make a huge difference and if a few traders do it then others want to do it too. Placemaking is the new environmentalism. People switch off from talk about climate change but if you frame the problem around place it becomes easier to get across. Everyone wants to live in a great place where people know their names and they can get their food from local sources and take part in rituals and celebrations. It’s about celebration and understanding the power of small. But it’s also about getting out of the way when necessary. The power of the expert can kill the spirit of place. We need to create a new language around place that is all possible and powerful. It’s about planting the seeds of possibility and praying for the rain of grace.

  • Gilbert Rochecouste will be speaking on the theme of Placemaking as the new environmentalism at Hub Westminster in London on Monday 17th September. For more details and to reserve a place click here.


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