Among the many challenges facing 21st century high density placemaking, the task of working out how best to integrate commerce, the workplace, and the wider community remains top-of-the-urban-design list.

Among the many challenges facing 21st century high density placemaking, the task of working out how best to integrate commerce, the workplace, and the wider community remains top-of-the-urban-design list. The question here is how do we positively engage the community as key stakeholder; create mixed use developments that are the opposite of the silo-led urban designs that litter so many of our cities; harness technology in not its own name, but in that of all stakeholders; and ensure that the health and wellbeing of people is the key driver of high density urban design.

It’s a big question, and I am banging an old and very personal drum, but clearly any design needs to begin with understanding what people really want of the places we build in their name. This may and does sound ridiculously obvious, but the reality in the world of architectural masterplanning is quite different. While always well-meaning, rather than begin with people, many a development focuses first on the project’s building (hardware), and then on its interior design (software), and finally, almost as an afterthought, on the people (humanware) for whom it may be their home, work and play place.

It’s the kind of approach that gives us the one-off iconic building or development, a source of native pride, and much loved by city authorities for the revenue they generate by way of tourist footfall, but next to useless in terms of how they cater for the multiple needs of the high density communities that surround them. It’s not that we’re not thinking about the end user, it’s just that we’re not thinking about people in the now, in a bit, next year, and about how the patterns of these people’s daily, weekly, monthly and yearly experiences ought to inform how we imagine our future urban placemaking.

The question, of course, is how best to make this thinking – this ‘experience thinking’ – as rigorous as it is creative. One way, stolen from early Disney, is the use of the storyboard. A storyboard, as you know, is a series of frames. It is a sequence of moments that constitutes a narrative journey, dividing key moments, allowing for an authorial single-glance overview, and designed to culminate in the story’s climax. What Disney applied to cinema, we apply to architecture. Our characters are the profiled people for whom the development is intended, and it is their imagined narratives, the story of their lives, that informs the design of that development, and that consistently energises its build and fit-out.

A perfect example is Kings Cross Central, the people-powered development of which I have spoken about before. Suffice to say, the level of research conducted by Argent St George into the types or profiles of the area’s present and future users served as the first step for gathering experiences, building on ideas, and simply and deeply imagining through their stories a Kings Cross of the future.

In the same way, our starting point is a rigorous analysis of the types of people who will use the future space. It makes them the development’s chief protagonists. It maps their needs and wants, and then imagines the patterns of these needs and wants through storyboards of their lives. It is this imagining that informs the future space. An example: Among a number of projects, we are currently working on a fascinating development with HASSELL in San Francisco, a single mixed use tower, a vertical precinct. Before lifting a single hardware hand, we need to know extremely well how this vertical precinct will best service the needs of its complex community of workers, inhabitants and visitors. We need to gather the data on and understand what key archetypal members of this community want of the building. And we need to imaginatively test or storyboard how these archetypes will use the building. Get this right and everything falls into place, and in the most exciting of ways.

None of this is new. It’s just been forgotten. The underlay of placemaking is now the overlay. Bricks and mortar precede people, hardware humanware, and the thing now informs – didactically, paternally, autocratically – the experience. To come back to my now pounding drum, we need to flip this particular placemaking value stack on its head. We need to re-introduce the engineer to the human. We need to begin once again with people and with their experiences. For me, the storyboard – while not the only – feels like a most eminent way to do this. It’s the start.