Across the country a series of placemaking projects are breathing new life into our regions, revitalising town centres in a curated way that speaks to the unique identity of the space.

The reasons for the revitalisation projects are as unique as the character of the place. Some towns need to adjust to an industry change, adapting to uncover and embrace new economic opportunities as traditional sectors disappear. Others are undergoing rapid growth and face the pressure of accommodating population increases that place pressure on existing resources.

What they have in common is the need to define the essence of the place, a vital component of regeneration projects.

Landscape architect and urban designer Jack Earl has worked on a number of these projects and says that putting people at the centre of the approach is key to creating unique spaces that encourage the community to feel connected and engaged.

“Having a sense of place and an understanding of it is vital, if people are connected to a place they’ll activate it and stay,” he says.

Colleague and landscape architect Terry Palethorpe agrees, adding that the inclusion of Māori narrative in regeneration projects brings a vital component to their authenticity.

“Every place has a story, it’s just a matter of finding out what it is. There was a period where the Māori narrative of a place wasn’t considered but, thankfully that’s changing, and now you can see mana whenua stories woven through the fabric of a place.”

In the case of consulting on the Brightwater Town Centre upgrade for the Tasman District Council, Jack says they went into the classroom to learn what was important to the future generation of residents.

Following a period of discovery work that included background studies with WSP Opus’ transport planning team and archaeologists, Peter Kortegast ran a three hour workshop with a group of Year 5 and 6 students at Brightwater Primary School to capture their ideas.

Brightwater Primary has a roll of around 300 students, representing a significant percentage of the town population that is just over 2,000. Tasman District Council estimates that the town population is set to grow by 16% in the next 10 years

“It was a great way to get things going and enthused an age group that will have a long-term connection to the community,” says Jack.

To get the student voice coming through and getting some ideas from the kids as to what can happen with Brightwater is really cool, it gives the kids a purpose. To think that maybe, hopefully some of their ideas might actually get put in place would even be a bonus.

Interestingly, where workshop facilitators assumed the children would be focused solely on fun activities, what they actually ended up with was a need for better safety around transport.

“Some of the ideas were absolutely brilliant – the drive-through sweet shop and tree hut in the local park are among my favourites. But at the same time, we gained valuable insights into their experience in getting to school, they were asking for better quality pavements, more weather resistant bus shelters, safer crossings across the streets and the need to slow traffic down.”

Jack says the students also considered the needs of others in their community, including the access for disabled mobility and the elderly. Safe access to bike facilities was also a key theme which, given that the region has spectacular cycle trails and mountain bike facilities, means this is a significant part of the local identity.

Brightwater School Deputy Principal Glenda Earle said students were able to look at things from a different perspective without any preconceptions.

“To get the student voice coming through and getting some ideas from the kids as to what can happen with Brightwater is really cool, it gives the kids a purpose. To think that maybe, hopefully some of their ideas might actually get put in place would even be a bonus.”

The workshop provided valuable insights and is part of a number of considerations that influences projects that capture local identity. These include landscape and landmarks, the colours of the natural environment, built heritage, industrial and working character, local community and events, and the history of Māori and European settlement.

In the case of Brightwater, this has resulted in an interpretation of an urban legend.

“In the late 1800s there were five street lights in the main street which were wired through a chicken perch. Legend has it that the rooster would turn the switch on at night time and flick the lights off in the morning.”

So popular is this story that a motif of a rooster is being incorporated into the streetscape and a concept has been worked up for perching seats along the road; if someone sits on the seat, lights will come on.

Incorporating these elements and empowering the community to lead projects fosters a strong sense of ownership that celebrates local culture.

It also encourages new characters to emerge. Following a renewal project in Greymouth CBD which WSP Opus worked on, the local Indian community began cooking and selling curries in the town square.

Other WSP Opus regional revitalisation projects include Rotorua’s Inner City Revitalisation Strategy

“By providing an inviting, open space you create opportunities for the community to connect in new ways. In this case it’s provided a usable public space for groups to demonstrate their democratic voices – as an urban designer that’s the sort of outcome that makes everything worthwhile,” says Jack.

Terry says it’s exciting to work on projects that bring out the uniqueness of places – especially if it’s an area where the history hasn’t been fully explored.

“It’s rewarding to bring out that history and that individuality and people respond when we get it right, especially when they didn’t realise something was there or some aspect of a place had a past.”