top of page
  • Writer's picturebenstephenson

// how do we make places with purpose?

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Amid all this transformation, reactionary forces seek to return us to the old ways - traffic choked towns, shopping monoculture, absentee landlords and depleted social infrastructure. But a new generation is seeking change: they want their places to reflect a new sense of social purpose.


Deloitte's 2020 Global Millennial Survey found that 48% of millennials and 42% of Gen-Z-ers are stressed all or most of the time. They have internalised concerns about environmental damage, disease and wellbeing in a way that has completely changed behaviours and consumption patterns. As millennials enter their prime spending years, placemakers need to understand the factors that drive demand within this demographic and provide places which enable 'purposeful living'.

Some of the trends that could shape our places and provide them with a new purpose-driven identity are set out here.

The sharing economy

Many younger people in particular are challenging notions of ownership, for reasons of sustainability, practicality, and because the alternatives are improving rapidly. we are entering the age of the sharing economy.

Take one example. Car ownership just isn't as important for people as it used to be, for a whole host of reasons, and the sharing economy and the introduction of mobility as a service are a direct reflection of declining car sales among younger people. Uber, car clubs, demand responsive transport and pooling schemes have completely disrupted the way we get around, not to mention the revolution in mapping and infrastructure which has precipitated a huge upswing in walking and cycling.


- Jeremy Rifkin, Author and Economist

With public transport in need of a radical rethink, here in Bristol, the new electric scooter trial has been heartily embraced. Due to be rolled out in other UK cities in the next year, escooter schemes are already operating widely across Europe and in 90 cities in the US, where the market is worth $13bn and growing exponentially.

Aside from transport, Library of Things, Snapgoods and HelpfulPeeps are all other examples of collaborative consumerism, or shared economy platforms, where the key principles are exchange and review as opposed to consumption. Platforms like Snapgoods are particularly important for younger people who can find themselves living in small spaces and have neither the space nor the inclination to store equipment which they rarely use.

In place design and management terms, these changes mean less requirement for car parking, more space given over to walking and cycling, consolidated last mile delivery hubs and potentially smaller living quarters with more communal spaces.

Health and wellbeing

Health and wellbeing trends are reflected in a range of metrics - from the decline of smoking, drinking and drug use to increases in exercise and self-care activities. At the business end of each of these trends are emerging sectors and technologies that will become more visible on the high street.

In the UK experiential and wellbeing businesses such as gyms, hair and beauty, organic food and veganism, and tattoo parlours have thrived even as more traditional retail models have struggled. This is likely to be as true for the post pandemic high street as it was for 2019 when this Which? article on retail trends was published.

Modern multifunctional retail and services understand the need to connect with the customer in a meaningful way - something that differentiates them from the online experience - and this means the production of in-store events. This is particularly prevalent in the wellbeing sector, and provides an opportunity to learn associated skills, to connect with like minded people and, the business hopes, to develop brand loyalty.

Civic spaces can also play a role of multifunctional hub, including a health and wellbeing remit. The more specialised centres - leisure centres, libraries, community halls and youth clubs that typified the pre-austerity era are giving way to more organic spaces, often on the high street, that can be modified to meet temporary purposes. The Urban Rooms movement is a good example of this, but the redefining of the library for the digital age is also notable.

Sustainable consumption

With the British Retail Consortium estimating that 20% of all UK retail floorspace is surplus to requirements, we will likely see a post-pandemic retraction of shopping areas in our towns and cities.

Retail remains strong where the offer meets the needs of the local catchment and visitor population, but it is now clear that the landscape is changing, with outmoded retail business models (including department stores, travel agents, electrical goods and furniture stores) being succeeded by a new breed of multi-channel, experience-driven retailers that deliver against the desires of the modern consumer.

Growth in these sectors is underpinned with a demand for sustainability credentials. More than 66% of European shoppers - 225m people - are prepared to pay a premium for sustainable goods. This means a decline in fast fashion, a rejection of single use packaging, demand for a reduction of road miles in manufacture and distribution, and fair treatment across the supply chain.

For this reason, companies such as Finisterre, Aesop, Riverford and T2, as well as restaurant groups and office-based employers are pursuing B Corp status. This aligns them with the UN's Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), and indicates to consumers that they have considered the impact of their business on the environment, customers, staff and suppliers. Assessment for the qualification is rigorous but there is a clear benefit in return for the effort.

It is not beyond possibility that citizens' shopping and employment choices will be made on the basis that companies can demonstrate purpose beyond profit, and this will impact on a range of place based factors, from the shops we see on our high streets to the development of supply chains.

This coud include a more wholesale adoption of circular economy and local wealth creation principles in our towns and cities. As the post-Brexit supply chain and the shock waves of the pandemic continue to affect global trade and the movement of labour, many retailers, manufacturers and service organisations are looking closer to home to meet their needs. This approach focuses on reducing waste, retaining wealth in the local economy, and making use of the local skill base.

Networks, productivity and innovation

Well-functioning city economies are identifiable in part by the maturity of their networks, and a wider sense of purpose - the sense that individuals are contributing to an overarching mission - can be achieved through developing strong relationships between the key economic actors.

Cities like Medellín in Colombia have developed innovation districts which make use of the interconnections between the civic, corporate and educational institutions to increase productivity, entrepreneurhsip, employment opportunities and inward investment. They do this by overlapping their functions, and although every place is different, activity can include:

  • universities provide local entrepreneurs with access to research facilities and equipment

  • businesses form close links with universities to develop spin-out companies

  • regional government provides the industrial strategy to direct endeavour

  • local government provides a permissive environment to enable development of land, and links the network with local communities that require reskilling or employment.

Innovation stemming from the network is testable in a real-world urban environment and local citizens receive the benefit of this in their everyday lives, generating support for the city experiment.

Democracy and inclusion

Against the backdrop of falling civic participation and political polarisation, the pandemic has spurned unprecedented numbers into voluntary action, with the growth of Mutual Aid networks a sign that our attitude towards personal responsibility for the care of others is shifting, at least for now.

Three quarters of the 27,500 millenials and Gen-Z-ers that the Deloitte survey consulted said that the pandemic had made them more sympathetic towards others' needs and that they intend to take actions to have a more positive impact on their communities. But if this sense of purpose is to be sustained, place design and governance has to enable it.


- Delloite Global Millennial Survey 2020

Places need to provide citizens with opportunities to participate and dispense with symbols of exclusion. Places that allow for public protest, debate and deliberative democracy will establish a link between the citizen, the place and the purpose, and this will in turn encourage people to feel invested in their locality.


Places and purpose

What is the purpose of a place?

Many places that developed with a specific purpose that is no longer fulfilled - among them industrial towns, seaside resorts and now many market towns and shopping centres - are struggling to create a new identity. As the Centre for Towns' Key Cities report (2018) noted, 'sucessful places are places with purpose.'

Some of the trends above point the way to a new direction for our places, as mediums to fulfil the desires of their citizens in the broader mission of sustainable living, fulfillment and wellbeing. As we have seen, behaviours are changing to achieve this and our places must adapt to meet new patterns of demand.

In enabling this process of adaptation, the overriding principle is civic participation. Every place is different and everyone should have the opportunity to voice and act on their desires for their place, with a recognition that these desires change over time. The alternative is the misguided, top-down utopianism of postwar urban development.

Placemakers, from developers to local authorities should provide the means and the frameworks for local self direction and organic growth. This approach alone can create the conditions for people to develop a purpose-driven identity for the places they live in.


Ben Stephenson is Director of BAS Consultancy, working with developers, BIDs, local authorities and communities on placemaking issues including post covid recovery, place identity, local governance and culture.

127 views0 comments


bottom of page