With CoDesign Studio CEO Valli Morphett

Placemaking is a term that has grown in popularity over the last five years, with different definitions and applications across different industries and occupations. So, over the course of July, we are hoping to provide you with a bit more clarity on the topic, starting with an interview with our CEO Valli Morphett. Hopefully, by the end of July, you will be able to better respond to the question: What is placemaking?


When did you first hear the word placemaking?

Placemaking has been around since the 1970s, inspired by writers such as Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte, who saw a burning need to design and adapt cities to meet the needs of people instead of cars.

“If you plan cities for cars & traffic, you get cars & traffic. If you plan for people & places, you get people & places.” Fred Kent, Founder of Project for Public Spaces.

Twenty years later this need is just as relevant as it ever was!

My first career was Landscape Architecture. While studying at RMIT I was exposed to the power of placemaking, but interestingly enough, was taught to integrate place practice in top-down design processes.

“People are the solution not the problem.”

I firmly believed that people are the solution, and not the problem - as was oft-expressed around me in that time and place. It was this ‘designer as expert’ lens that prompted me to completely pivot my career away from design, after 10+ years of landscape architectural practice, and move into community engagement and people-centred placemaking.


What does placemaking mean to you?

Placemaking is such a contested term. Talk to 10 different people and your will hear ten different interpretations. At CoDesign Studio we adopt the following definition:

"Placemaking is enabling and empowering people to create and activate places they love and feel connected to." – CoDesign Studio

No two places are the same. The systems and communities that surround them will always differ. My own preferred interpretation is orientated around complex interrelated systems.

Let me take you down a rabbit hole for a moment. Picture the earth as a tennis ball, floating in front of you. The systems we all live within are wrapped around the tennis ball like a delicate multilayered filigree.

There is the social web of family, friends, acquaintances, workmates, professional contacts and more that you interact with as you go about your life. The more social connections (also known as social capital) you have in the web the greater your support system is, to call on in times of challenge.

There is an economic system, movement of finance and distribution/exchange of goods and services, which extends into clusters, precincts and economic zones. The environmental system including both the natural ecosystems and built environment interventions such as cities, roads, electricity networks and more. Then there is the cultural system including language, education, arts and identity. There is an often overlooked fifth system that must be recognised too: technology and internet.

Each system layer is complex, dynamic and interrelated. If you drop a pin on our tennis ball, the one thing that all of these interlaced systems have in common is place. Place connects them all.

“Place is an expression, and a product, of the holistic system.”  

As a placemaker, our job is to re-orientate the system towards a more prosperous future; conducting an unfinished symphony, ever-changing.


Rupanyup, VIC, painted by artist Guido Van Helten.

Why is placemaking important?

Place is one of the three determinants of health. The postcode you live in is an indicator of your life expectancy. Loneliness kills as many people as smoking and heart disease (Grattan Institute 2018) and is predicted to meet epidemic proportions by 2025. We are facing a social health crisis - programs and projects that connect citizens to each other, through the one thing they have in common, their place (and associated systems), is more important than ever before.

“Place matters because people matter!”

Peoples health, wealth and happiness is determined by place. This is why I pivoted my career towards people-centred practice. This is why I believe deeply in the work we do at CoDesign Studio. Because if you plan for people and places, you get places people love.