Applying Placemaking Principles to Build a Better Workplace

High Line, San Francisco, Green Benefit District, Strategic Placemaking, Project for Public Spaces, Work PLACE, Work SPACE, Newmark Knight Frank’s Workplace Strategy and Human Experience
High Line in New York

By Evelyn Lee

The notion of placemaking was born in the 1960s through the aspirational ideas of writers like Jane Jacobs, who believed that the design of cities should focus on the people who live within. Recently, it has found a new life in prominent projects, including the High Line and more locally in San Francisco in the form of the nation’s first Green Benefit District (GBD), where property owners pay a small assessment to improve public space. Strategic Placemaking, cultivates vibrant, active neighborhoods, extending resident’s living rooms into their communities, and encourages individuals to be more interactive within the city fabric.

Considered both a process and a philosophy, at its heart, placemaking supports the development of overall community health while creating a positive impact on the majority. When applied to the workplace, it breeds a culture that ensures you retain your top talent while being attractive to potential new hires.

Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can share our public realm in order to maximize shared value.

~ Project for Public Spaces (

The notion of placemaking is something that workplace strategists utilize daily. It is in fact why we specialize in the Work PLACE vs. the Work SPACE. Taking the groundwork laid by the Project for Public Spaces for placemaking, let’s reframe their 11 principles to see exactly how they can be applied to the development of a better workplace.

The Community Knows Best
The design and function of the workplace need to consider all the people who use the space the most. Getting feedback from the workforce is important because they can tell you exactly what is and isn’t working as well as figure out what is most important to them going forward. If you only design for the vision of the leadership, you can be missing out on some crucial elements that are core to the happiness of your employees.

Places, Not Design
The design of work space is not purely about how many offices and workstations there are. Workplaces need to include the interdepartmental relationships between employees, clients, contractors, vendors and all those that interact with it. Amenities and their placement should be given careful consideration as a part of the processes. The office itself should be used as a tool that plays an active role in adding value to the business, rather than purely a capital expense.

Placemaking is a Group Effort
So often, decisions made around the workplace are done in a silo with direction from the leadership team, real estate team or individuals managing facilities. The best office design includes input from all facets and should be a process that includes everyone who has input in human resources, IT support, operations and the like.

Make and Act on Observations
All the sensor technology in the world cannot replace all the things that a proper ethnographic study of the office can uncover regarding space utilization, behaviors and processes. These types of assessments can be used to help identify new opportunities

Requires a Vision
Every project needs a vision to succeed. The best visions are established with input from the entire workforce with guidance from executive leadership.

Requires Patience
Creating a successful workplace does not happen overnight, and the first attempt may not always be successful. Make sure to manage employee expectations even while you are trying to create a workplace that better suits their needs.

Take time to consider what amenities and spaces mean the most to your employees and strategically place them in areas that will ensure they are used rather than built and left empty. For instance, if your office collaborates a lot and tends to paper their walls with post-it notes, do not create a lot of meeting rooms with large unmovable tables meant for formal presentations. Rather, integrate project or huddle rooms throughout the floor plate to support what your workforce may already be doing in other parts of the office.

Ignore Naysayers
Change is hard, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try new things in your workplace, and that those new things may be more beneficial to most of your employees.

Form Supports Function
If it has no function in the workplace, do not spend money on it.

Money Should Not Be an Issue
Taking everything that goes into workplace planning, an investment in the workplace is one that will ultimately benefit business outcomes positively.

Placemaking is an Ongoing Process
The way people work is constantly changing, especially as technology continues to evolve. As a tool that supports better business practices, the workplace should similarly be monitored and adjusted over time. These alternations do not have to come in a physical form. Changes in the workplace can occur in policy development, a move to flexible schedules or unassigned desks, remote work, or even something as mundane as a dress policy. Changes can also come in the form of technology and the integration of Artificial Intelligence into smart building systems that set-up the meeting room before any of the participants arrive.

Keep in mind the next time you go to refresh or create a new workspace, that your people should be at the heart of its creation. A properly designed workplace is meant to be a tool that enables your employees to show-up, be their best self, contribute to their work community and improve business outcomes.

Evelyn Lee, AIA is the West Coast Lead for Newmark Knight Frank’s Workplace Strategy and Human Experience team. She integrates her business and architecture background to create unique workplace strategies for her clients that reinforces the workspace as tool that increases employee engagement and drives business goals. For more information, visit or email Evelyn at evelyn.m.lee /at/

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