The art of placemaking for online learning

[…] what seems to have happened is that we have simply lost the art of placemaking; or, put another way, we have lost the simple art of placemaking. We are good at putting up buildings but we are bad at making places.’ (Hunt 2000)

Since the onset of the pandemic the building has become a symbol of what has become lost through the move to online. However, we need to look carefully at the personal, material and social affordances of buildings to understand why the modes of engagement that emerge from them are more valued, and thus missed. What is it about buildings that makes them places? What is it about their loss that makes learning online ‘a problem’ (Zhou 2020), even if we have the technology to enable this?

Placemakers such as landscape architects and urban designers advocate that it is not just the buildings themselves, but the spaces that exist between them, that are the crucial to their success and the activators of community (Ahmadzadegan 2019). The co-presence of buildings, spaces and communities creates integrated design experiences which achieve successful developments. Place-making goes far beyond good quality pavements or street furniture (London First 2017).

I work at an institution that focuses on Build Environment education, and one of the UK’s only fully online universities. Academics and learning designers have been collaborating for the past two years to adopt placemaking principles as part of the learning design process, these were embedded in a newly designed online curriculum in Autumn 2020. Myself, and Dr James Ritson, our programme leader for Building Surveying discussed how placemaking principles have been embedded within UCEM’s digital pedagogy and how students have responded at this month’s Association of Learning Technology Conference.

We designed the session to be interactive, inviting participants into a conversation on placemaking to unravel the different values attributed to, and approaches taken in, the design of on ground and online spaces. We then explored how these differences may account for difficulties in developing presence and community in online education, and what we can learn from placemaking practice to enrich our online learning space designs.

You can watch our session on YouTube


  • Hunt, B (2001) keynote speech at HTA Architects, February 22, 2001. Available online: [accessed 13 May 2021)
  • Ahmadzadegan, S (2019) Place making and the art of mixed use. Dialogue Issue 32: Lifestyle and the future of cities. Gensler 2019
  • Zhou, N (2020) Up to 50% of university students unhappy with online learning, regulator finds The Guardian 1 December 2020
  • London First (2017) Not just a pretty place: A new agenda for shaping London. Gensler Available online: [accessed 13 May 2021]

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