In Profile: Kylie Legge, CEO of Place Score

A leading voice in placemaking, Kylie Legge is an architecture graduate, planner, place maker, author, facilitator, curator and entrepreneur. She is founding Director of Place Partners, a multidisciplinary placemaking consultancy based in Sydney, Australia and Place Score – the world’s first place experience measurement company.

How did you get started and find your unique career pathway?

My career has tended to veer off the beaten track. I’ve never been too worried about what other people think and am risk-hungry. I’m also interested in disruption – looking for better ways of doing things.

At 23 as an architecture grad I talked my way into an internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I lived a double life, working in a dive bar by night and at the most prestigious museum in the world by day.

It got to a point in New York where I’d been offered a position to stay on, but I knew if I took it I would never come back to Australia – no other job or place in the world would compare. I accepted a position with the University of NSW, lecturing on the history and symbolism of materials in architecture – the subject of my undergraduate thesis – so I returned to Australia. I also continued to work in curating and designing exhibitions communicating complex ideas about design and cities to the general public.

When I moved to Melbourne for my Masters in Planning I came across Village Well, one of the founders of placemaking in Australia. It struck me that this was the kind of disruptive but collaborative work I wanted to do.

I worked for Village Well for a few years before starting out on my own with my first company, Place Partners, in Sydney. This research-focused consultancy looks at how to create strategic self-sustaining places. About seven years ago we developed Place Score as an internal tool. It has now become our flagship evidence-based methodology for designing urban environments.

How does the work of Place Score differ from typical placemaking?

During consultation placemakers may hear a lot of opinions, but traditionally they end up being averaged out. Place Score has created a way to turn subjective, qualitative inputs from people into objective, quantitative data.

There are two kinds of fact-finding techniques we see used by traditional practitioners – the first is workshops, focus groups and surveys. The second is using secondary data such as spending patterns, tracking people’s movements via their phones and analysing social media to make assumptions about what the community wants.

Place Score fits between these two approaches and enhances them – we talk directly to the community – with purpose – so the data we gather is primary, not secondary. It is purpose-fit to what we are trying to measure and understand. 

We also ensure we’re hearing from a diverse group that represents the community. The old placemaking approach sometimes results in the future of a local government being decided by who attends a workshop – these participants are also often similar to those who have been elected and can result in a reiteration of the same voices over and over, solidifying status quo beliefs like ‘everyone wants more roads.’

There needs to be a shift in the way we perceive and validate truth. When we look at data about what communities want, number one on the list tends to be ‘elements of the natural environment’. ‘Car accessibility and parking’ is often perceived as being the most important – in reality it is often down around #30 out of 50.

The Place Score approach allows us to dig deeper from the loudest voices and opinion-based decision making to identify what’s really important to a community, what impacts them both positively and negatively. This is fundamentally User Experience (UX) for the built environment – we invented the term ‘PX’ to describe Place Experience, which is the human experience of urban environments.

The result is a collaborative process to create an environment that truly reflects the local people, culture and narrative.

Truth is sometimes difficult for people to discern in today’s world.

I think we will see a generational shift in education to give young people the skills and confidence to critique ideas and interrogate what they’re hearing. You can be really, really smart, but if you take everything at face value you won’t be able to understand and solve the problems that need solving.

One of my favourite quotes, from Michael Braungart and William McDonough, in their book ‘Cradle to Cradle’, that has really shaped my career, is: don’t be 10% better – be 100% good. For designers this can be a battle, as so many project stakeholders tend to be invested in the status quo. I believe design should be disruptive, to solve our big urban problems. To move away from coal, from car-centricity, towards a better world. Science-based solutions are integral to answering these challenges.

What continues to surprise you in your work?

As a designer we can never assume what a community actually values. Sometimes when we look into the data we have to rethink our position about what people want. The function and intention of a design should be about solving their problem, not mine.

An example of this came when we were looking at people living in high-density neighbourhoods in Sydney, to see what they cared about. I love a tree, and assumed this high-density community would want above all to see more green around them. However – the data came back with ‘the design of buildings’ rated in their top five values out of fifty. This surprised me, and I asked the team to re-check the data. Surely this community was starved of green spaces and trees? A revelation came from a friend who lives among skyscrapers, who said it made complete sense to them, because when they are up high in their home they’re looking out solely at other buildings. ‘I want the buildings I’m looking at to be of good quality,’ they said.

In this case, the big data challenged my assumption and revealed that we needed to ask more questions from the small data, the individual experiences.

Avoiding generalisations or assumptions – are there some key elements you see that are consistently important for public spaces?

Clean, green and social are three key themes we see for mainstream environments like town centres and parks.

Cleanliness and maintenance is universally valued at a much higher level than you might expect. The first generation of placemakers tended to be inspired by cool, grungy laneways and go for ‘authentic’ texture – things like palette furniture – thinking it would make spaces feel more comfortable and relaxed. However we cannot assume everyone wants this – young people for instance have the highest rate of alignment around cleanliness of the public realm being important to them.

The green element is hugely important for so many reasons – obviously the look of it is great but it can also provide shade, a barrier between you and the road for safety, reduces urban heat and improves biodiversity.

The social component is also valuable as it creates opportunities to connect with other people, in both commercial and non-commercial ways.

What role does street furniture play in public spaces?

If you want people to use town centres as social spaces, you really need to welcome them overtly. Street furniture can do that, helping to create a real sense of shared ownership and loyalty to a place.

Sitting is typically undervalued and not well understood in the role it plays in how humans use public spaces. It’s not enough to install seats with little understanding of behaviours around where and how people like to sit. In our recent project for Junction Court in Nowra the street furniture had multiple purposes – including creating a sense of enclosure, safety for carers with young children, and a real invitation for people to spend time without having to spend money.

We’ve seen the value of fostering high attachment to a place in how local shops have fared during the pandemic. Neighbourhoods who felt attached to local businesses continued to support them. Some places that had less connection to the community did suffer, the Sydney CBD for example, has tended to be geared towards business rather than community. I hope we’ll take on this lesson to rebalance the social and economic exchanges we plan for our public spaces going forward.

The social aspect is also important in combating loneliness in cities. When two people are sitting in a space, if they feel welcome and often come there, chances are they might smile at each other and even become friends. That opportunity is important for our neighbourhoods. This is why I’m passionate about seating.

Arc Seats create defensible spaces to help the community feel safe and comfortable in Junction Court, Nowra, designed by Place Score. Photo: Shoalhaven City Council.

What’s your vision for the future of placemaking?

I want there to be more accountability and equity in placemaking, to use an evidence base – not to prescribe solutions – but to set the right briefs to invest in the community we’re designing for.

We have the tools now to collect the performance data to show us which types of projects will have the most benefit to people, so we know that we’re truly working for the common good. Let’s use them.

In Profile is a Q&A series featuring influencers of the public realm: players in the public sphere with compelling stories, not always landscape architects or affiliated with Street Furniture Australia. To nominate an interviewee, contact 

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