Placemakers: how Fresh Concept is putting people first, growing communities and designing better Auckland spaces

Creating engaging spaces and connecting communities is the ethos of Fresh Concept. Simon van Praag, founder and managing director, and Adele Cubitt, place strategist, talk to Idealog about how the company came to be, working in the ‘now’, and how there’s never a dull moment when it comes to shaping peoples’ lives. 

You may not realise it but you’ve most likely been to something Fresh Concept has had a hand in; cinema screenings, food truck rallies, kite days and markets city-wide for both public and private clients.

Simon van Praag

Initially, van Praag says Fresh Concept was a response to the public tender for Silo Park, which it got seven years ago.

The way the company works is taking “a place and creative-led approach” to build communities. This, also known as placemaking, ranges from commercial parks to retail/business districts, to public spaces, and actual parks.

It utilises a local community's assets, inspiration and potential, with the intention of creating spaces that promote people's happiness and well-being.

Simply, it’s all about finding ways to infuse a sense of place and make people want to be there, rather than having to be there, says van Praag.

“We work often in a facilitating role, engaging and taking ideas from the community or from those working with the community, such as designers and council, ensuring people are at the heart of all we do.” 

He says Fresh Concept has become well-known as a conduit between clients, creatives, and the communities they are targeting. 

“We often work with the Arts and Culture team at Auckland Council doing just that. [Auckland Council] are great people, with stellar ideas and working with talented creatives. Our role is to connect the dots and make things happen on the ground.”

This is done through three main approaches, though sometimes the group are just called in as a sounding board, says van Praag.

“First, we provide strategies and creative ideas that will set a place apart and build its community, placemaking takes time, so it's giving the A to Z about how to do that; secondly, we deliver creative outputs that will draw people in and keep them coming back - events, activations, installations, communications, and other creative touchpoints; and, third, digital placemaking, where we engage and build communities through digital tools - the most obvious being social media, but we also use screens for more engaging and creative content.”

Silo Park summer calendar 

Silo Park is one of Fresh Concept’s most well-known success stories.

As with previous years, from Friday night to Sunday afternoon during the coming summer months there will be entertainment, food trucks and movies.

This year there’s been a twist put on the annual structure, Adele Cubitt, place strategist, says.

Instead of starting earlier in December, the Christmas programme will kick off next Thursday [21 December] until Christmas Eve.

“December is all about Christmas, and the summer programme starts in January… We just want to elevate the Christmas experience as people are always looking for something to do that weekend as its when families start to get together, or work has finished for the year and you want to have some fun,” she says.

This time there are a few new additions to the Christmas weekend and summer programme that are sure to get Aucklanders excited, such as piñata-making workshops and party to raise funds for the Auckland City mission, the debut of the Little Living Market designed to help people maximise small living spaces as Auckland densifies, and a morning offering.

The morning offering will take place on weekends from January till the end of April starting at 7am with coffee, pastries and healthy options.

 “There are all these people working in urbanism from architects to developers, whether its private or public but most focus on the long-term, focusing all about the future state; what’s going to happen down the line and what they are building towards. We focus solely on the people and the community that they’re trying to build in order to be able to see the future state but also give something that people can engage with right now. It’s about presence and looking forward to the future.”

Cubitt says this is being put on to meet the growing needs of the local community, with Wynyard Quarter welcoming its first residents in November.

“It’s offering them somewhere to come to have their neighbourhood type coffee, [the area] is also where bike and walking groups meet up.”

She says there are two things Silo offers that no one else does; it’s for everyone and it’s outside.

“It’s in this prime spot where you can go see the water and the city. I like the fact you can have a burger and a drink, listen to music sitting in the grass, you can’t really do that elsewhere in Auckland.”

Van Praag says Fresh Concept work on Silo Park with Panuku Development Auckland, a council-controlled organisation with a mandate to develop Auckland city.

“Our role is to help them achieve their goals and vision for the areas they are developing. Silo Park, for example, was all about creating a welcoming environment and community space that Aucklanders and international visitors would want to come to throughout Wynyard Quarter's development. We started when Wynyard Quarter wasn’t on anyone's map and it was a construction site, and now it's a place to be.”

As well as Silo Park, Fresh Concept are involved in numerous community and city-wide events, from locations as diverse as Smales Farm and Cornwall Park.

The company has also started Food Space, a group of food truck vendors and an online guide to promote and celebrate mobile food.

Cubitt says she sees Food Space as a joiner of people and makes gourmet food accessible for all.

“These are not flash in the pan type cooks, these are chefs who are amazing at what they do, but at an affordable price point.”

Van Praag adds the concept has been tested successfully in Auckland over the past few years and they intend to take it nationwide in 2018. 

He speaks with pride about the Queen's Birthday on Queens Wharf, another event working with Panuku Development Auckland which Fresh Concept ran for four years but no longer does so.

“It started small with 1,000 people over the weekend which has grown to 80,000. It’s a good example of our approach as the glue in running logistics at an event populated by community groups. It’s exciting but always brings challenges.”

The challenges for Fresh Concept include both the execution and approach of events, installations and activations.

“We can't be cookie-cutter with our ideas nor just do one-offs. It has to be bespoke to that place and the people we're trying to connect with, and ensure that the method will keep them coming back over time. There are lots of cultural, social, creative and even economic considerations. One glove doesn’t fit all, nor should it.”

Cubitt says a unique feature of Fresh Concept is that it works in the ‘now’, instead of focusing on the long-term.

 “There are all these people working in urbanism from architects to developers, whether its private or public but most focus on the long-term, focusing all about the future state; what’s going to happen down the line and what they are building towards,” says Cubitt.

“We focus solely on the people and the community that they’re trying to build in order to be able to see the future state but also give something that people can engage with right now. It’s about presence and looking forward to the future.”

So should councils be focusing on rates, roading and rubbish collection, rather than what could be seen as fun, feel-good and, to some, frivolous undertakings? Cubitt agrees the council should get the basic fundamentals right - especially to build trust with the public and ensure the city functions smoothly - but says it should also be helping to make the community that is Auckland, across all its four corners. 

“We need an environment where everyone can happily live collectively, whether it is in the neighbourhood that they live or where they work. Collectiveness means less loneliness, happier people, and better living – a city is nothing without its people.”

She says it does take an effort to make an environment work for people and make people come together. 

“The council's role – along with central government – is to often help make things possible, empower change and create an ecosystem where things happen.” 

She says the council’s role does need to go beyond one staff member, politics, or funding rounds. 

“It's kind of everyone's responsibility to build Auckland as a community.  The private sector in particular has a key role – they have land and are already investing, shaping and building our environments.”

Looking forward

When asked about international examples Auckland could look to, van Praag cites Melbourne as a great example. It's accessible as well as being known for both sporting and cultural experiences.

Amsterdam, “inspiring” Berlin, and some of the public art seen in North American cities are other examples he gives of places where great things are happening, but he says it’s an exciting time to be in Auckland.

It’s been a bit of a journey getting peoples’ heads around the concept of placemaking, says van Praag.

“People interpret it in different ways … Silo Park was a catalyst as private sector took notice.”

He says they have seen more commercial property owners realise people want more than just a workplace, and the “place side” is finally catching up to the fact it needs to do more for its leases and the surrounding neighbourhood, to really set them apart. 

“We’re honoured people take this work seriously, it’s a good sign of things to come.”

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