For years, I’ve struggled with the concept of visioning. It’s always seemed to me like a bunch of well-meaning folk agree a motherhood-and-apple-pie vision for whatever it is they’re discussing – the condition of the roads, their town centre, law and order, whatever – and encapsulate it in a couple of positive sentences that says everything will be perfect in 10 years time if we deliver that vision.
I’ve struggled with this because, generally, I haven’t seen the point. Why? Because a few professionals agreeing what they want the future to be like doesn’t actually make the future happen. We can only really make our vision a reality if it’s everyone’s vision – if everybody else with a stake in that vision wants to make it happen too. And “everybody else” doesn’t just mean the powerful private and public organisations who decide where to build houses, offices, infrastructure and all the other bits of hardware that makes up our towns and cities. It also means you and me. Too often, policymakers forget the strength of the aggregated power of each individual choosing where to shop and spend their own personal money and time.
Recently, however, I’ve been enjoying a conversion to visioning. Part of the reason is summed up in this excellent blog post at New Geography. It makes completely clear why it’s important to establish your vision – in this case, what kind of city New York wants to become, so a pretty hefty subject – before you can possibly work out how to manage future change. It’s a short but powerful article which makes me think that many of our current plans for British towns and cities completely miss the point. So much of the time we obsess about how many houses to build and which green fields to develop without pausing to think: what kind of place are we trying to create here?
Inverness isn’t quite New York. But it is a fast growing city in a stunning setting with a strong sense of culture and history – which has attracted a few comments about the quality of its built environment and the sprawl of the new suburbs. Ideal conditions for establishing a vision to guide future change and growth, I would say, so that the future Inverness can build positively on its assets and sense of place. And, for this reason, Highland Council are currently working to prepare a new City Vision for Inverness, working in partnership with Architecture + Design Scotland and the British Council. (Architecture + Design Scotland have commissioned WMUD and myself to provide support on urban design and stakeholder engagement.) The point is to think about that question that is so often not asked: what kind of place are we trying to create here?
I am so positive about this particular visioning exercise because I believe it has real potential to tackle the reasons for my previous scepticism about visioning. There are a number of reasons for this:
Firstly, the ideas that will form the basis of the vision will come from creative thinking rooted in the local community – young people, businesses, residents and local institutions working together through a series of Future City Games: so we are starting a process of rooting the vision in the local community, which will continue over the next few months.
Secondly, there is political will – local politicians support the concept of the vision and the collaborative process for preparing it.
And, thirdly, there is a real possibility that the emerging vision will inform decision-making way beyond planning policy, but guide all aspects of managing future investment and change in the city.
So, what is the vision? I’ve no idea, nor can I even guess. It depends completely on the ideas that come out of the Future City Games this month. But, whatever the final vision, it will be a powerful tool to shape the future of Inverness – and a model for similar exercises elsewhere.