collaborative approaches to town centres: what should planners do differently?

This article was published in the Scottish Planner (August 2013), the journal of RTPI Scotland. I was RTPI Scotland’s representative on the Fraser Review of town centres, which reported to the Scottish Government in July 2013. The government’s response is due at the end of September 2013.

Kirkcudbright Tug o' War

But most importantly, the planning system cannot nurture the other ingredients that make town centres attractive, from cultural events to business startups. What does this tell me? That we need to know who can deliver those other vital ingredients, and to support and encourage them.

That’s why collaboration is one of the basic principles of the Fraser Review. No one individual group of people – planners, communities, businesses, whoever – can single-handedly create the town centres that our communities yearn for. We have to collaborate.

Collaboration doesn’t just happen. Like a good party, it needs careful thought and planning. And there lies the opportunity for us as a profession – as the party organisers.

Sweetie Shop

Let’s not pretend that we know how to create the perfect town centre. That’s not our job. Building and animating an attractive town centre is best left to business startups, investors, festival organisers, artists, young people and many others. If there’s one thing that I think ‘the professions’ are slow to understand, it’s that we should let people just do stuff. What superior knowledge have I to decide that a business should open a shop rather than a restaurant? Or that a bunch of young guys would be better off not building a new skatepark? It’s their time and money at risk, not mine. As a planner, I should encourage these ideas. If I think they’re in the wrong place, I should help find the right place.

Getting everyone to the town centre party is a vital job. Planners have the knowledge and skills to make things happen – facilitating, encouraging, enabling and brokering. If you’re not confident at those things, you can always develop your skills with Planning Aid for Scotland or other training providers.

What could we as individual planners do to get our town centres into better shape? Here are a few simple things which directly support the Fraser Review’s proposals:

Do your Local Development policies positively encourage investment and activity in town centres unless there’s a compelling reason not to?

Do you help applicants for planning permission navigate their way through the planning process, and introduce them to the other regulators they need for their proposal?

Do you contact the owners of vacant property to understand what help they need to invest in their land and buildings?

Do you support and co-ordinate businesses, community groups and public agencies to simply ‘do stuff’ in your town centre?

The Fraser Review says we need to encourage more creativity and new ideas in town centres. Let’s prove to Scotland that planners know what’s best for our town centres – not by trying to predict and provide, but by encouraging private businesses, social enterprises and community groups to invest their time and money in town centres. That’s what collaboration means. Making it happen would be an excellent contribution from the planning profession to revitalise Scotland’s town centres.

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