“…think of your city as if it were a living work of art where citizens can involve and engage themselves in the creation of a transformed place … ordinary people can make the extraordinary happen, given the chance” Charles Landry, The Art of City Making, 2006 (pp 385/405)
Making better places is a fundamental part of regeneration and the Scottish Government’s aim of sustainable economic growth. But conventional ways of making places have, generally, not created places of the quality that the public demands: we often hear that many of the built environments we have created in recent decades have fallen short. Change is needed.
From planning reform to the Scottish Community Action Empowerment Plan, community involvement has become a cornerstone of government policy in the last five years. Despite good policy and guidance, there are still gaps: between the worlds of placemaking and community development, and between rhetoric and reality. On the ground across Scotland, I see professionals struggling to translate policy aspirations into action, and communities harbouring deep mistrust of government. Regeneration, placemaking and community empowerment are a long way from being true partners. And in terms of sustainable economic growth, the consequence of this is lost potential.
There should be no longer be any debate that successful places are not simply well-designed streets and buildings: they also have engaged and empowered communities. Regeneration should be as much about culture, confidence and self-esteem of communities, as about more conventional measures like design quality, jobs created and financial investment. Competitive places need to build not only financial and material wealth but also community well-being, as experience from Neilston’s Scottish Renaissance Town project and other initiatives shows.
Participation in planning communities is the focus of much excellent work by Planning Aid for Scotland, the Scottish Centre for Regeneration, the Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum and many others. This article is more concerned with how communities participate in the life of the place that is made or regenerated – which implies a focus on local communities making decisions and ‘doing things’: transport, healthcare, youth work and lots of other local services. That’s right, the Big Society. But behind the party politics, there has been much work in recent years to establish how the voluntary and public sectors could work together, from the DCLG’s Total Place programme to the Young Foundation and the New Economics Foundation.
Generally, it has been established that public sector service delivery should be driven as much, if not more, by community needs and aspirations as those of the organisations delivering the services. And by empowering communities to become involved in shaping, governing and delivering those services, there will be myriad benefits flowing “from people feeling more in control of their lives” (to quote the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Action Plan) – including sustainable economic growth.
There are a number of examples around the UK of this in action. Many local authorities and public agencies now organise the delivery of individual projects in partnership with local communities, as researched by the Young Foundation (Public Services and Civil Society Working Together, March 2010). Individually, these initiatives are successfully empowering local communities to be the focus of decisions about public service delivery – and achieving regeneration outcomes that build community well-being rather than just bricks and mortar.
But the potential is so much bigger. With more widespread enabling and empowerment of communities across local authorities or Community Planning partnerships, massive contributions could be made to sustainable economic growth and the country’s prosperity and well-being.
The Scottish Centre for Regeneration and Architecture + Design Scotland are exploring how to take this agenda forward in Scotland, and have published a fuller paper that Diarmaid Lawlor and I have written (350kb PDF download here). They are keen to discuss what people think about this analysis, the challenges, what is already happening, and who needs to be involved. If you’d like to find out more – or have any thoughts – please leave a comment below or contact me, Diarmaid Lawlor (A+DS) or Geraldine McAteer (SCR).