place-making and localism

george st, rotherham

The Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers – who are advising the government on how to support sustainable economic growth in the face of recession – has recently emphasised that better place-making can make a vital contribution to sustainable economic growth.

Integrating place-making and sustainable economic growth can contribute to a whole range of government ambitions – reduced worklessness, job creation, retention of wealth in local communities, personal development and citizen/community empowerment and better mental & physical health, for example, are some of the benefits that have emerged from programmes like BizFizz (run by the Civic Trust and New Economics Foundation throughout the UK).

Sustainable economic growth is the name of the game today in Scotland. But no-one can predict exactly how government policy will change in the future. The further we look ahead, the more difficult it becomes. But there are certain policy trends that have emerged in recent years that we can be fairly confident will continue. One of these is the desire to support sustainable and locally-based economic growth and voluntary action.

Behind this agenda lies an aspiration to move towards a culture of responsibility and empowerment – for both communities and individuals, and across many areas of public policy such as health, poverty, employment, the environment and others. This fits closely with the increased focus on social enterprise in recent years, coupled with an ever more clearly stated desire for genuine partnership between the public sector, the third sector, businesses and others.


One aspect of this cultural and political shift is the emergent growth of localism. To me, this encompasses a number of related concepts – decentralising services and power to local communities, promoting the role of social enterprise and community action in delivering services, the idea of producing and selling food locally, and community-based learning and skills development. These concepts support the increasing focus on sustainability in all its senses – social, economic and environmental.

Rural parts of the UK – such as the Highlands & Islands and the South West of England – have perhaps been most successful at implementing these concepts, but many national politicians across the board are keen to see them implemented more widely.

what is localism?

By localism, I mean encouraging small scale business, enterprise and activity, locally owned and community led. These organisations may be private businesses or self-employed people, or they could be voluntary sector organisations such as co-operatives, social enterprises and development trusts.

The common factor is that these enterprises are locally based and locally led. They rely on individual people, often but not always coming together in groups, to make commitments to their local community – and to take responsibility. Some enterprises may employ people and generate jobs. Others may be entirely voluntary run but still generate business and investment. And, in economic terms, locally led organisations keep money circulating locally – which must be of vital importance if we are to succeed in generating sustainable economic growth.

Despite many examples of successful locally based initatives across the country – from farmers’ markets to community power generation to healthy living centres – this form of community-based development and management still struggles to be seen as a viable model for development and economic growth. It is all too often seen as an adjunct to the real business of private/public sector led development.

Equally importantly, they are all part of the glue that holds communities together – giving individuals opportunities beyond those available in their working and home lives to learn skills, develop self-esteem, improve their physical and mental health, and so on.

Taken together, local enterprises make massive contributions to our communities and our economy – contributions that are easily overlooked because these enterprises are not as obvious as big employers. They are not big or iconic – they are ordinary. To borrow the phrase coined by Patrick Geddes, we need to Think Global, Act Local. We need to re-engage with the value of the small action and the power of the ordinary; the use of localism, and local distinctiveness, as the starting point for the vision of the future and the integration of identity with funding, planning and delivery of places.

If small enterprises and local initatives around the country were to be taken away, local communities and economies would be devastated. Quality of life and community spirit would plummet, unemployment and worklessness would soar.

So why do we not give localism more explicit support ?

integrating localism and place-making – towards sustainability

I believe there is massive scope for building better communities by integrating place-making – an activity which is largely focussed with physical proposals – with a localist approach to economic development as I’ve described above. Combining these agendas, which too often operate in complete isolation from each other, could help create community which are more sustainable – socially, economically and environmentally.

It’s still early days in this move towards integrating place-making and localism. Personally, I’m working with like-minded practitioners such as Willie Miller Urban Design to try to introduce these ideas as much as we can on individual projects – such as masterplans for Dounby, Finstown and St Margaret’s Hope for Orkney Islands Council.

Meanwhile I’m hoping that the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Plan, due to be launched later today, will lay a trail into this new territory. Let’s see.

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