Tuesday saw a motley gathering of 40 or so people at The Lighthouse in Glasgow at a “Towns Summit” co-organised by Architecture + Design Scotland and the Scotland’s Towns Partnership. The workshop was convened on the back of three contexts:
1. The Mary Portas Review of high streets in England
2. The research evaluation of the Town Centres Regeneration Fund in Scotland (the Wheeler Report)
3. The Exhibition on the High Street developed by Architecture + Design Scotland, and running at The Lighthouse until 17th April 2012 (mentioned in this blog before).
The aim was to focus on “violent conversations” to shape a brief to inform the Regeneration Division of Scottish Government (and others in Government) and the development and work of the Scotland’s Towns Partnership.
These group conversations were stimulated by short 5 minute provocations produced by four so-called provocateurs:
b. Doug Wheeler, Director of Doug Wheeler Associates (the Wheeler Report)
c. Diarmid Lawlor, Head of Urbanism at Architecture + Design Scotland
d. and as a random factor, me (my 5 minute diatribe on anachronistic irrelevancies, nostalgic romanticism, cascading withdrawals, antiquated mindsets, dysfunctional property systems, vestigial appendices and impressions of Canute can be found here (A Provocation)).
Short, sharp discussions in groups followed to begin to set a new agenda for thinking about town centers in Scotland. Amongst the soundbite highlights were:
- The need for an Association of Town Agitators and a “Collection of Wierdos” to pressure for change
- A swathe of Town Centre Truth and Reconciliation Committees to be established, as we know (indeed maybe are) the guilty men and women and they should be made to put it right
- The development of a “Framework for Mess” to get us back to what town centres should all be about
- A “Do No Harm” ordinance for national government policy to create space for local actions.
All nice ideas, but what was being requested (demanded?) really was a substantive change in the way government and other agencies think and operate. How do we create spaces for things to happen rather than thinking we can create change centrally? How do we get rid of self-defeating and limiting key performance indicators, when we are really trying to enrich lives and places? Can we turn the town centre and the high street into the School, rather than isolating and compartmentalising everything? Which high streets and town centers will shrink and how, and which will die and how do we allow/encourage this – and possibly build in the potential to re-emerge?
As ever with town centres, the issues are complex and interrelated, but we have spent the last 50 years failing to recognise that the world has changed. As a consequence we have to urgently change how we are organised, how we think and what we do, especially as we reach tipping points and long-term economic withdrawal from many activities. The future of the town centre is not a simple case of redressing market failure, but is about building on genuine desires to see something exciting emerge and prosper. Easy to say, hard to do.
In the next few days I hope to append a short newsletter which will summarise the session better than I can. The formal newsletter summery of the morning is now available (Reimagining Alternative High Street Futures AM).
If you have not seen the Lighthouse exhibition, then you really should go and make your “can contribution” to the debates.