The current debates and reviews into town centres and the plight of the high street is, at so many levels, a debate about the importance and meaning of place. It is no surprise therefore that the most recent issue of the newsletter of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society is devoted to the subject of town centres as places.
Edited by the RSGS Chief Executive Mike Robinson with content assistance by my colleague Anne Findlay, eleven short papers or commentaries around the topic are presented, from a range of perspectives and viewpoints:
1. Anne Findlay and Leigh Sparks – Scotland’s Town Centres – looking to the future
2. Andreas Coca-Stefaniak – A Strategic Approach – a must or a maybe?
3. Michael Pacione – The Changing Geography of Urban Retailing in the UK
4. Marion Roberts – Expanding the Night-time Economy
5. Lindsay Lennie – Warm Fronts – the town centre timeline
6. Ian Davison Porter – Business Improvement Districts
7. Malcolm Fraser – A Social Scottish Townscape
8. David Cook – Give the Space Away
9. Wendy Reid – Community-led Regeneration
10. Mike Lydon – Tactical Urbanism – an American perspective
11. Diarmaid Lawlor – Make the Boat go Faster
There is no space to consider in this post everything said in the newsletter, so if you want to follow up then the people to contact in the first instance are the RSGS (firstname.lastname@example.org) or for our piece you can download it here and deal with us directly!
Nonetheless some of the comments and ideas bear repeating.
Lindsay Lennie points out the way in which town centres connect us to the past through the many historical shop fronts in our towns. She suggests how rich a heritage we have if we look around and how important it is to retain and conserve elements that strengthen our sense of place and belonging. For Lindsay that means much of out recent retail design, being inherently unsatisfactory, should be re-thought as we look anew at design and our high streets.
Malcolm Fraser (Chair of the soon to be published Scottish Government National Review of Town Centres) focuses on the disconnect between the places we like and the way we live every day. Our Scottish Towns are to Malcolm the true eco-towns and he believes we have a generational opportunity to knit together creativity, community, sustainability and accessibility in these places.
David Cook (Wasps Artists’ Studios) argues that the solution to empty space in high streets is simple – give the space away, to artists, designers, social entrepreneurs. And in a linked thought, Mike Lydon argues for ‘tactical urbanism’ or ‘planning without plans’. Both approaches are about letting stuff happen and seeing and learning from the sometimes messy outcomes. Similarly Diarmaid Lawlor argues for turning the word ‘town’ from a noun to a verb – seeing towns as places to do things. As he ends his journey through a couple of Inverness shops: ‘Go there. Meet these people. Experience the humility of people doing something because they believe in themselves, in the place, in the possibilities. Be inspired. Be challenged. Leave each of these places richer for the opportunity of people making a difference’.
Geographers are inherently interested in place and its many dimensions and these contributions, though not necessarily by geographers, but certainly about place, point to the significance of people and places and critical need to link them together more creatively, sustainably and personally. What’s stopping us at least trying?
i wonder if there is merit in considering the emotional attachment that people have to town centres. One of my rites of passage as a teenager was to get on train from my village in Oxfordshire and go to Reading on a Saturday morning. I now see my daughters expressing their independnc in a similar way now living in Manchester. Perhaps the town centre hasn’t identified clearly enough its niche markets and how to develop them?
I agree. I think that many towns have little idea of what they are trying to do and for whom. There is an assumption of attraction which is not borne out in reality.