Community Engagement

I fail to see how anyone can work (especially if a Professor) in a Business or Management School and not have any contact with businesses or organisations, or even worse, any interest in how business or organisations really work or how they interact with society.  For me it is vital for academics to get out and about and listen, discuss, debate and if possible assist in decisions and in shaping our world.  It helps that I also enjoy it!

But this is now a less common view that it was previously and such engagement is often not recognised by academic paymasters who’d prefer us to focus alone on academic papers in high-ranking academic journals.  But that’s a discussion for another day perhaps.

So, much of my ‘engagement’ is done on my own time and gets little, if any, acknowledgement as part of my academic role.  That’s why on two nights last week I was listening and presenting in two very different places in Scotland, but which share a very common concern – having pride in their place and seeking to improve their towns and town centres.

I am fortunate enough to be involved in a Charrette process in Neilston, led by Tom Sneddon, a board member of Development Trust Association Scotland.  The charrettes are designed to engage the local community in designing their town and town centre and improving what is there.

Last week’s charrette saw a large and hugely enthusiastic group discuss and debate the future of Neilston and the steps needed to enhance it.  My role was to listen and learn and to help stimulate the discussion on the high street.  It was a privilege, with two more formal events and other information gathering to be integrated and discussed with the community.

The following night I was the last speaker in an evening lecture series on town centres arranged by HADAS (Haddington and District Amenity Society).  Haddington is different to Neilston but again people came out to debate and discuss the future of retailing and specifically Haddington and its town centre.  Much of the groundwork has already been done here, as Haddington has produced a vision for its future and is now working on making it happen, based on its stunning urban fabric.

Despite being very different, at least two things linked the two events and the comments of the people present:

1.      In both places a sense of belonging and pride in place simply flowed out from the participants.  They like where they live and want to make it the best possible place they can.  These communities have not given up or don’t care; they want their say and their opportunity to shape and deliver it.

2.      So what’s stopping this?  The second common theme was a distinct sense of powerless and hopelessness due to the reactions and behaviours of the local council.  Now I can’t judge the rationality or truth in this view in Neilston and Haddington – council planners were present on both occasions, and it can be too easy to pass the blame to them – but in the face of communities coming together and trying to do positive things then surely the onus has to be on the council to help them, not to put barriers in their way.

If we can harness the enthusiasm and ideas shown in such places and show people that things can change and their views and desires can begin to be delivered, then we will stand a chance of having great places and towns across Scotland.  And academics should be out and about trying to make this happen, if only to realise the limits of their understanding of real places.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Academics, Charrettes, Community Development, Development Trusts, Government, High Streets, Places, Planning, Retail Planning, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Town Centres and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Community Engagement

  1. Douglas says:

    Well put! Although I’m sure some readers might wonder how it has become possible to profess without having a base in a constituency of stakeholders. While our conversations have become more and more specialised, the listening audience has declined and the relevance of the message diminished. Nobody’s listening any more and we have little to say. Time to change that!!

    • Leigh Sparks says:

      If you are a young or aspiring academic, how do you change that when all the levers are being pulled in the opposite direction? When you’re old and past it like me then you get away with doing what you want, some of the time.

  2. Stern but honest words Leigh. I have a particular interest in the inestimable Neilston community and so I might be in touch on that. Meantime a couple of responses:
    First, well said on the academic front. The accelerating ‘appartness’ of much of academia is becoming ever more apparent in the commercialisation and costly inaccessibility of much of its output. What care for academia and the commonweal? There again, that’s how successive UK Westminster Governments, especially the current one have wished it and cast it. If you are an academic team: with an interest in truly objective and community based research; autonomous of Government preferences on what ‘evidence’ it wants to hear; not motived by maximising revenue and status – how do you compete against the likes of some ‘think tanks’ (think of words like exchange and policy)?
    Second, let’s identify, respect and celebrate those academic institutions and individuals that *do* embed their researches and knowledge sharing, at least in large part, in ‘the community’. I for one would have no hesitation in citing those connected with the Glasgow Centre of Population & Health and the Glasgow GoWell project for their exemplar inter-weaving of the best rigorous standards of academic work, and individual academics, with robustly ‘real community’ based presence and context. (Declaration of interest; I have done work in the past for GCPH)

    Afterthought: Some people might of course equally apply your words about academia and community to parts of the top level leadership of what constitutes the ‘third sector’ in Scotland

    • Leigh Sparks says:

      Be interested in discussion about Neilston. Had another meeting last night – interesting views on what needs to be done, what could be done and the basis for change.

      In the retail arena Alan Hallsworth a few years ago wrote a piece on the privatisation of retail research which was of interest – let me know if you want a copy.

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