Claire Daly is the Policy and Communications Manager at Sustrans Scotland.
In the commuter town world of Sunday trips to retail parks, online shopping, and nights in with Netflix, it has become more important than ever to create places that people want go to, meet in, linger in and enjoy.It’s not stating the obvious to say that towns that make it easy, pleasant and enjoyable for people to browse (literally not online), walk, cycle, work and play are the ones which are the most vibrant and successful.
Getting people out and about
60% of the Scotland’s population lives in settlements of more than 15,000 people, and given that our biggest town has over 70,000 inhabitants, it’s worth looking at what makes a successful town.
Speaking at the Scotland’s Towns Partnership conference last November in Paisley, Simon Wall, Town Architect for Westport in County Mayo, delivered an inspirational talk on the town’s development. He covered how nearly 20 years ago, a small, slightly rundown town in an economically disadvantaged part of Ireland developed a town Masterplan which provided the starting point for the transformation of the urban realm.
The plan reduced car dominance in the market town, reversed housing trends and attracted people to live in the centre. It encouraged local business with shops and cafes and created a sense of civic pride that led the town to being voted ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’ in 2012.
And it wasn’t just pretty shopfronts. As one of Ireland’s ‘Smarter Travel Demonstration Towns’, Westport has linked 70% of its residential areas with dedicated urban greenways independent of vehicular circulation, creating a tapestry of town walking and cycling routes. This network is then connected to the new 45 km Great Western Greenway, which travels north linking Westport to a number of other towns along the Atlantic coastline, on the route of a disused Victorian railway line. Local schools were provided with bike parking facilities and encouraged to use the Greenway and other local routes resulting in a move from just over 1% cycling and walking to school up to 15% in schools located on the greenway.
Getting engagement and support from the community was absolutely critical to the success of this master plan.
Simon stressed the importance of being patient and working on projects at people’s pace: “Day to day, I spend 5% of my time at the desk and the drawing board. The other 95% of the time is talking to people and listening to people.”
It was interesting to hear Simon talking of how in taking out a car parking space, “you make your space work much harder”. He showed how something simple like taking out a single car parking space can benefit a town by providing a space for a semi mature tree, an artisan street vendor, a young family and their buggy, all enjoying the scene, neatly fitting into a 4.8m – 2.4m area.
Delivering a personal experience
Of course, there are harsh realities facing many small towns. I spoke to a retail consultant who had been dealing with small retail businesses in Scotland for the last five years where a recent survey he had conducted revealed that 50% of the businesses surveyed were not actually viable. In other words, they were being kept open by owners not taking a salary, or working another job.
His conclusion is that while in the past, the best retail outlets were defined by the range of products on offer, now, the key to success is through offering the experience, knowledge and expertise that can only be conveyed through personal contact.
As part of Scotland’s Towns Week, The Academy of Urbanism held a Neighbourhood Summit in Dundee. The question of ‘how to create neighbourhoods’ was raised. Sustrans Scotland Senior Engineer Rowena Colpitts told the story of the Neighbourhood Street Design project in Dumfries.
Of how the community came together to improve a neglected neighbourhood and in the process, how lasting friendships were forged. “I now know who I can borrow a cup of sugar from” was the comment of one resident.
My conclusion can be summarised in five words: ‘Get People out and about!”. It can be expanded slightly to say ‘if you create places, neighbourhoods, town centres that are pleasant for people to walk, browse, cycle, play, enjoy arts, or to simply be in, then the amenities will follow, the businesses will reopen, the connections will be made, communities will be solidified and joy will return.
It might mean falling a bit behind on Netflix viewing, but I’d say that’s a small price to pay for healthy, happy and thriving neighbourhoods and towns fit for future generations.