Andrew Haley, Director of the Paul Hogarth Company, writes about the importance of community engagement for town development, and lessons learned from Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. 

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Timing is everything! It is amazing how the right conversation on the right day can be so inspirational! A chance ‘re-encounter’ with Phil Prentice at an Academy of Urbanism Conference in Dundee, followed by a longer chat at the Melting Pot in Edinburgh a few weeks later was certainly one of those moments.

We reflected on a project that we had worked on together 12 years ago, developing the Barrhead Regeneration Framework, when Phil was part of the Council’s client team and I was leading The Paul Hogarth Company in its Urban Design work for the consultancy team. It was great to put the legacy of the Framework in the context of Barrhead’s 2015 recognition as ‘Scotland’s most improved small/medium town’.

What a remarkably encouraging story that is, for all concerned.

Things have changed for the better in Barrhead, and things have also changed in relation to how we as professionals now approach projects. The vision for Barrhead was well researched and there was extensive dialogue with the Council and statutory parties … but incredibly little community engagement.

Community planning and creative means of engaging with groups and individuals is now, quite simply the way that we work. There’s no doubt that it is harder work. We listen much more than we did 12 years ago. We test and refine placemaking plans with school children, business leaders and people from wide-ranging backgrounds, as well as the Councils, of course. And we build capacity and sense of ownership. That approach has to be tailored to the needs of the project, whether big or small, to deliver the long-lasting benefits.

Our reflections on uplifting stories of regeneration then took us across the Irish Sea.

The Wild Atlantic Way at around 2,500Km long is now the longest designated driving route in the world, stretching along Ireland’s west coast, from Kinsale in the south to Innishowen in the north. But the success of that project in attracting around a million extra visitors last year had its roots in our community engagement process, which we started when we were at the earliest planning stages. That approach has meant that remote towns and villages all along the coast bought into the idea of this new, big tourism brand and the prospect of new visitors arriving. From those earliest days, the communities were being empowered to become ambassadors for their wonderful places and to offer hospitality and ‘on brand experiences’. Existing businesses have been sustained and new ones are flourishing – with micro distilleries, craft industries, activity centres, accommodation providers, bike hire and so much more.

The transition from community planning to civic stewardship is so important and has been central to our development of somewhere close to one hundred Masterplans for cities, towns and villages across Northern Ireland. Our work in Ballymena has been interesting, with good participation in the early Masterplanning of the Town and of the former military barracks site at St. Patricks. Then as we moved on to design and delivery of the town centre public realm work, we piloted a range of ideas of how the streets and spaces could be used, collecting information in relation to their success or otherwise. This information was used to inform the detail design, giving confidence to shop keepers, shoppers, community groups, taxi drivers amongst many others.

So, as we continue to travel the regeneration journey across Scotland and further afield and have the benefit of hindsight, it is good to draw out the lessons learned. We can provide encouragement through the inspirational stories that we can share. And, collaboratively we can play our respective parts in making our big places and small ones better places and increasingly resilient ones.

Andrew Haley

Director, The Paul Hogarth Company

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