Claire Daly, Policy and Communications Manager at Sustrans Scotland, writes about the key messages she took away from Scotland’s Towns Week, particularly around the importance of encouraging people to ‘get out and about’. Original source: Sustrans.

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Scotland’s Towns Week took place last month and considering that 60% of the population of Scotland lives in settlements of more than 15,000 people, there was a lot that is relevant for a majority of Scots. 

Run by Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) the week comprised of a series of events in towns across Scotland. As a supporter of STP we had a presence at Scotland’s Towns Conference in Paisley and at the Academy of Urbanism’s ‘There goes the Neighbourhood’ summit in Dundee.

Creating towns for people

One thing which particularly struck me throughout the talks at these events were that while many town centres and neighbourhoods are suffering from the effects of austerity and population shrinkage, others have found a way to create successful and attractive places in which people want to spend time and move through.

It’s not stating the obvious to say that towns that make it easy and enjoyable for people to walk, cycle, work and play in are the ones which are the most vibrant and successful. 

It is clear that it has become more important than ever to create places that people want go to, meet and stay in.

Getting people out and about

The key question is, what’s behind the success?

At the conference in Paisley, Simon Wall, Town Architect for Westport in County Mayo, delivered an inspirational talk on 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.

As one of Ireland’s ‘Smarter Travel Demonstration Towns’, Westport linked 70% of its residential areas with dedicated urban greenways, independent of vehicular circulation, creating a tapestry town of walking and cycling routes.

This network is connected to the new 45km 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.

Simon spoke about the importance of encouraging engagement and support from the community, he said it was absolutely critical to the success of this master plan.  

In particular, one comment from Simon stood out to me: “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”. 

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

The conference brought me back to the realities faced by 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. 

Transforming Neighbourhoods

At the 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 and 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” commented 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, the amenities will follow. Businesses will reopen, the connections will be made, communities will be solidified and joy will return."  

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