Could Towns and Neighbourhood Districts Provide the Answer to a More Sustainable Form of Economic Growth and Equality?

Phil Prentice, Chief Executive Officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP), outlines the importance of the World Towns Leadership Summit, Edinburgh 15-16 June 2016, to shaping a global agenda and development strategy for towns and urban environments. 

On 15 and 16 June at the World Towns Leadership Summit we will have the thoughts of Michael Schuman,  the world’s leading social economist;  David Downey, Chief Executive of the IDA, the largest international towns agency; George Ferguson, the transformational Mayor of Bristol; Bulelwa Ngwena from Capetown; all alongside  renowned international urbanists and Scotland’s very own Prof Kevin Murray, on how can we make our towns and neighbourhoods better places to work and live.

Ahead of this gathering of world town leaders and urban development experts, it’s worth considering the importance of towns to equity and sustainable growth, and why we need a new global agenda on towns.

  • For the first time in human history there are more of us living in cities and urbanisations than in rural areas.
  • For the first time in human history the next generation, despite being the most educated generation ever, will be worse off than their parents due to income stagnation, unemployment and the gap in wealth.
  • For the first time in human history a mere 1% of the world’s population now owns more than half the world’s wealth.

The opportunities, contradictions and inequalities of urban growth and the transition to a globalised economy are evident wherever you look. Take Belgium as an example. It is a divided nation in which the once mineral rich south is home to the French-speaking Walloons, while the north is Flemish. The capital Brussels is also divided - they even take turns at having French and Flemish speaking mayors. Belgium’s wealth was once created in its industrial south, however the pendulum has turned and now it is the high tech north which is the wealth creator. In the north there are growing calls for independence from the south – sounds familiar and perhaps a little unfair – raising the question of what the future holds for the small post-industrial towns of Wallonia?

Across the world, towns and neighbourhoods are in this struggle. They are the largest scale for community, and the smallest scale for urbanity.

In the UK, Europe and the North America we have been relentlessly pursuing urbanisation and growth and looking to the likes of New York, London, Manchester, Los Angeles and Edinburgh to deliver prosperity for all. But have they?

Like Wallonia, what happens to the industrial North, to Detroit, to Cornwall and Wales, to Ireland and Scotland’s central belt and islands? Do we allow their towns and small cities to hollow out and slip into a coma-like state? Will we never learn the lessons from the past? Can the current Westminster Government do what the Scottish Government managed to  achieve in Motherwell and stand up to the task of salvaging the Port Talbot steelworks - not just to save the countless cost of destroying communities - but to retain 40,000 skilled jobs as well as valuable manufacturing capabilities?

Our society encourages political and economic power to cluster together. The direct result is that London and the south east of England, and Edinburgh in Scotland, have both become congested, with infrastructure stretched and their respective housing markets overheated. The same happens state-side and in major European agglomerations. The periphery suffers and the promise of networked transformation stalls.

But with the advent of new technologies and the need for improved productivity and equity; surely the obvious solution would be to distribute wealth and opportunity across regions and states more evenly. With the associated housebuilding, infrastructure improvements, digital investments and supply chain networks that would follow, all of this could create a sustainable revival which would enable our towns to create a decent lifestyle with a job and home to go with it. Not state handouts or art centres in ghost towns, but real jobs and a fair share. And towns themselves need to be agile in order to take the lead from successful places like Montreal, Vancouver or Bristol. Develop a niche, scale up in partnership with surrounding towns, create the conditions, then deliver the proposition. How many web designers, financial advisers, marketing, project executives or media staff wish they could ditch the commute and fumes for a countryside or coastal town idyll?

This call to action is now vital and with the right leadership, investment, coordination and vision, our towns and neighbourhoods can once more become a key element of global urban infrastructure. 

At the scale of nations, they are nodes of labour force, distinct local production and tourism. Across regions, networks of towns connect people and infrastructure at scale. Towns and neighbourhoods matter to the transformation of modern economies, promising value; blending local and global opportunities. Amongst the challenge lies opportunity. 

At the Scottish level it is fair to say that Scotland is a nation of towns, and that these towns are a storybook of our journey as a nation: they are about folklore and myth, wars and kings, poets and parliaments, our churches, landmarks, languages, traditions and industry. In short, towns define our culture and society, they shape who we are today: they are part of our DNA. 

And despite the continued drive toward urbanised city economies, two thirds of Scotland’s population still lives in its towns and villages. But towns face numerous challenges: the continued drift of talent and youth to city economies; structural changes in retail where we use tablets, online, click and collect, out of town and destination shops; the ongoing impact of the economic recession; dysfunctional property and housing markets; welfare reform; less disposable local income, and a fast shrinking public sector. Fundamentally towns are about people and although the way we live our lives has changed dramatically in a generation, we still depend on our towns for meeting friends, for shopping, entertainment, leisure, history, heritage, tourism, culture, public services and for transport. The places that we live in have a fundamental impact on our wellbeing, and successful places are where people feel engaged and where they play a role in owning, designing and shaping its future. 

The issues are complex… so in partnership with the International Downtown Association, BIDS and ATCM, Scotland is hosting the first ever World Towns Leadership Summit. On June 15th and 16th in Our Dynamic Earth, over 150 international leaders, thinkers, economists, architects and planners will come here to discuss new ideas and to explore new approaches, all with the goal of making our towns better places.

From this, we aim to produce the first World Towns Agreement – ‘A Public-Private-Social Vision for Urban Centres’.  Issued in advance to delegates and further refined at the Summit, it will have input from the United Nations Habitat Future of Places Programme, the World Economic Forum, URBACT, the International Economic Development Council, the Academy of Urbanism and the OECD.

Therefore we urge you to come and participate in this shared endeavour, to learn from each other, and to shape a town development strategy for the next generation which promotes equity and sustainable growth. 

Sponsored By …Connecting Scotland's Towns