Essay of the week: Dreamscapes: imagining the perfect Scottish town

FOR a long time, it has been depressing to visit many of the towns that, historically, formed the bedrock of Scotland's industry and culture; places that, first as a native son and then as the child of economic migrants, I used to regard with deep-rooted, defiant pride - in spite of their defects.

To a boy from Cowdenbeath, it was always clear where those defects originated: social inequality meant that some got to exploit their talents, while others were quietly suffocated. Meanwhile the pillaging of our utilities, industries and natural resources, first under Thatcher, but maintained ever since, has allowed an increasingly callous economic system to transform thriving, hard-working towns into twilight zones, their confidence gone, their children unemployable, civic pride less defiant than forlorn. Fishing towns, steel towns, pit towns, towns where industrial craftsmen of the first order built ships, wove textiles and made what is, inarguably, the world's finest alcoholic beverage - all suffered in a changing climate where quality was sacrificed to short-term profits, working-class solidarity became a Citizen Smith caricature and independent shopkeepers were replaced by bland, non-native chains.

The establishment of Scotland's Towns Partnership (STP) is therefore both timely and welcome. The body has been set up to deliver the Town Centre Action Plan - the Scottish Government's drive to improve these urban areas, many of which have struggled to reinvent themselves following the loss of the industries that once defined them, and the shift to online shopping and out-of-town retail.

"While cities were quick to replace shipbuilding and manufacturing with finance, business services, education, retail and tourism," says the partnership's chief officer Phil Prentice, "our towns found it more difficult to reinvent their role and function."

Those towns are home to some 70% of Scotland's population, and as Mr Prentice points out, there is "no silver bullet solution" to the complex challenges confronting them. "A good start to the fight back is to energise and empower people and communities," he says. "We must look to the long term and be pragmatic as well as creative ... Let's look at how planning can embrace the key themes of accessibility, enterprise, digital, living, community and proactive planning."

It is a programme with which no sensible person would argue: urban sprawl not only eviscerates the town, it also has other environmental impacts, while the more accessible our towns become, especially to cyclists and pedestrians, the more likely they are to be enjoyable places to inhabit.

So, what might we come up with in our vision of the liveable 20th-century town? A model town that balances those themes that Mr Prentice sets out as primary to STP's goals (I will take the liberty of adding one other - ecological - which is no doubt implied in the STP list, but which seems worth foregrounding)? My own memories of living in two embattled working-class industrial towns suggests that certain key institutions cannot help but make any town a better place to live, no matter what other factors are in play.

For example, what single building was once deemed more worthy of pride, historically, than the central library? Once upon a time, a good library (preferably set in its own grounds and in a central location) was a place of learning, of private and sometimes idiosyncratic pleasures, an information point and a key landmark in any self-respecting town. Now, it seems, we use the web; which is to say, Wikipedia. Yet there are question over how reliable the web is, and how susceptible to manipulation.

A central library, with a range of information sources from books (especially local history and topography books), to guided web research, to expertise in digital narrative or documentary software, not only proclaims a town's commitment to learning and freedom of debate, it also acts as a serious focal point for its community. Add to it an art, or local history or specialist museum - one that responds to the history and ecology of the place - and a venue for musical and theatrical performances (to be used by both local and visiting artists) and any town could claim to have a cultural and intellectual heart. We would do better spending money on books and concerts, for example, than erecting the kind of dozy "public art" that has been foisted on all too many towns. This is not an argument against public art, of course, as much as an argument for quality. Anyone who has visited the "Bean" in Chicago can tell you how a great public artwork can draw people together and get them talking. And thinking.

Just as important as books and the pursuit of knowledge (according to the Romans at least), is what is increasingly being referred to as physical literacy. This means more than the old view of sport and recreation; it includes philosophical body-based disciplines such as yoga and Qi-Jong, various forms of healing, open spaces for Tai Chi practice, woodland or similar areas set aside for walking and running (no dogs, who need spaces elsewhere), cycle paths, kite-flying and rollerblading parks - the list goes on. In ancient times, such activities were not necessarily confined to sweaty gyms; they happened in the open and were as much spectator events as private workouts. The idea - for example, with open air Tai Chi - is that anyone can become inspired. No instruction is necessary at this stage: you simply watch and then, when the time is right, you join in. Later, you might seek a teacher, if you feel so inclined. Another activity that does well in public places is dance. How many people might be inspired to take up waltzing, or samba, if these could be freely practised in suitable public spaces?

All this talk of open-air martial arts and public spaces points to the one thing that is essential to a good dwelling place - and which so many of our towns lack. Cities often do better on green space, but there really is no reason why any town cannot open up fairly modest, but satisfactory green places even in its very centre. The opponent here is, naturally, the car - instead of the park, we get the car park - and in my own vision of the future the car is a huge sticking point. Yet with the provision of good public transport (ie local transport systems that connect directly with regional and national systems as seen in places like Berlin, or Manchester) the slow process of dissuading drivers from using their vehicles in town has a chance of success. Better public transport, and fewer of those ugly roads that randomly dissect towns into disconnected zones (and even, for the disabled, say, or the elderly, dangerous no-go areas), will increase accessibility for all - and the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Though perhaps what matters most, in town life, is access to one another through shared spaces and experiences where everyone can participate, equally, in the common weal. Looking back on my time in Cowdenbeath, what strikes me most is the importance of communal spaces to civic morale - whether they were the shared washhouses and drying greens behind my aunt's tenement building, where she and her neighbours exchanged news, recipes, knitting patterns and gossip, or the public park, where every year the Store Gala parade ended in a gathering of families, the parents in suits and summer dresses, the children competing in sporting events, or lolling on the grass by the monument, devouring the bags of sugary buns that the Co-operative handed out to anyone who completed the celebratory march through town.

At the time, it was just a welcome day out; but I look back now and remember that Gala Day was a celebration of community - of the work of the Co-operative movement, of solidarity in the face of social inequality and, for a time at least, of the instinctive internationalism that characterised this bastion of socialist and egalitarian values, long before the betrayal of New Labour.

I could go on. Because this is a personal vision, I could certainly go on at length about environmental issues in towns - mostly, because I think planners and other officials forget that we share our home places with other creatures. With birds, foxes, deer, bats, hedgehogs, voles and others. We rarely see them, but when we do, they add magic to our lives. I hope that, as it seeks the views of citizens on the future of urban spaces, STP will consider the vital part played by the non-human in the quality of our dwelling. What I hope for more, though, is a day when every citizen not only claims the right to fantasise, as I have done here, about the town she would like to live in and enjoy, but also feels that she is being listened to when she gives voice to her hopes - and fears.

Only a hardened cynic would regard the STP initiatives with anything less than cautious hope. Our towns have suffered too long from hardship, bad planning and the elevation of short-term commercial interests over the needs of citizens. Which is not to say that some serious questions don't remain. For example, who gets to decide on future investments in Scotland's towns? How will views be sought and how will they be reconciled? How much of the public money we will need to spend on this will go to existing business networks and opportunistic "community" groups? Will our notions of the good town be defined more by commercial and business interests than cultural, historic and civic values?

These are just some of the questions that face STP and, clearly, Mr Prentice and his colleagues have a difficult task ahead. Nevertheless, if we are prepared to learn from history (and from the natural world), I believe that, with the support of the townspeople they are pledged to assist, STP can make a real difference. The decisive factor being that the majority, and not just a subset, of the citizenry are permitted, and are prepared to take, an active part in re-envisioning the future.

In the recent past, we have seen how the establishment of so-called "stakeholders" in planning issues have privileged certain interests over others: history has shown that (for example) a landowner who seeks to impose an environmentally damaging "development" on a local area is all too often afforded "stakeholder" status, while those he is imposing upon - human and non-human - are not. Yes, "consultation" (often led and managed by financially compromised "developers" or their PR firms) has been a routine feature of the despoliation of landscapes and townscapes alike, but many who have been through a local consultation exercise know how false the process can be, and how cynical.

This is why it is so important for everyone to get involved in planning issues: not just to make our voices heard, en masse. All too often we feel, or are made to feel, unqualified to express a view, especially when confronted with people calling themselves "experts", but in town planning, in making places good to live in, there is only one type of expert. We, all of us, have a place-specific history, we all understand the basic requirements of a sustainable life and we, all of us, have those intangible needs that characterise the good life: the need for a dawn chorus on the walk to work, the need for intellectual and imaginative stimulation, the need for education and art and storytelling, the need to know that our children are safe and our sick are provided for. We are all stakeholders and none of us is more so than anyone else. To say otherwise is to deny the first principle of democracy.

This is the challenge to STP: yes, mistakes will be made, and true, some of the existing power structures that stand in the way of just and egalitarian town planning are still strong, but if Mr Prentice and his colleagues are able to seek out, and realise, even a half of what people want and need in town after town across the country, they will have begun a system of changes that will make Scotland a happier, healthier and more genuinely democratic country than it has aspired to be for a long time.

John Burnside is a TS Eliot Prize-winning poet (his most recent collection, All One Breath, is published by Jonathan Cape), as well as the author of several multi-award-winning novels and memoirs

PANEL: Improving Scotland's towns: how you can get involved

THE Scottish Towns Partnership exists to deliver the Scottish Government's Town Centre Action Plan, which emerged from the 2013 National Review of Towns. The Partnership aims is to engage local people in improving their towns. Over the coming months the Sunday Herald, the initiative's media partner, will profile some of Scotland's towns and highlight the challenges they face. We will shortly announce details of the Scotland's Most Improved Town Award: a new initiative to recognise efforts by community groups and organisations to make their own towns better places.

Source: Sunday Herald

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