Hannah Gardiner recently went to the Westminster Policy Forum event about the Future for Towns – considering priorities for policy, investment and developing ‘Town Deals’. She shares her reflections about moving from regeneration to generative places.
It’s great to see the government’s focus on regenerating towns, town centres and high streets. Although these are public-private spaces there is no doubt of the public benefits for community cohesion, reduction of social isolation and local sense of pride that a vibrant town centre can bring.
One reason we ended up in the current situation of inanimate and run-down town centres is that high streets have become dominated by national and international brands, so the decision to ‘cut’ a store is largely influenced by the bottom line and not the effect it might have on a locale. Our public realm has also suffered as spending cuts reduce capacity for the public sector’s traditional stewardship role.
“Our town centres are suffering a failure of place-keeping”
Those with the interests of the community squarely in their vision more naturally fit to place-keeping roles, and since 2010 we have seen the rise of community ownership, for example of pubs but in some cases even whole streets. These types of social organisations are run with a triple bottom line, and can prosper with very different profit margins. That is not to say that private enterprises and investors don’t play a role, they are an important part of the ecosystem. Indeed some businesses can be anchor organisations, providing a strategic contribution to the local community. This is a role they should be encouraged to explore and expand. It is pertinent to map where money and resources flow around individual locales, examine how current incentives are driving behaviour, and challenge the ‘trickle down’ narrative. Local authorities must utilise the tools at their disposal, but maintain their awareness that they can become disconnected from community needs/opportunities and embed checks and balances.
Quality public realm is crucial to the success of places, benefiting everyone, and improvements can be an important ‘quick win’ and catalyst. This was highlighted in both the recent Future of Seaside Towns report, and by the Mayor of Roeselare (Belgium) who, at the recent Westminster Policy forum, shared that greening of all parking lots had been a key regeneration action. However, these ‘spaces in between’ can’t be a side project and will need ongoing resource and stewardship to maintain their value, this must be considered at the design stage of any project.
Partnership is important in pragmatically addressing these points, and there are some great examples, for example the Future of Seaside Towns report references Blackpools’ Pride of Place Partnership, and the Penzance Place Shaping Board. The question is how can these partnerships be designed from the beginning so they will develop beyond the place-shaping and place-making roles to become dynamic place keepers in perpetuity? I don’t think we can completely future proof our places so we should try to future proof the organisations which hold them and can drive changes when necessary.
“Bureaucrats sometimes do not have the correct information,
whilst citizens and users of resources do” - Elinor Ostrom
Good partnerships need to have appropriate and balanced representation, some resource, and legitimacy. External focus, on things which mainly benefit those from outside the area, should be avoided, but investors should still be welcome around the table. A formal agreement may also aid longevity, as well as ensuring members and the public understand the continuing impact.
The welcome investments of the Future High Streets fund and others will reshape and revitalise places. I have written before about the opportunities of regeneration; let’s ensure the benefits are kept for the long term so we don’t just carry out regeneration projects but catalyse generative places and organisations to support continued prosperity.