Authentic Placemaking

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Why would you not? Renton’s Trainspotting rant goes to the heart of ordinary life- the choices we make. If you could, what place would you choose? What place gives you the opportunity of choices, ordinary and extraordinary? What place doesn’t? What place motivates you to invest your time, to be part of something, to belong, to engender a sense of belonging?

If the heart of ‘place’ has something to do with enabling choices and belonging, choices to be, to make, to love, to finish, to die, then what if anything does this have to do with the way a place looks? The paradox of place is the people that make it: remote places work, contradictions matter, identity is no simple thing. Scotland works. It is a place.

Perhaps Scotland is not ‘a place’. Irish academic ConorSkehan says that ‘there is no singular landscape, there are landscapes, layers upon layers of them’. Similarly, there is no country, no identity, no city, there is only the plural. The plurality of place is not easy to deal with. In any place, narratives dominate and become the lens through which we see. We reduce the complexity of place to a simple, convenient story. And then we try to build this story, making physical one set of circumstances, one way of understanding the world. There is no Scotland. There are Scotland’s, and they don’t all sit easily. If this is true, then there is no urban design, no placemaking as a formalized process, just a sensitivity to working with the authenticity of place in time. The question is, do we actually make places this way?

Hegel tells us that the presence of the past is the basis of modernity. Modernity is both reflective and forward looking, a constantly temporary and complex state in the historic continuum. In Scotland, the past is everywhere, so much so that the present sometimes looks like the past, as does the future. Similarly, the landscape is present everywhere. In 1967, the Countryside Act defined 98% of Scotland as countryside, a literally overwhelming statistic that has not, despite aggressive development of the urban edge of settlements transformationally altered in over 40 years. The landscape and the past form two of the key narratives of Scotland, the place, how it is seen and how it is made. The paradox is that 80% of the population live in an urban area, making Scotland one of the most urban of contemporary nations.. These stories, these tensions, and the tensions between a country wrestling with the meaning of its Scottishness in an increasingly globalizing world form the basis of the making of modern Scotland, and its places.

The story of Scotland is more than the story of diverse physical contexts; it is also a political landscape, a landscape of tensions. The lowlands, central belt, the Trossachs, the Highlands and Islands each have both a landscape and a past which differentiates them physically and culturally. There are different identities, different buildings, different languages, different relationships to the coast, to England, to Scandinavia and to Ireland. Scotland is a people landscape, whose politic typically works at the small scale. Small differences matter, and are fiercely guarded. The concept of identity driving or derived from a local politic is in part re-enforced by the current nationalist administration who seek to decentralize power from the main cities to local places. This resonates to some degree with an ideal of community as locally constituted, distinctive, and separate. Local in this context is familiar, comforting, defensible. This is true at the scale of the nation and the neighbourhood. The problem of how to be local, and distinctive and be part of a bigger structure is a tension that is not distinctive to Scotland. Yet, of the 300 odd settlements in the country, over 30% have a population of less than 10,000. Small is big in this place.

These stories raise the fundamental question of what is it that Scotland wants to be, what kind of place, and for whom? What then does this place look like? The lens of identity shapes whether we see Scotland the local, or Scotland the global, and accordingly, the decisions we take about how we make the places of this country. Critical to the success of this discourse is a need to go beyond a simplistic and generic assumption that all placemaking is masterplanning, and that all masterplanning is about shaping perimeter blocks. Contemporary urban design is at a cross roads, not only in Scotland, but globally. Urban design generica is failing the idea of authentic placemaking. It is enabling lazy, homogenized thinking about what really matters and how it is delivered. It is time for a change. Scotland is a good place to start.

If choice and identity are central to what a place means, then we need to find a better way to expressing the idea of what a place should be.

There can be no singular vision; there can only be a loose framework which enables multiple visions to blossom, relating back to the choices people make from their point of view. Hegel has much to teach us. We need to work with the authentic story of place, in time and space. We are in the 21st century. Our modernity is a different place to the Scotland of David the first. Our economic, social and cultural context are different, as are political and global imperatives. But the broad physical setting of Scotland’s landscape remains similar in many ways. How then do we work with both contexts to create urban places of real authenticity, places that speak to people and our times, and to the historical story of why Scotland, this place is what it is? Discourse is central. It’s not an easy issue. It will not be an easy answer.

There is a beautiful sequence of spaces in Stromness in Orkney which follow the main street as it curves in axial delight along interior edge of this coastal town. To the left there are cuttings in the tight distinctive fabric connecting to the sea, with steps, upturned boats, cars being repaired, empty chairs and other evidence of people doing and having done things. To the right slender terraced gardens climb the slopes serving the houses that sit beside them. Not a cappuccino in sight, just a fantastic orchestra of scenes, memories, messy and neat spaces, people spaces, and people in the spaces. The place works. It is amazingly liveable, tolerant of human foible and eccentricity. It is a place where you can see evidence of the choices people make and the fundamental choice to belong. It has a powerful impact which transcends aesthetic issues. It’s about social life. Let’s chose life. Renton was right.

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Place and leadership

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