Geddes-Gram: “When everyone locally is involved great things can be achieved” – Alan Sim

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We have put together a series of questions to get to know what you think about the Scottish built environment, inspired by Sir Patrick Geddes, the pioneering urban planner and geographer. Here our Board Member Alan Sim answers our Geddes-Gram. 

What’s your favourite environment; town/city/country/village? 

I love going to cities, towns and villages I haven’t been to before and take in the buildings and spaces there, and see how people interact with them. Rome and the left bank in Paris are fantastic cities to observe people and places whether they be locals or tourists. Take a seat, sit back and look around and also look up to see the upper floors and roof scapes. It’s probably the planner in me. I do really enjoy and appreciate the setting and form of places through usually slow organic growth and the spaces created that give up the “lead on and see more” vistas and views.

What place in Scotland makes you happiest – and why?

This is a difficult question for me. I don’t have a place that makes me happiest. I do though have places in Scotland with very fond memories or where friends live that I go back to and enjoy revisiting. The East Neuk in Fife is one such place where the string of fishing and coastal villages with their strong association to the sea are gems. They are different in form and character and if I was an artist I would base myself there. The golf courses are magnificent, the coastline is superb to walk and the fish and chips are the real deal.

One other place I enjoy going to is the Gairloch area in the North West of Scotland. It takes me back to early family holidays. The scenery is simply stunning and takes your breath away as the light constantly changes over the sea and the mountains. Red Point beach is fabulous and the sea food, including the fish and chips, on offer are top notch.

Where do you go to get away from it all?

Depending where I am, my modus operandi to get away from it all is either on my own or in company to go for a long walk whether it be along a beach, to go into the countryside or to take an urban stroll round the city or town I am staying in. It’s not least great exercise for me and the opportunities are endless.

If you had a ‘place super power’ what would you do for Scotland’s places?

Our places are a product of countless generations of people who have built, lived, worked and played in them.  My “place super power” would be to create a machine that when required sent out energy waves that cast away from all of us the pessimism and inertia and replaced the negative with the positive. The energy waves would instil a greater interest, pride and above all a commitment to actively get involved in all of our places. Community empowerment is growing and when everyone locally is involved from the youngest to the oldest, great things can be achieved. From little acorns oak trees grow.

What do you think are our biggest challenges in the Built Environment?

Undoubtedly there are a number of big challenges to the built environment. They include; responding to Climate Change; the decreasing availability of resources for investment, and, the sub standards of design quality in some of the new developments that we are prepared to accept. What they all have in common is that they are complex and far reaching with no easy fixes. To address them will require communication, an understanding and acceptance that they do exist before we can start to formulate responses and solutions together.

What place here, or abroad, could we most learn from?

I remember when I was a planning student many years ago visiting Copenhagen and Amsterdam. It struck me then and still does how much behind we are on the integration of urban public transport. There the integration of train, car, bus, tram, bicycle and walking worked and is taken for granted. New developments are planned round their relationship with the transport networks. We are getting better but have some way to go to make up for the mistakes and omissions of the past. That said we have good examples of where it works but nothing like on a national framework. Unfortunately the availability and integration of rural public transport is at another lower level. Above all though wherever you live, life is a learning experience.

Anything make you mad in Scotland’s places?

Not a lot.

I do get irked sometimes with new development, particularly private housing, when the design is clearly off the shelf and is replicated wherever that builder happens to building. Worst of all is when the development’s site name has been gentrified to have a name or term incorporated such as “Manor”, “Heights,” and “Mews” where there is clearly no such association.

My other source of are the awards that highlight in the view of the non-local expert judging panel an eyesore that writes of a place in one go. The loss of confidence and morale felt by the communities affected must be significant. I would much rather the Awards took the opposite tack and promote the opportunities and sought to engage and work with the local community.

What has ‘Scotland the place’ got that we should protect forever?

We have had a fabulous summer and all of “Scotland the place” has been at its best. We are privileged to be able to enjoy a fabulous breadth of world best quality of landscapes and urban forms. Two indicators of that is the number of visitors to Scotland are increasing from around the world and our reputation as a small country in Europe is increasingly acknowledged. We must ensure that we always appreciate the value and the need to conserve and best develop “the places” we have. As a Planner by profession one tool in that objective is to ensure that our land use planning is kept up to date and is always relevant, robust and above all enables. It’s the outcomes not the process.

Optimist or pessimist for our High Streets?

Definitely optimistic, I am a glass full kind of a person. Every High Street is different although the evidence of stress and pressure may be replicated with empty shops and buildings, gap sites and less people using them. The effects of the changes in how we shop and bank, together with the amount of floor space out of town has been underestimated nationally. As a result our High Streets are having to increasingly adapt and change both in form and function. This will require understanding, flexibility, enthusiasm and a willingness to embrace major change. We need to be inclusive and work with the community in partnerships. Many High Streets demonstrate considerable resilience and for me there is a place for a centred High Street in every town and bigger village. There is no quick one stop solution but there are great examples nationally of locally based initiatives, approaches and developments that have worked and succeeded to varying degrees. More will develop.


Do you want to answer our Geddes-Gram in the future? Get in touch with us on

(updated October 2018)

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