Geddes-Gram: We can’t afford not to ‘design forward’ for change – Karen Anderson

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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. We started by asking former Chair of A&DS Board, Karen Anderson, to answer our first Geddes-Gram. 

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

I love them all. I was aways a city dweller and loved the fact that whist I had a family at home in the compact part of Glasgow I lived in I could walk to work, the shops and the dry cleaners and my kids could walk to nursery, primary and secondary schools and later stagger home from night clubs! I am now in a village as I don’t need all of the above. I miss the city but I love the easy footpaths to long walks. The big thing is keeping the village alive. We are lucky having a hairdresser, a chemist, a ‘deli’, post office and a grocer – courtesy of our elderly population – but we need to support them or lose them!

What place in Scotland makes you happiest – and why?

There is a stretch of road north of Oban along the coast which I used to drive a lot with my kids while on holidays and going away week-ends. Driving that bit of road (very unsound!) makes me so happy. It’s full of good memories. I do get mad though now as they have wrecked it’s coastal charm with bad road barriers!!

Where do you go to get away from it all?

Anywhere I can be alone is good – even my desk.

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

I would put in place a ‘Neighbourhood Stewardship’ programme. With cash to pay locals to do what needs to be done in the public realm – take down superfluous bad signs, renew terrible pavements, plant street trees, making meeting and growing places, sort bins and provide attractive re-cycling points. We need to get folks sensitive again to what a good environment actually looks like and build ‘place pride’. Any area of tarmac over the size of two parked cars should have a tree!

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

I think our future societal challenges are huge – ageing population, jobs lost in the digital economy, loss of non-renewable resources , climate change etc… I actually think if we get it right the built environment will help us cope – building homes and changing to make places where people can come together to socialise and be creative; making sure buildings use energy and water wisely. The challenge is that we are not bold and far-seeing enough. We do not realise the collateral costs of our ‘make do’ development today. We are not ‘designing forward’ for change. We say we can’t afford to. We can’t afford not to!

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

For new physical design and amenity – I am a Malmo fan – I love its scale and the way it functions as both a proper neighbourhood for locals and a day destination for visitors.

Older places – so many of our places show us how urban design could be better. I love Stromness – as an example of how buildings can address the elements; accommodate workplaces but retain amenity; combine residential and commercial spaces; and at the same time adapt to today’s living and visitors and on top of all that calm the car!

For community activation – just check the Scottish Civic Trust ‘My Place’ Awards for communities we can learn from. A Place is not just about the buildings – what we do in it is the bigger point.


Anything make you mad in Scotland’s places?

Too often we don’t use Scotland’s best architects and don’t open up to the creative potential of sites and existing buildings. Instead we most often lose opportunities and are constrained by poor planning decisions, and developers with no imagination, inadequate budgets and no personal investment in the location in which they build. We let ugly and ‘brand’ buildings and houses get built. Everywhere is precious not just Conservation Areas!

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

Scotland is really small and basically still mostly beautiful! I think we are lucky we have nothing like the new mega cities of Asia and the Americas whose huge populations want to get out and see the world’s best places. Global tourism is already an issue in the hotspots of Venice, Dubrovnik, Santorini and Skye! Our places like medieval Edinburgh, Skara Brae, Culross are immensely precious, the challenge is to protect them but share them without losing them to an ever increasingly tourist-ville /theme park world.

Optimist or pessimist for our High Streets?

Optimist – but…..we need to truly re-invent them on an individual, ‘whole community’, driven way. We need to be creative, altruistic, energetic and committed to them!


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

Karen Anderson was chair of A&DS Board until 30 September 2018.

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