“Make the boat go faster” An article for The Geographer Newsletter

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A published article in the recent ‘The Geographer‘ spring newsletter by Diarmaid Lawlor, A&DS , with support from Inverness Old Town Arts, which looks at the motivations to create the content and uses that might animate town centres, and make better use of the assets we already have to create the town centre experiences we might want.

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Make the boat go faster

Today, I met some skaters. They have taken over a shop in Inverness on a temporary lease. They are a community with a mission. They like to skate. That’s what they do, and that’s what they want to share. And they are good, real good. To get here, I have passed through the massive Cairngorms, beautifully dusted with snow. I am on a train from Edinburgh. It’s February. Christmas has passed. There isn’t much demand for shopping, for skating or anything else.

Sometime ago a colleague told me a story about a rowing team that won the Olympics. They were good, real good. No one though had them down as winners of the Olympics. They would do ok, give it a go, and be praised for it. But win? No.

Except. Except the team believed they could. They knew they could. They had a single purpose, to win. To get there, they had to negotiate all sorts of things; home life, training, dieting, psychology, work, rest, decisionmaking. Like anyone, they had a life full of demands, full of tensions. So how did they win, what was the strategy? For every single decision they had to make, whether it be more milk on the wheetabix, looking at tv a little longer, getting up or staying asleep, they asked a single question: will it make the boat go faster? Everybody in the entire team asked this question of themselves for every decision every day for every action. They won the Olympics.

So what? What does it have to do with town centres?

The skaters know they love to skate. To skate in a city like Inverness, you need to keep mixing up the things you do to create income to have the resource to support the skating. These skaters sell skating gear. They organise music performances, film nights, skate demonstrations. They sub let the space to others, to let people who want to have a go at setting up a business in the city centre have a go. They facilitate Saturday markets, they print t-shirts, they have a photography lab. When sales of skater stuff are low, they ramp up the other activities. When skater sales are high, they offer the opportunity of doing the other stuff to other people. Everything, everything they do is informed by a single purpose: let’s skate.

Except. Except that these guys are in Inverness, not Hoxton, not Temple Bar, not the Merchant City nor Brooklyn. They are here, in Inverness, where they are from, doing what they like doing. They know where they are and who they are. Their skater supplies come from down south. When it snows down south, no supplies get up to Inverness. When it snows in Inverness, no supplies get to Inverness. Despite that, they still do what they do. They mix it up. They are focused.They have an average age of about 22.

Talk to the establishment in Inverness. Who knows these guys are doing what they do? In all probability, it’s likely only a few. There probably were a few key supporters, people who were useful and helpful and worked with them to help make things happen. Hardly anyone else knows. Does it matter? Yes, it absolutely does. It matters because these skaters are investing in a place, bringing activity to the town centre, trying to make a difference often in spite of the efforts of others to regenerate the same centre. This is not collective thinking about the boat going faster.

Not far away is a bike shop. It is a social enterprise. It is a café, a workshop to learn bike skills, a place to buy stuff for bikes. It was established by a team of people building on an opportunity of funding from the Climate Challenge Fund. Creative thinking, working a funding opportunity into a sustainable long term legacy for a place around a single purpose: let’s bike. The café faces south. It catches the sun and coats the space in the most beautiful welcoming light. This is a place where you are likely to have the most compelling conversation about the most unexpected thing sitting at the table across from a stranger.

Not too far away is one of the most spectacular bookshops, possibly in the world. An old church cloaked in books from floor to ceiling, with a mezzanine overlooking a landscape of wisdom. It serves great tea and home made cakes. It is nearly impossible not to tempt personal bankruptcy in this space, and the friendly service makes more difficult to resist.

Nice stories. So what? The so what is this. Because of and in spite of the place, its bureaucracies, its spatial remoteness, the failing high street rhetoric, the lack of opportunity, the draw of other places, the lack of finance, the internet, the damn world, people are doing things. These are ‘to do’ stories. This a picture of a town as a verb, a place to do. Does it make sense in pure market terms, does it make sense in corporate terms, does it make sense in bureaucratic terms?
Who cares. It works. Go there. Meet these people. Experience the humility of people doing something because they believe in themselves, in the place, in the possibilities. Be inspired. Be challenged. Leave each of these places richer for the opportunity of people making a difference and ask: what can I do? How will it make the boat go faster?

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