The Value of Resilient Places

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A PDF Version of this Report can be found here.

A recent Academy of Urbanism event entitled ‘The Value of Resilient Places’, co-sponsored by Architecture + Design Scotland, advocated the benefits of proactive urbanism in enabling places to be more economically and socially resilient, particularly in a recessionary climate.

A study tour of Central Edinburgh on 13th April finished at the Scottish Parliament where delegates had an opportunity to comment on a lively series of presentations that considered resilience in terms of local economics, transportation, and the morphology of Scottish placemaking.

Edinburgh proved an ideal location to debate urbanism and resilience ‘on the ground’, and the walking tour enjoyed an informed discussion reflecting on aspects of how change might be managed over time. An interesting insight was offered into how the City is proposing to proactively guide future development through the formation of a series of Area Development Frameworks.

Major themes emerging from the tour touched on the changing nature of public space and its capability to adapt over time; making the most of what already exists; working across the scales to generate wider benefit from individual projects; developing ‘resist and promote’ techniques to enable positive outcomes; the importance of local community involvement, along with issues of leadership and governance.

At the parliament building Neil McInroy, CEO of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, spoke of the importance of economic factors in creating resilient places that are adaptable to change, which can withstand and ‘bounce back’ from troubled times. Neil stated that we are in a challenging new economic paradigm, but that even in ‘good times’ development synonymous with a growing economy had not delivered successful places. Instead of measuring outcomes in terms of GDP, the creation of stronger places is reliant upon properly factoring in the social economy (e.g. ensuring conditions that foster good neighbourliness) along with public and commercial economies. Key messages were that:

  • traditional economic development hasn’t worked – decline still takes decades to turn around;
  • economic development models need to be smarter;
  • ‘resilience’ may be a sharper placemaking policy focus than the wider concept of sustainability.

Iain Docherty, professor of public policy and governance at Glasgow University, identified the value of major infrastructure investment in making high quality places. Several European examples were shown, and a question posed as to why things were not as successful in this country? In the case of transport investment it appeared that, as funding is demand derived, the opportunity to promote wider improved quality of life outcomes is being overlooked. A challenge exists for policy makers and government agencies to ensure that investment programmes achieve broader societal aims; linking place utility with the delivery of higher quality of life. An example quoted was that of improvements in health through the smoking ban; what might a similarly bold approach to transport policy achieve in quality of health through the creation of better quality places?

A third presentation on ‘Small is Beautiful – the Transformative Value of the Everyday Experience’ was delivered by Diarmaid Lawlor, Head of Urbanism at A&DS, along with Professor Sergio Porta and Dr Ombretta Romice from the Urban Design Studies Unit of University of Strathclyde. A major premise is that ‘big’ regeneration is not providing sufficient answers, and a challenge is to re-imagine how ‘massive amounts of small’ can enable local responses that offer more complex solutions, which are more resilient and adaptable to change over time. Concepts of ‘urban seeding’ and ‘plot based urbanism’ were proposed, whereby it is possible for atomised elements to flourish within a broader guiding framework.

The final presentation also referred to a collaborative research initiative between the University of Strathclyde and A&DS into the morphology of Scotland’s towns, presented in two publications entitled ‘An Comann’, and ‘Under the Microscope’. Analysis of how the urban morphology of towns has developed over time allows us to distinguish key elements that led to past failure or success – and demonstrate how an explosion in plot size, along with an associated reliance on the car, has eroded the quality, identity and resilience of our towns.

The need to ‘take a risk’ was commented on during the discussion, as was the need to explore how better quality resilient places can be delivered through proactive positive action. Resilience is an essential factor in making good places, and the presentations posed three major challenges for policy makers and practitioners:

  • We need to think differently about ‘growth’ and what this term represents, and recognise that economic policy is also placemaking policy and therefore social policy
  • We need to avoid short term investment decisions that focus on a narrow remit, which limit rather than stimulate future placemaking opportunities
  • We need to re-imagine how improved quality of life for ‘everyday’ citizens can be enabled through multiple fine rained actions that are rooted in, and promote, local communities.

The event culminated in nominations for The Urbanism Awards 2011 in the categories of City, Town, Neighbourhood, Street and Place, and the sponsors noted that through the Awards system and studying good practice examples greater knowledge and insight can be gained and disseminated about better placemaking.


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