What is the DNA of Scottish small towns

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Jan Gehl says that it takes 100 years to make a community. This is a useful timescale across which to consider the varying nature of urban places. Changes in employment, retailing, residential and other factors over the course of the twentieth century have challenged the dynamics and integrity of many Scottish small towns. Understanding morphological factors that shape settlements is essential to enabling a better future for Scotland’s places.

The University of Strathclyde Urban Design Studies Unit and Architecture + Design Scotland have collaborated on an initiative to consider how Scotland’s places have developed over the last 100 years. The research is presented in two publications. The first, entitled ‘An Comann’, traces the growth of 50 small Scottish towns since the mid nineteenth century. The second, ‘Under the Microscope’, looks in detail at 20 towns in terms of the ingredients of place – their plots, blocks and streets. Both works were developed by Joanna Hooi and Laura Hart, with Professor Sergio Porta and Dr. Ombretta Romice.

Studying places we have, to understand how and why they were built and especially how they could adapt and accommodate change through time, is an important element of learning how to make better places. Scotland has a rich heritage of making urban places in a range of settings that include: coastal, industrial, metropolitan and rural. Each of these contexts, along with social and economic factors, affects the structure and nature of urban places. A fuller appreciation of the spatial structure that has been sustaining the evolution of Scotland’s urban places will help to inform fine grained placemaking that adheres to our time’s needs.

The research was launched at a recent Academy of Urbanism event, co-sponsored by A&DS, which examined ‘Resilient Places’. Introductory presentations considered resilience from the point of view of local economics, transportation, and the morphology of Scottish placemaking featuring the’ An Comann’ and ‘Under the Microscope’ studies. A common theme emerging from the event relates to the significance of scale and how small scaled ingredients combine to create complex places where people want to be. The issue of resilience is key to making successful places. The event acknowledged a need to reconnect with the learning that exists in our places to enable better resilience.

Diarmaid Lawlor, Head of Urbanism at A&DS speaking at the event said that we need to re-imagine how to create better ordinary places by developing an approach based on ‘lots of small’. The ‘An Comann’ and ‘Under the Microscope’ work will be invaluable resources in thinking about how to make this a reality.

Speaking about the research, Professor Sergio Porta and Dr. Ombretta Romice made the case for a discipline of “Urban Seeding” as conducive to more adaptive and therefore responsive urban environments. Apparently there is a common structure that enhances self-organization of space and informal participation of inhabitants to urban change that can be detected and measured in un-planned or less-planned urban fabrics. It is this structure that should inform again a new – but timeless in nature – practice of “Plot-Based Urbanism”.

A Presentation on An Comann can be viewed below. To view in greater quality follow the link through to the Vimeo website.

An Comann – 50 Small Scottish Towns


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