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Without their people, ‘places’ are an empty concept. Having been a delegate at the inaugural World Towns Leadership Summit in Edinburgh, Head of RSA Scotland Jamie Cooke reflects on the learning from the event.

People make Glasgow

It’s one of those statements that appears so bleedingly obvious as to defy the need for saying out loud. It is used in city campaigns such as that for Glasgow; shapes the reports produced by think tanks; and is held up as the basis of the planning and policy making of our cities, towns and regions. But the reality is that much of our decision making isn’t based on people making places, at least not in a positive sense. We see people as causing problems, messing up the carefully planned ‘visions’ produced by professionals, and generally being a bit awkward. We talk of smart cities, rather than smart citizens, and focus on infrastructure rather than the people who need to use it. And even where legislation is introduced that is intended to focus on people, such as the Scottish Government’s ambitious Community Empowerment Act, it misses the challenges of capacity (or lack thereof) which threaten to undermine its intentions. As an organisation committed to empowering citizens to use their capabilities and to tap into their Power to Create, this is a drive underpins much of our work at the RSA, in Scotland and beyond.

World towns leadership summit 2016


But I’m pleased to say there is hope, and there are examples of how it is being done differently. Edinburgh has just been the host for the inaugural World Towns Leadership Summit, a gathering of placemakers from across the world which I was lucky enough to attend. It was an incredibly uplifting experience, showcasing fascinating examples which are taking place across the globe, and very much with people at the centre of its thinking.

With contributions from Scottish Government Ministers, business leaders, planners and community activists amongst others, it represented a clear commitment to people-centred placemaking, demonstrated in the World Towns Framework agreed by delegates at the end, which embraced transparent governance and celebration of the unique identities of places. It was also a timely reminder that we can get too bogged down in discussions over whether we should be focussing on cities, towns or other urban sizings. Our urban centres are all collections of different numbers of neighbourhoods, which often have fluid boundaries and relevance to us, and we must ensure that we keep focussed on the different examples across the globe. This is one of the core aspects of the RSA’s current work through the Inclusive Growth Commission, (as well as our newly launched Fellow-led Building Inclusive Growth in Scotland Network) and there will be great opportunity for collaborative learning between the Commission and those involved in the Framework.

Inclusive Growth Commission

People-centred can be a flippant statement for policy makers and influencers to throw around, yet the examples which were shared showed that it is only by making our places focussed on the people that use them and live in them that we will see real difference.

Some snap shots of that included: 

A hugely inspiring contribution from Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, CEO of the Cape Town Partnership in South Africa. She talked us through the challenges that they have faced in Cape Town, a city with a history of racial segregation which divorces communities from each other. Their response has been to focus placemaking around creating socially cohesive communities, driven through the use of creativity and by harnessing the power of the private as well as public sectors.

A call to arms from Michael Shuman, the internationally renowned expert in economic localism. His tour through the importance of local businesses – a spend in a local business as opposed to a large scale chain business is 2.6 times more valuable to that local economy. His call was for pollinator entrepreneurs, who support the development of a wealth of local economic actors, who in turn can strengthen the vibrancy and impact of a place. For me, as with a number of the contributions to the Summit, these raise questions over the capacity of local communities to rise to opportunities which might be there, and demonstrate the need for organisations like the RSA and others to help develop those skills.

A fringe event on sustainability, which examined the work which SusTrans and Scottish Canals are carrying out in this area. I was particularly inspired by Scottish Canals’ work in the North Glasgow area, where they have used land under their control to reinvigorate a part of the city which had really been struggling. This started with their famous Phoenix Flowers, which as the Garscube Link had reconnected the north to the centre of the city; and is now expanding out into ambitious plans for new communities within an area of Glasgow which had become derelict. This is an area RSA Scotland will be looking to explore further, so watch this space, but is a sign of where different organisations across different sectors can make a tangible difference.

Tim Tompkins, President of the Times Square Alliance, explained how this most iconic of public spaces went from being a dangerous place at risk of demolition, to the vibrant heart of New York. This was achieved by bringing together the public, private and social; by celebrating the unique identity of Times Square but in appropriate fashion (as he put it, “quirky not creepy”); by working with architects and designers to refashion the environment; and by making a public space truly a space for the public.

This is only a snap shot of some of the topics that were covered, and I would recommend heading over to the website of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, the organisers of the Summit, to read more (and while you are there check out the excellent Understanding Scottish Places tool to find out more about Scotland’s towns). But they connect to the fundamental messages I took from the Summit – the linking of the public, private and social; the need to recognise the uniqueness of places and their heritage, whilst also looking to the future; and most crucially of all, never forgetting that while places help to make people, there is no doubting that people make places. We have much work to do, but if we keep these central to our work at the RSA in enriching society through ideas and action, then we really can help to make the places we live and work in places we want to be.

Jamie Cooke is Head of RSA Scotland. You can contact him at to discuss any of these ideas further, connect with him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Twitter @JamieACooke



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