Communities Key to Transforming Neighbourhoods

By Claire Daly,
The Octagon in Westport, Ireland

Westport's urban realm was transformed nearly 20 years ago, leading to it being voted ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’ in 2012.

Scotland’s Towns Week took place last month. Maybe you noticed it, maybe it slipped below your radar. But given that 60% of the population of Scotland lives in settlements of more than 15,000 people, given that our biggest town have over 70,000 inhabitants, there was a lot that was, and is, relevant. 

Run by Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) the week comprised a series of events in towns across the country. As a supporter of STP we had a presence at the Scotland’s Towns Conference in Paisley and at the Academy of Urbanism’s ‘There goes the Neighbourhood’ summit in Dundee. 

A wide variety of topics and questions were discussed from housing and social mobility to connectivity, local economies and how to create vibrant neighbourhoods.

Creating towns for people

However one thing which particularly struck me throughout the talks was that while many town centres and neighbourhoods are suffering from the effects of austerity and population shrinkage, others have found a way to create successful and attractive places which people want to spend time in and move through.   

In the commuter town world of Sunday trips to retail parks, online shopping, and nights in with Netflix, it has become more important than ever to create places that people want go to, meet in, linger in and enjoy.  

It’s not stating the obvious to say that towns that make it easy, pleasant and enjoyable for people to browse (literally, not online), walk, cycle, work and play are the ones which are the most vibrant and successful.

Getting people out and about

The question is, what’s behind the success?

At the conference in Paisley, Simon Wall, Town Architect for Westport in County Mayo, delivered an inspirational talk on how nearly 20 years ago, a small, slightly rundown town in an economically disadvantaged part of Ireland developed a town Masterplan which provided the starting point for the transformation of the urban realm. 

The plan reduced car dominance in the market town, reversed housing trends and attracted people to live in the centre. It encouraged local business with shops and cafes and created a sense of civic pride that led the town to being voted ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’ in 2012.

And it wasn’t just pretty shopfronts.  As one of Ireland’s ‘Smarter Travel Demonstration Towns’, Westport has linked 70% of its residential areas with dedicated urban greenways independent of vehicular circulation, creating a tapestry of town walking and cycling routes.  This network is then connected to the new 45 km Great Western Greenway, which travels north linking Westport to a number of other towns along the Atlantic coastline, on the route of a disused Victorian railway line.  Local schools were provided with bike parking facilities and encouraged to use the Greenway and other local routes resulting in a move from just over 1% cycling and walking to school up to 15% in schools located on the greenway.

Getting engagement and support from the community was absolutely critical to the success of this master plan.  

In particular, I was struck by one comment from Simon where he spoke of the importance of being patient and working on projects at people’s pace: “Day to day, I spend 5% of my time at the desk and the drawing board. The other 95% of the time is talking to people and listening to people.”

I liked how Simon talked of how in taking out a car parking space, “you make your space work much harder”. He showed how something simple like taking out a single car parking space can benefit a town by providing a space for a semi mature tree, an artisan street vendor, a young family and their buggy, all enjoying the scene, neatly fitting into a 4.8m – 2.4m area. 

Delivering a personal experience

The conference brought me back to the realities faced by many small towns. I spoke to a retail consultant who had been dealing with small retail businesses in Scotland for the last five years where a recent survey he had conducted revealed that 50% of the businesses surveyed were not actually viable.  In other words, they were being kept open by owners not taking a salary, or working another job. 

His conclusion is that while in the past, the best retail outlets were defined by the range of products on offer, now, the key to success is through offering the experience, knowledge and expertise that can only be conveyed through personal contact. 

Transforming Neighbourhoods

At the Neighbourhood Summit in Dundee, the question of ‘how to create neighbourhoods’ was raised. Sustrans Scotland Senior Engineer Rowena Colpitts told the story of the Neighbourhood Street Design project in Dumfries. 

Of how the community came together to improve a neglected neighbourhood and in the process, how lasting friendships were forged. “I now know who I can borrow a cup of sugar from” was the comment of one resident. 

My conclusion can be summarised in five words: ‘Get People out and about!”. It can be expanded slightly to say ‘if you create places, neighbourhoods, town centres that are pleasant for people to walk, browse, cycle, play, enjoy arts, or to simply be in, the amenities will follow, the businesses will reopen, the connections will be made, communities will be solidified and joy will return. 

It might mean falling a bit behind on Netflix viewing, but I’d say that’s a small price to pay for healthy, happy and thriving neighbourhoods and towns fit for future generations.  

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