Guest post: Three things I’ve learned in my local coffee shop

By Steve MacDouell

If you were to walk into my neighbourhood coffee shop, you’d see the usual suspects: Joey, a body and mind professional, who would be talking to someone about Finnish saunas, metal music, and the human condition; Arielle, the local city councillor, who would be conversing with her constituents about their ideas and hopes for the neighbourhood; Alexis, a writer, who would be sipping an americano, plugging away at her book, and scrolling through funny dog gifs; and Brittney, Jen, and Emily, three friends who, on a weekly basis, come together to talk about the joys and complexities of life all the while trying to keep their pre-school aged children occupied. This coffee shop, like many others, is a place where people are invited to sit, to catch up on some email, and to, potentially, encounter a few of their neighbours — all while enjoying a hot, caffeinated beverage.

Third places — that is, places where people can enjoy the company of others outside of their workplaces and homes — are critical to the well-being of our neighbourhoods. From public parks and libraries to pubs and playgrounds, these places are impacting our localities in both subtle and significant ways. For our communities to thrive, we need third places where ideas can be shared, where everyone is welcome to belong, and where relationships, over time, can be fostered. Ray Oldenburg, urban sociologist and author of The Great Good Place, emphasizes the importance of these kinds of places in this way:

“Most needed are those ‘third places’ which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life…Though a radically different kind of setting from the home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy.”

After a few years of sitting in the same coffee shop, I’ve come to realize that third places have much to teach us about our neighbourhoods and the people we share them with.

In the spirit of celebrating the third places in our cities, here are three things that I’ve learned in my local coffee shop:

People want to linger in places where they can be seen, heard, and known

There is something about your local barista knowing your coffee order that grounds you in a place. It’s one of the small, subtle ways that I started to feel like a character in the story of my neighbourhood. This vague familiarity would go on to spark brief conversations between the staff and I, which led to more robust exchanges around our unique interests, our vocational endeavours, and our shared hopes for the neighbourhood. They began to introduce me to other locals in the shop which led to more conversations and to a broader network of connection. Additionally, the shop is small, so sharing tables with my neighbours became a normal practice. At times, these shared table experiences sparked meaningful interactions, and at other times, it just led to more spilt coffee. As weeks turned into months, strangers became friends, a sense of community started to be formed, and feelings of familiarity began to take root.

It’s often within the relational ecosystem of a local coffee shop that we encounter the people we’ve actually shared close proximity with for a long time. We start to put names to faces that we’ve seen in passing, and we begin to feel a little more noticed ourselves—which taps into our human longing to know others and be known by others. In this sense, coffee shops provide far more than local economic benefits and enjoyable products; they offer a space where trust can be formed — and where hospitality can be extended — between neighbours. While turning up, sipping coffee, and being open to connection seems like a small act, the cumulative impact of doing so can’t be quickly dismissed.

People long for places where contextual ideas—for the common good of the neighbourhood—can be inspired

The collision of humanity that occurs in a local coffee shop has a way of catalyzing ideas that, if leveraged well, can go on to improve the well-being of our neighbourhoods. This occurs, in part, because the individuals who spend time in these places will have some sense of the contextual opportunities that exist locally and because the social nature of a coffee shop can lend itself to a high concentration of neighbourly interactions. Over the years, spending time in my local coffee shop has opened up different collaborate engagements with my neighbours: from cocktail nights, dinner parties, and social clubs to playgroups, TED-style events, and tactical urbanism projects. The seeds of these ideas were planted and cultivated through ongoing conversations over lattes and laptops.

The local impact that can come out of a coffee shop is nothing new; historically, these places have played a key role in shaping the social, political, creative, and intellectual pursuits of cities. Take, for example, the coffeehouses of London in the 1670s. The open, political dialogue that occurred in these places was subversive enough that it caused nervousness in the powers that be, so much so that Charles II tried to have them shut down. If you were looking to be involved in political dialogue during the French Revolution, you could find it in a Parisian café, and if you were an anti-Communist dissident in Prague after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, you could conspire with kindred spirits at Café Slavia. Some, like German sociologist and philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, have even gone on to argue that the coffeehouses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped lay the foundation for the liberal Enlightenment.

While revolution might not break out in our local coffee shops, these important places still inspire dialogue, ideas, and collaboration, all of which can go on to make a tangible impact on neighbourhoods and cities.

People are attached to the places that they experience with all of their senses

Over the past few years, I’ve taken a number of road trips across the United States. Whenever I’m in a new city, I try to sit in a few local coffee spots to taste their product, to meet a few locals, and to get a sense of what’s happening in the neighbourhood. While I’ve enjoyed some great coffee and met some interesting people along the way, I’ve always felt like a visitor in these places—and this makes sense. The coffee tastes a little different than what I’m used to; the aesthetic, while often similar, is not quite the same as my local coffee shop; and the people are friendly, but I’m not connected to their stories in the same way that I am to those of my neighbours. Visiting these places is always a welcomed experience, but it never quite feels like home.

The hours I’ve spent in my local coffee shop have increased my level of attachment to my neighbourhood and the people who inhabit it—which, over time, has made me less likely to dream of being somewhere else. While I love to travel, being elsewhere has made me more appreciative of the people and the places that are familiar, reminding me of just how much I continue to receive within the ordinary rhythms of life in the places I call home.

Third places play a critical role in the strength, resilience, and interconnectedness of our cities. Whether your third place is a coffee shop, a community centre, or a local McDonald’s, spending time in these places can move us toward the people, the stories, and the opportunities that exist all around us. While these places will not solve all of the urgent problems that our cities face, the tangible benefits that they offer our communities should be celebrated.


Steve MacDouell is a professor at @FanshaweCollege in London, Ontario, and a senior community fellow at @TheGoodCityCo, a civic organisation that creates projects to help citizens take greater ownership over the places they call home. Steve also writes posts on community formation, place and neighbourliness. This post originally appeared on Steve’s own blog.

Is this the future of social housing?

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

Last year, a development of 105 homes on the outskirts of Norwich became the first social housing project to win the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize.

The Goldsmith Street estate was built by London architecture firm Mikhail Riches for Norwich City Council, and is the largest Passivhaus scheme in the UK. Passivhaus is an approach to building that provides a high level of occupant comfort while using very little energy for heating and cooling.

Goldsmith Street has been carefully thought through, and adjusted to take account of changing economic and environmental circumstances. In 2008, Norwich City Council selected Mikhail Riches to design the estate. The council had intended to sell the site to a local housing provider, but when the financial crash happened, the council decided to develop the site itself.

The architects have striven to ensure that the development acknowledges the historic context of the site:

“The design seeks to re-introduce streets and houses in an area of the city which is otherwise dominated by 20th century blocks of flats… Street widths are intentionally narrow at 14m, emulating the 19th century model.”

The homes themselves have been built to strict Passivhaus standards which include:

  • very high levels of insulation;
  • extremely high performance windows with insulated frames;
  • airtight building fabric;
  • ‘thermal bridge free’ construction;
  • a mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Passivhaus standards typically reduce heating energy consumption by up to 90% as compared to traditional housing. For residents in the Goldsmith Street development, heating bills should be about £150 a year.

Eco friendly housing

In recent years, local authorities and housing associations have been responding to the increasing demands for housing stock to have lower maintenance costs, lower energy costs and fewer emissions of carbon and other gases that can be harmful to the environment and human health.

The Passivhaus Trust has highlighted a growing number of local councils and housing associations that have been exploring Passivhaus standards as a way of tackling these issues.

One of the most ambitious social housing Passivhaus projects is Agar Grove in the London Borough of Camden. Previously a 1960s estate with an unenviable reputation, Agar Grove has been rebuilt with affordable and energy efficient homes. The first phase, involving 38 social rented homes was completed in 2018, and has already won awards for sustainability and community consultation. Once complete, the 500-home estate will be the largest Passivhaus development in the UK.

Cunningham House, Glasgow: Page\Park Architects

In Glasgow, the city’s first Passivhaus development for social rent was opened by Shettleston Housing Association in September 2019. The project provides nineteen new homes for older people in an innovative design that combines a five storey Passivhaus tower with a converted church building. All of the homes benefit from high levels of thermal insulation to augment the sandstone coat of the existing church structure. The project was named the best affordable housing development at the 2019 Inside Housing Awards.

Meanwhile, the City of York Council has released plans to build more than 600 homes across eight sites over the next five years that will be built to carbon zero standards. The council has pledged that 40% of the homes will be affordable, with 20% retained for social renting. The developments, also designed by Mikhail Riches, will have very high energy efficiency standards that exceed standard Passivhaus levels. It’s predicted that residents’ heating bills could be around £60 a year.

Homes for the future

There is a now a growing sense that housing, as well as consuming great amounts of energy, can also be a positive force for change. Energy efficient homes can make a strong contribution to climate change adaptation measures, can make housing more resilient to increasingly common extreme weather events, and can provide opportunities to improve economic development, quality of life and social equality.

In the past year, with many local councils, combined authorities, devolved administrations and the UK government declaring ‘climate emergencies’, the pressure on housing providers to lead by example has intensified. At the same time, governments are setting out plans to ensure new homes are more energy efficient.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on the Future Homes Standard, which includes proposals to increase energy efficiency requirements for new homes from 2025. Similarly, the Scottish Government plans to introduce new regulations to ensure all new homes use renewable or low carbon heating from 2024. A 2019 report commissioned by the Welsh Government has recommended major changes to most homes in the country, including a major programme to improve insulation and heating.

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

The success and widespread publicity enjoyed by the Goldsmith Street project is likely to encourage other local authorities and housing associations to explore the possibilities of Passivhaus. But although the benefits are great, Passivhaus also presents significant challenges for housing providers.

Up-front costs are higher for Passivhaus developments, and there are additional maintenance and replacement costs. The technical requirements are strict, in order to ensure the maximum levels of airtightness and insulation. In addition, there is a shortage of skills needed to achieve the exceptional standards of construction demanded by Passivhaus (Norwich City Council has overcome this by bringing together a network of specialist contractors with the necessary expertise to work on Passivhaus projects).

Despite the challenges, Passivhaus seems to be offering a compelling answer to the significant problems of fuel poverty, climate change and the demand for high quality, affordable housing. As more local authorities and housing associations demonstrate its affordability, Passivhaus is breaking away from its image as a resource for the privileged and moving into the mainstream of social housing.


Further reading: blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange on energy efficiency at home

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A home for life? Developing lifetime neighbourhoods to support ageing well in place

aerial view architecture autumn cars

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The UK population is ageing. A 2019 report from AgeUK using data from the ONS highlighted that there are nearly 12 million (11,989,322) people aged 65 and above in the UK of which: 5.4 million people are aged 75+, 1.6 million are aged 85+, over 500,000 people are 90+ (579,776) and 14,430 are centenarians. By 2030, one in five people in the UK (21.8%) will be aged 65 or over, 6.8% will be aged 75+ and 3.2% will be aged 85+.

Allowing people to live well in old age in their own homes is something which housebuilders and planners are giving increasing thought to, both from a wellbeing perspective for residents, and a financial perspective for services, including the NHS and social care. The creation of “lifetime neighbourhoods” – spaces where people can live well from birth to retirement – brings together a number of elements: providing easy access to services; creating physical spaces which are suitable for people with disabilities and mobility issues to navigate; and allowing people to maintain those social and community ties which are associated with wellbeing, which can sometimes be lost with forced moves to residential care or a prolonged stay in hospital.

Homes for life

Building homes that are suitable for an ageing population is an important first step in creating lifetime neighbourhoods. However, planners and developers are starting to realise that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all when it comes to housing for older people. As with the general population, older people are not a homogenous group, and while some may need the support provided by extra care or sheltered housing projects, or may need single-storey open plan living to accommodate mobility aids or telecare packages, others simply want to live in a space which enables them to live comfortably in a community which suits their needs in terms of location and availability of services.

Designing and building a range of different housing types, which includes single-storey homes, extra care and sheltered housing, as well as stock which is suitable for people looking to downsize, is a key part of the development of effective lifetime neighbourhoods. This can free up larger family homes for people with children to move into and ensure that people are not kept unnecessarily in hospital because housing cannot be adapted to meet changing needs. A 2014 Age UK report showed that the scarcity of suitable and affordable retirement housing is a barrier to downsizing, highlighting that retirement housing makes up just 5-6% of all older people’s housing. Now groups like the Housing Made for Everyone coalition (HoME) are calling on the government to make all new homes accessible and adaptable as standard to help meet growing need in the future.

Social infrastructure such as libraries, community centres, local shops and good transport links are also a key aspect to planning effective lifetime neighbourhoods, as is ensuring accessibility of services such as GP appointments. Effective infrastructure planning can help enable the whole community, not just older people to feel connected to their local area, both physically and socially which can really help to support the idea of lifetime neighbourhoods and enable people to live well regardless of age.

Preventing loneliness and isolation in older age

Preventing loneliness and isolation in old age by creating spaces which facilitate engagement and encourage people to have positive social interactions is important to ensure that everyone within the community feels respected, involved and appreciated. However, the challenges are different depending on the nature of the community in question. In rural areas, social isolation can be compounded by a lack of appropriate transport infrastructure or the removal of key services at a local level in favour of “hubs” which are often located in towns and cities; in urban areas, loneliness can be exacerbated by the chaotic, hostile or intimidating environment that living in a densely populated area can have, a flip side to the benefits of density.

Ambition for ageing is a programme which aims to discover what works in reducing social isolation by taking an asset based approach to creating age friendly communities. Asset based approaches seek to identify the strengths and the abilities of people and communities, rather than their deficits. The asset based approach to creating age friendly neighbourhoods also seeks to use the experiences and  attributes that all members of the community have to help make the community better. To create effective age friendly neighbourhoods older people need to have opportunities to participate and feel that they are making a positive contribution.

A space for all ages

While much of the research and literature on lifetime neighbourhoods focuses on older people, it is also important to ensure that spaces meet the needs of all groups in the community, including children and young people and people with disabilities. Creating places which balance the needs of all groups within the community is an important consideration for planners.

The physical environment can be as important as the built environment and infrastructure development when it comes to developing lifetime neighbourhoods. Spaces which make use of natural and green infrastructure with lots of green and open public spaces have been shown to help improve mental health and wellbeing, as well as encouraging people of all ages to be more active. A number of design factors such as good paving, effective street lighting and easy access to seating and public toilets make neighbourhoods accessible to older people and people with impairments. Poor design can ‘disable’ people in their immediate environment and act as a barrier to participation in local activities.

adult affection baby child

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Final thoughts

For lifetime neighbourhoods to be successful, it is necessary that there is access to a range of appropriate housing options. In addition, the planning of public, open and green spaces, availability of transport links and local community infrastructure like libraries, police stations and local shops are all vitally important to ensure communities can thrive.

It is clear that while there is demand for more suitable housing for people in older age, the location and type of housing being built must also meet the needs and expectations of older residents, including good connections to local infrastructure, and safe accommodation. Projects which bring a range of ages together can be effective in strengthening community cohesion, can help challenge stereotypes and can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Collectively these different elements feed into the creation of lifetime neighbourhoods which can support people to live well into retirement and beyond.


Further reading: more articles from our blog

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Taking forward key issues in Scottish planning at this year’s SPEL conference

On 19th September 2019, we welcomed speakers and delegates to Edinburgh for the 29th Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference.

Before we began, the conference was invited to pause to remember and reflect on the life and achievements of Robert (Roy) Martin QC, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Roy was a long-time supporter and friend to the SPEL conference and a great addition to our speaker line up on many occasions. Everyone connected with SPEL would like to extend our condolences to Roy’s family and his colleagues at Terra Firma Chambers.

The conference brought together planners, planning lawyers, researchers and others who work in the field of planning, housing, development and infrastructure in Scotland for a day of discussion and debate around some of the key issues facing Scottish planning today and in the future.

Set to the backdrop of the most recent Scottish planning bill, the day focused broadly on two themes: the approach to housing, land value and infrastructure delivery;  and the impact of the community empowerment agenda. As in previous years, themed discussion topics were supplemented by the always well-received case law updates from conference sponsors and planning and environmental law specialists Terra Firma Chambers.

The day began with some brief reflection from our keynote speaker, Keith Winter, Executive Director, Enterprise and Environment, Fife Council. Keith considered his years in the profession, and the great steps planning has taken from its earlier years. He also posed some interesting questions for delegates and other speakers alike about the potential for the future of planning, discussing “positive planning”; placemaking; the challenges of needing to meet both local and national level expectations and meeting the challenges that face the next generation of planners – such as climate change – head-on.

Photo Copyright Rebecca Jackson

Housing, infrastructure and land values are all key topics for planners, and we spent the mid-morning session discussing all three. In the day’s longest session, panellists grappled with big topics for planning including whether the delivery of housing and infrastructure is becoming any easier; if more housing should (or could) be allocated to housing; how infrastructure will be funded in the future and whether we should be paying more attention to delayed sites which have already been granted approval.

Panellists brought a wealth of experience and perspectives to the discussion, with contributions from Taylor Wimpey, Homes for Scotland, Scottish Futures Trust, Lichfields, Renfrewshire Council and the Scottish Land Commission. The wide-ranging discussions on the supply and allocation of land for development, the implication of development for infrastructure and how multiple partners – not just planners – need to work together in order to create wonderful places where communities can live and work.

Photo copyright Rebecca Jackson

The afternoon session was dominated by discussions of community empowerment in planning and what opportunities and challenges the community empowerment agenda in Scotland could bring for the profession. A panel discussion which brought a refreshing range of perspectives was well received by an audience of delegates who were eager to ask questions and respond to comments from the panel, which included Nick Wright, from Nick Wright Planning; Pippa Robertson, director of Aurora Planning; Dr Calum MacLeod, Policy Director from Community Land Scotland and Antony McGuiness, Forward Planning team leader from West Dunbartonshire Council.

Panellists grappled with the challenges of aligning local place plans, local outcome improvement plans and local development plans; how community-led action can help address inequality and improve outcomes at a local level for communities and how integrating community and spatial planning is working in practice at the moment. The discussions proved to be one of the most successful of the day, with many delegates commenting on the value of the discussions to their own professional work.

Photo copyright Rebecca Jackson

The final session of the day explored the implications of the new planning act and its potential for delivering strategies which put place at their heart and enhancing the delivery of sustainable development projects across Scotland. Panel members included Stefano Smith, Director of Stefano Smith Planning and former Convenor of RTPI Scotland, Jacqueline Cook, Head of Planning at Davidson Chalmers Stewart LLP and Pam Ewen, Chief Officer of Planning at Fife Council and the Junior Convenor of Heads of Planning Scotland.

The conference provided an opportunity for reflection about the future of planning in Scotland and how practitioners from many different professions – not just planning and planning law – will have to come together to ensure that opportunities are seized upon.

And while it was widely acknowledged that the current model is far from perfect, and more exploration is needed to understand the potential and the application of the new planning legislation which has been introduced in recent years, it’s clear that there is willingness among the profession to learn lessons and to apply knowledge and determination to the current planning landscape to promote and develop planning in Scotland in the years to come so it can fully deliver for Scotland’s communities.

We would like to thank our speakers, those who attended and our sponsors, and hope to see you all next year!

If you enjoyed this article you may also like to read:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topics have been interesting our research officers, or search #SPEL2019 for more insight into the conference day. Delegates can get in touch for copies of presentation slides where available.

We publish Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal every two months. More information on the journal and how to subscribe is available here.

Smart cities aim to make urban life more efficient – but for citizens’ sake they need to slow down

Sometimes you want to take it slow. Fabrizio Verrecchia/Unsplash. , FAL

Guest post by Lakshmi Priya Rajendran, Anglia Ruskin University

All over the world, governments, institutions and businesses are combining technologies for gathering data, enhancing communications and sharing information, with urban infrastructure, to create smart cities. One of the main goals of these efforts is to make city living more efficient and productive – in other words, to speed things up.

Yet for citizens, this growing addiction to speed can be confounding. Unlike businesses or services, citizens don’t always need to be fast to be productive. Several research initiatives show that cities have to be “liveable” to foster well-being and productivity. So, quality of life in smart cities should not be associated with speed and efficiency alone.

The pace of city life is determined by many factors, such as people’s emotions or memories, the built environment, the speed of movement and by the technologies that connect people to – or detach them from – any given place. As cities around the world become increasingly “smart”, I argue that – amid the optimised encounters and experiences – there also need to be slow moments, when people can mindfully engage with and enjoy the city.

Cities provide an environment for people to move, encounter, communicate and explore spaces. Research shows how these experiences can differ, depending on the pace of the activity and the urban environment: whether fast or slow, restless or calm, spontaneous or considered.

“Slow” approaches have been introduced as an antidote to many unhealthy or superficial aspects of modern life. For example, the slow reading movement encourages readers to take time to concentrate, contemplate and immerse themselves in what they’re reading – rather than skim reading and scrolling rapidly through short texts.

Similarly, the international slow food movement started in Italy as a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant on the Spanish Steps in Rome, back in 1986. Then, in 1999, came the “cittaslow movement” (translated as “slow city”) – inspired by the slow food movement – which emphasises the importance of maintaining local character while developing an economy which can sustain communities into the future.

Orvieto, Italy – home of the cittaslow movement. Shutterstock. 
Slow cities arise from grassroots efforts to improve quality of life for citizens, by reducing pollution, traffic and crowds and promoting better social interaction within communities. They must follow a detailed set of policy guidelines, which focus on providing green space, accessible infrastructure and internet connectivity, promoting renewable energy and sustainable transport, and being welcoming and friendly to all. Slow cities can create opportunities for healthier behavioural patterns – including pausing or slowing down – which allow for more meaningful engagement in cities.

These guidelines present a clear road map for city governments, but there are also ways that local people can promote a slow city ethos in fast-paced cities throughout the world. For example, in London, artists and activists have organised slow walks to encourage the general public to meaningfully engage with urban spaces, and show them how diverse their experiences of the city can be, depending on the speed of movement.

Slow and smart

Trying to put people’s concerns at the heart of smart city policies has always been challenging, due to the lack of creative grassroots approaches, which enable citizens to participate and engage with planning. And while technology has been able to give citizens instant access to a wide range of data about a place, it is rarely used to improve their actual experience of that place.

Getting smart cities to slow down could give citizens the means to explore the urban environment at a range of different paces, each offering a distinctive experience. To do this, architects, artists and urban planners need to look beyond the ways that technology can give instant access to information, services and entertainment – whether that’s video game lounges, or recharging and navigation pods in airports and stations.

Instead, they must recognise that technology can create platforms for citizens to immerse themselves and engage meaningfully in different experiences within the urban environment. For example, technology-based installations or projections can tell stories about people and places from other times, which enrich people’s experience of the city. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning can offer new ways to understand cities, and the way people function within them, which could help give human behaviour and experience a significant place in smart city planning.

Slow and smart cities could take the best of both approaches, helping citizens to connect with the history, present and future of a place, emphasising local character and building a sense of community, while also making use of the latest technology to give people greater choice about whether they want to speed up or slow down.

This would not only enhance efficiency and productivity, but also ensure that technology actively helps to improve people’s quality of life and make cities better places to live. It may sound idealistic, but with the range of advanced technology already being developed, ensuring cities are slow as well as smart could help people live better, more meaningful lives long into the future.The Conversation


Guest post by Lakshmi Priya Rajendran, Senior Research Fellow in Future Cities, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why not read some of our other articles on smart cities:

How a smart canal and a sponge city could regenerate North Glasgow

by Scott Faulds

In the late 18th century, following years of delays and complications, the Forth and Clyde Canal was finally completed and opened for use. In the pre-industrial era, the canal was an essential transport corridor, which allowed goods to be moved from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde and even allowed passengers to travel from Falkirk to Edinburgh in just under four hours!

However, advancements in technology and the expansion of rail travel led to a movement away from canals and by 1962 the Forth and Clyde Canal had become derelict. The closure of canal networks across the UK was devastating to the communities that served them, such as North Glasgow, as they were vital to ensuring continued economic and social prosperity.

250 years on from the opening of the Forth and Clyde Canal – thanks to capital funding from the Glasgow City Region City Deal, the European Regional Development Fund via the Green Infrastructure Fund and Scotland’s 8th City: the Smart City –  the canal is about receive a 21st century ‘smart’ upgrade that supports the regeneration of North Glasgow.

How does it work?

The smart canal is one component of a project known as the North Glasgow Integrated Water Management System (NGIWMS); the other element is the implementation of what is known as a ‘sponge city’ approach.

According to the World Future Council, a sponge city is one where rainwater is able to be absorbed into the ground and managed as opposed to the usual impermeable systems utilised in cities today. As a result, sponge cities are abundant in open green space, green roofs, sustainable urban drainage ponds and any other measure which facilitates the passive absorption of water.

The smart canal utilises a variety of sensors which measure water levels, quality, flow and temperature. All the data produced by the smart canal is then processed and helps experts at Scottish Canals and Scottish Water decide what actions are needed to mitigate flooding. For example, if the sensors detect that canal water levels are high and heavy rain is expected soon, water can be proactively transferred from the canal into nearby watercourses, in advance of the rainfall, to create space to absorb the rainfall.

Scottish Canals state that the NGIWMS will allow for the equivalent of 22 Olympic swimming pools (55,000m³) worth of additional water storage capacity and that this capacity will be created at a substantially lower cost than traditional methods of onsite drainage.  Therefore, the smart canal and sponge city work in tandem to defend the local community from the threats faced by climate change and flooding, giving North Glasgow a modern water management system.

How can this regenerate North Glasgow?

The Centre of Expertise for Waters states that the smart canal will provide a variety of regenerative benefits to North Glasgow, from economic growth to environmental improvement. You may be asking yourself, how can a 250-year-old canal and a concept likened to a sponge facilitate such large-scale regeneration? Well, simply put, the current drainage system in North Glasgow is not fit for purpose and has rendered substantial amounts of land unusable.  The smart canal and sponge city approach will provide North Glasgow with a fully functioning drainage system which is able to dynamically respond to an ever-changing climate, thus, freeing up previously unusable land to developers.

Glasgow City Council estimates that 110 hectares – that’s enough land to cover Glasgow Green twice – will be unlocked for investment, development and regeneration. Areas around the smart canal, such as Sighthill, are already seeing regeneration of their community, through the building of over 150 affordable homes, new schools, new community centres and installation of new green space. Additionally, the building of new office space is expected to bring new jobs to North Glasgow, which is both important for local people and to attract new residents. Glasgow City Council are determined that the canal and urban drainage ponds will become go-to destinations, in the image of the regenerated canals of Birmingham, surrounded by pubs, restaurants and other leisure developments. Attracting tourists and locals to the area will provide a big boost to the local economy and help spur on further regeneration efforts. In short, the provision of a modern and effective drainage system will allow North Glasgow to experience a great deal of urban regeneration.

Final thoughts

The regeneration of North Glasgow, through the smart canal and sponge city concept, is a remarkable example of how to redevelop a specific area without gentrifying an entire community. In recent years, various regeneration projects have been criticised for bulldozing over local communities and triggering a soar in property prices, rendering the area unlivable for existing residents. The use of North Glasgow’s existing infrastructure, the Forth and Clyde Canal, as a pillar of regeneration efforts pays homage to the community’s past and spreads the benefits of its 21st century upgrade across the community.

Ensuring that the regeneration of North Glasgow benefits residents is vital, as is ensuring that all new developments are sustainable and ready to face the challenges of the future. The creation of an effective and dynamic water drainage system will ensure that North Glasgow is prepared for future challenges raised by climate change. The installation of large swathes of green space to help realise the sponge city, will also capture carbon, and help Glasgow reach its target to be the first carbon neutral city in the UK.

The smart canal is the first of its kind and, if successful, could see North Glasgow lead the way in sustainable regeneration which could be deployed worldwide. In short, a sponge city and a smart canal can lead to a great deal of good for North Glasgow and beyond.


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Good enough is not enough: International Making Place Conference

International Making Place Conference, Glasgow. Image: Jason Kimmings

There is now a growing body of evidence to indicate that our physical environment – the places where we live, work and socialise – affects our health and wellbeing and contributes to creating or reducing inequalities. But even without the research, it’s plain to see how a neighbourhood with lots of facilities for pedestrians and cyclists, a choice of shops and good public transport connections could benefit health in ways that one with an excess of pubs, fast food shops and car traffic would not.

The importance of place-based approaches to improving health and reducing inequalities was the theme of an international conference held in Glasgow last week.

The venue for the conference – Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket building – is a shining example of how a great place can be repurposed and reinvented. Originally a wholesale fruit market, the building has been reborn as a unique setting for cultural and business events, but has retained many of its original features, including a lofty vaulted roof and a cast iron balcony.

David Crichton, Chair NHS Scotland
Image: Jason Kimmings

Facing up to the challenge of place

In his introduction, David Crichton, Chair of NHS Scotland, pointed to the sobering statistics that throw the importance of place into sharp focus. He noted that while the health of Scotland’s population was generally improving, people living in 10% of the country’s poorest areas are four times more likely to die prematurely than those in more prosperous places. The city of Glasgow knows all too well about these stark health inequities. A person living in the deprived area of Calton has an average life expectancy of 54 years, while someone growing up in affluent Lenzie, just 12km away can expect to live to 82.

Glasgow Lord Provost Eva Bolander
Image: Jason Kimmings

Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Eva Bolander, acknowledged the challenges facing the city, but also noted that Glasgow is at the vanguard of place making. The city council’s Avenues Project aims to transform 17 key streets, prioritising space for cyclists and pedestrians, introducing sustainable green infrastructure and improving public transport connections. Glasgow is also investing £20m in its Community Hubs programme to bring multiple support services together in areas experiencing high levels of poverty.

Aileen Campbell, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, highlighted projects such as Clyde Gateway in Glasgow and the Bellsbank Initiative in East Ayrshire as successful examples of placemaking. Their success, said the minister, lies in focusing on what’s important to the people and communities of these areas, with the support of government and local authorities.

This international conference also heard from Monika Kosinska from the World Health Organisation, who noted that the problems facing Scotland are not unique. Around the world, countries and communities are experiencing the challenges associated with ageing populations and health inequalities. In this sense, she observed, all countries are developing countries.

Sir Harry Burns
Image: Jason Kimmings

A sense of coherence

The World Health Organisation’s assertion that health is a complete state of wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease, was at the heart of a powerful presentation delivered by Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde.

His research has underlined that poverty is not the result of bad choices. The real problem is that, without a sense of coherence and purpose, people are not in a position to make good choices.

As Sir Harry explained, a child experiencing chaotic early years (featuring parental substance abuse and/or domestic violence) is already on a path to mental health problems which can culminate in a loss of control and long periods of worklessness and poverty. But the implications can be even more serious: “The more adverse experiences you have as a child, the more likely you are to have a heart attack.”

A eureka moment for Sir Harry Burns occurred when he read a book by an American sociologist. Aaron Antonovsky spent the latter half of his career in Israel studying adults who as children had been in concentration camps. He found that the children who survived had developed what he termed a “sense of coherence” – a feeling of confidence that one has the internal resources to meet the challenges of life, and that these challenges are worth engaging with.

That sense of coherence, Sir Harry believes, lies in giving people in poverty greater control over their own resources: “People who have a sense of purpose, control and self esteem are more positive and secure about the places they live in, and a greater ability to make the right choices.”

He concluded that rather than being passive recipients of services, all of us have to be given the opportunity to become active agents in our own lives: “‘Ask people to take control of their lives, build their trust, and people can make choices that support their health. We must create places that do that’.

Woodside Health Centre
Image: Jason Kimmings

Placemaking in action

This theme of active engagement in placemaking was demonstrated during a site visit to a new health centre in Woodside, one of the most deprived parts of Glasgow. The aim of the new health centre is to reshape health services from the patient’s point of view, helping them to manage their own health and improve the care they receive. The new centre will bring together GP services, along with dental, pharmacy and physiotherapy services.

The health centre and its surroundings have been created by engaging with the local community. Using ideas from local people, the exterior of the building features designs reflecting the natural and industrial history of the area. Natural light from large windows in the roof floods the centre of the interior, giving a sense of brightness and tranquility, while wooden slats feature designs linking the centre with natural features nearby.

Claypits Local Nature Reserve. Image: Jason Kimmings

That connection with the natural environment will be reinforced with the development of a community green space close to the new health centre. The Forth and Clyde Canal is just a few minutes’ walk from the health centre, and a new foot and cycle bridge linking the centre to the local nature reserve is under construction. Other features will include new and improved pathways and new wildlife habitats. The natural space is already attracting walkers, joggers, families and cyclists, and local people report feeling they can now visit this area in greater safety than ever before.

Mark Beaumont and Glasgow Disability Alliance. Image: Jason Kimmings

The Place Standard

One of the threads running through this conference was the Place Standard, a practical tool developed in Scotland to help communities assess and redesign their own places.

For the final session of the afternoon, round-the-world cyclist Mark Beaumont introduced members of the Glasgow Disability Alliance (GDA) who shared results from their day as the Place Making Team using The Place Standard Tool. The results highlighted some of the elements of place that are important to people with disabilities – but also to others: lack of accessible toilets, poor transport links, networking events with no seating, inaccessible information, no social care support.

Final thoughts

This conference provided some important ideas on what’s wrong with our places, and some examples of places that are getting it right. And even for those that are on the right track, everyone was left with a clear message: when it comes to placemaking, good enough is not enough!

Merchant City, Glasgow
Image: Jason Kimmings

Engaging the ‘silent majority’ in planning: is digital the answer?

It has long been a concern that traditional planning consultation methods do not adequately capture the views of the majority.

Instead, they tend to be dominated by individuals with certain characteristics – typically older people or retirees, with high disposable income and social capital, and the time and means to attend in person.

This is partially because traditional planning consultation methods, such as public exhibitions, mainly involve individuals physically attending events at pre-specified places and times.

Younger people, students, people with disabilities, and working families with or without children, may find it difficult to attend and engage with such consultation methods.

In addition to this – people are also more likely to engage with the planning system when they are opposed to something.  Research by Shelter found that people opposed to local housebuilding were three times more likely to actively oppose an application than supporters were to actively support it (21% compared to 7%).

However, the majority of people surveyed were actually supportive or neutral regarding local house building.  This means that in many cases, there is a ‘silent majority’ – people whose voices are not being heard by the planning system.

This ‘silent majority’ often includes young people and others who may have the most to gain from new housing, employment and other benefits created by local developments.

In the rest of this blog, we consider the potential of social media and digital apps to make the planning system more accessible, inclusive and representative.

The potential of social media

Social media is everywhere – and as such it has a huge potential to reach and engage people from all walks of life.

Through adverts or posts in relevant groups, information about developments can be shared, with likes and comments providing feedback.  Short questionnaires or polls can also be administered to help gauge public opinion on a range of matters, such as locations, layouts and designs.

At present, social media is not a widely used planning consultation method – however, there is support for it to become so.

In 2016, a YouGov survey explored local councillors’ attitudes towards the use of social media during public consultation.  It found that:

  • 75% of councillors felt that social media was an important or very important engagement tool
  • 74% believed that social media would add value when reviewing planning applications
  • 60% felt that developers should be doing more to engage with local communities through social media
  • 60% believed social media will increase in importance as a public engagement tool over the next three years

It has been argued that social media is a much more relevant way to share information and consult on development proposals, particularly for young people.

It also has the potential to help overcome many of the time and accessibility barriers that prevent people from attending traditional ‘time and place’ consultation events.  And it has an incredible potential reach too – with Facebook having a total of 44 million active users and Twitter 14 million.

There are, however, some concerns – particularly regarding the verification of an individuals’ locality and the public management of negative comments, particularly as users can remain anonymous.  The potential for cyberactivism against a development and the spread of ‘fake news’ are also concerns.  Social media training would no doubt be required for those using social media to consult on developments.

Innovative apps

In addition to social media, digital apps offer an exciting new way for people to engage with the planning system.

Hailed as ‘Tinder’ for urban planning, CitySwipe is a new digital tool being used in Santa Monica’s downtown area to learn citizens’ preferences and concerns about the city’s urban core.  It enables local residents to swipe left or right to indicate their preferences regarding various different urban development scenarios.  For example, users may be asked to choose between different types of outdoor seating.  The app also covers attitudes towards things such as walking, bike lanes, housing and other such areas of interest to urban planners.

If CitySwipe is Tinder, then TrueViewVisuals can be likened to the Augmented Reality (AR) mobile gaming app ‘Pokémon Go’.  AG is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view of both.  TrueViewVisuals makes use of this to enable users to use their mobile device to view proposed developments in existing locations and is thus particularly useful in assessing their potential visual impact.

Bootlegger is a mobile app originally designed to film live music, which is now also being applied to the urban planning context.  It enables users to collaborate and share their footage with others, and edit them into a single video.   In Berwick-upon-Tweed, Bootlegger has been used to enable members of the public to make their own ­films regarding planning proposals and the neighbourhood area and share them with others.

ChangeExplorer uses location data to provide users with ‘push notifications’ when they enter a geographic location that is subject to redevelopment plans.  Users can then view and comment on the plans, making it much easier for local residents and visitors to have their say on planning decisions.  It has been used successfully by North Tyneside Council, where it was found to be “an effective tool in encouraging participants to think about what they would like to change and for them to feel empowered in raising relevant issues”.

Enhance and evolve

These are just a handful of the ways in which technology can be used to engage young people and others within the ‘silent majority’.  It is an area which is developing all of the time – as recent reports by the Scottish Government, Future City Catapult and the RTPI show.

It also comes at a time where there is wider discussion of the need to make planning more inclusive.  In order to do this, it is essential that the views captured by planning consultations truly represent the needs and preferences of all local residents.

Of course, online engagement cannot replace the need for traditional consultation approaches and techniques entirely.  Instead, they should complement one another, offering both an enhancement and an evolution of the current planning system.  And in doing so, the planning system can meet both the needs and expectations of an increasingly digital world.


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How empowering the community can help us create better places to live

Places can be defined in a lot of different ways: the geographic location, the physical buildings, the people who live there and the relationships that are formed. Central to places should be the people who live and interact there. Putting people, and communities at the heart of placemaking can benefit the physical infrastructure of a place, by identifying what is needed. And allowing residents a say in their local area can also give communities a sense of empowerment and ownership of their place, somewhere they can be proud to call home and somewhere they feel safe, included and valued.

Can places empower people?

In short… YES! Positive places have the power to lift the community up, give them a sense of empowerment, worth and inspiration. But places also have the power to alienate and dis-empower.

Places which are run down, with no or low levels of community engagement can contribute to communities becoming disparate, isolated and can reinforce negative stereotypes, particularly those which relate to poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. Making places that are thriving hubs for communities to be built upon can have a significant impact on the experiences and quality of life for communities living within them. Work being done by organisations like SURF show how important effective regeneration projects can be in revitalising places and the people who live there.

A recent RTPI blog post emphasised the importance of place on helping to reduce the impact of poverty and break some of the more significant socioeconomic barriers marginalised groups within communities can face. It emphasises the importance of place-based urban policy and how core policy features like the planning of a space or the design of a building can actually have a significant impact on the people who interact with that space.

A national standard for community empowerment

As important as the physical space are the people who live and work within it.

In the policy context of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, What Works Scotland, along with others drafted a set of ‘fit for purpose’ national standards for community empowerment, to build on those published in 2005. It was hoped that the new standards would provide clarity and focus on ways to help strengthen and improve participation and engagement at a local level. There are seven standards: Inclusion; Support; Planning; Working Together; Methods; Communication; and Impact.

Identifying and making the most of community assets

Asset based development was originally created as a description of how local residents grow collective efficacy and what they use to do so. It involves paying attention to what is in a local place – not what we think should be there, or what is not there. These ‘assets’ are found within a community and can be physical, such as infrastructure, but can also be the skills and knowledge of local people.

The key concept centres on the fact that everyone has something positive that they can contribute to a community. It follows that, if everyone does or is given the opportunity to contribute positively to their community, then there will be less requirement for spending on services from local government. It can also mean greater accountability at a community level for making changes that actually impact positively and directly on the lives and experiences of people who live and work there. Taking time to identify these assets and feeding this into how places are created can be a key part of ensuring communities feel empowered and valued.

Community anchors are an important tool

Community anchors have been identified as vital in many instances to ensure the continued development and capacity building of communities within a place. Their roles can extend across the community from building capacity and resilience, to supporting local democracy and helping to drive social change within a community. Community anchors play an important role in empowering communities and getting them involved in the design and delivery of services in their area.

A report published by What Works Scotland in 2018 examines the developing roles of community anchors within communities. The report explores the developing discussions between the community sector, public services and policymakers and considers how they might work more closely together to deliver bespoke and localised community driven policies.

Summing up

Empowering communities to feel valued and engaged is a key part of developing places that are inclusive and enjoyable places for people to live. Promoting communities as key agents of change within the areas in which they live not only improves the community, but can also help on an individual level, fostering a sense of pride and value. Creating better places is a key strand to regeneration and planning policy. Putting communities at the heart of creating places will ensure that places not only meet the needs of local people but are inherently connected to them.


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New year, new high street: it’s time to reshape our town centres (part two)

Dunfermline town centre

This is the second of a two-part blog on high streets and town centres.  In our last post, we highlighted some recent publications that have sought to address the challenges facing our high streets and town centres.

We looked at how towns could work to diversify their retail offer, placing greater focus upon developing experiences and services that are not easily replicated online – such as hair and beauty services, gyms, cinema, restaurants and nightlife.

We also highlighted the benefits of identifying a town centre’s unique selling point (USP), capitalising on the opportunities presented by the widespread growth of technology, and offering various forms of support to local businesses and entrepreneurs.

In this post, we consider how community involvement, good quality inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street can all provide ways to promote and support town centres to better meet the needs of local people in a changing retail and economic environment.

A community-focused high street

The town centre has long been considered the beating heart of a community.  As such, it makes sense that any attempt to revitalise them would have local people at its heart.

In Dunfermline, a pilot placemaking project has made use of innovative, interactive methods of engagement with young people to help plan and deliver town centre improvements.

Young people were asked to assess the quality of the town centre and to identify areas where improvements could be made, using tools such as the Place Standard and the Town Centre Toolkit.

There are lots of other great community-focused town centre initiatives. ‘Can Do Places’ aims to engage the local community in order to bring empty town centre properties back into use in various ways, for example, by providing spaces for budding entrepreneurs or supporting community arts and crafts.

Stalled Spaces Scotland is another noteworthy project – with a focus on greening derelict, under- or unused outdoor areas.  As well as improving the look and feel of a town centre, this scheme also aims to involve the local community and schools in the development and use of the spaces themselves.

A healthy and accessible high street

It goes without saying that if town centres are to attract both people and businesses then they must be both attractive and accessible – easily walkable, safe, and clean.  Indeed, amongst its findings, the High Street 2030 report highlights “calls for improved accessibility that is more environmentally-friendly, new public spaces or areas, centres that better serve older people”.

There has also been considerable discussion around how the design of town centres (and urban areas in general) impact upon various vulnerable groups.  We have blogged on this subject on various occasions, focusing in turn on the creation of places that address the needs of older people, people with dementia, autistic people and children.

There has also been widespread discussion of the relative advantages and disadvantages of shared space street design – which has been used by many places in the UK in attempt to revitalise their town centre spaces with varying levels of success.

As well as their role in the creation of inclusive, accessible spaces for all, there has been some focus upon the link between high streets and health.

Last year, Public Health England published guidance on the development of ‘healthy high streets’ – high streets that have a positive influence on the health of local people.  It focuses on elements such as air quality, enhanced walkability, the provision of good quality street design, street furniture, and communal spaces. It argues that the development of healthy high streets will support economic growth as well as community cohesion.

It also approaches the subject of diversity on the high street – recommending that there is an adequate number of healthy and affordable food outlets and limiting the number of alcohol, betting and payday loan outlets.

A high street to call home

Another way of bringing people back into the high street is to have them literally live there.

At the end of 2017, the Federation of Master Builders published a report ‘Homes on our high streets’, which argued that “revitalising our high streets through well planned and designed residential units could help rejuvenate smaller town centres”.

For example, Aldershot, as highlighted in the High Streets 2030 report, has been making use of the Housing Infrastructure Fund to promote residential development in the town centre and has undertaken property acquisition in the town centre, most recently acquiring the former Marks & Spencer  store.

Creating additional homes above shops or in former retail units not only helps to make use of vacant properties and regenerate town centres, but may also help to address housing shortages in many areas.

 Looking to the Future

So while 2019 may present high streets and town centres with some of their toughest challenges yet, there is a wealth of research, experiences and innovative ideas on which to draw.  The newly announced Future High Streets Fund will no doubt be of use to help put these ideas into practice.

And perhaps most importantly of all, local people remain enthusiastic about developing their town centres and wish to see them flourish. As the High Streets 2030 project noted:

The workshops and interactions provided real insight into the challenges faced by town centres. That they are worth fighting for was abundantly evident from the enthusiasm of those participating.”


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