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.

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

Wigtown town centre © Copyright Jim Barton

One thing is certain. The high street landscape has now irrevocably changed and there is no point clinging on to a sentimental vision of the past. We have to start planning for a bold new world.”

This was the conclusion of the Grimsey Review in 2013.  Five years on and the challenges facing the high street remain – now with the added economic complexities presented by Brexit.

Yet there remains optimism.  In the last year, a number of reviews have been published, illustrating how we can bring town centres and high streets back to life.

In summer last year, an update to the Grimsey Review was published. Its title – ‘It’s time to reshape our town centres’ – is something of a call to arms.

It sets out 25 recommendations to help support the high street to transform “into a complete community hub incorporating health, housing, arts, education, entertainment, leisure, business/office space, as well as some shops, while developing a unique selling proposition (USP)”.

In November, Lichfields also published a number of recommendations for high streets, based on their own research.  Their conclusions echo that of Grimsey: “Town centres and operators within them should embrace online, promote themselves better and develop their own unique selling point(s). They must broaden their offer and attract new anchors and other uses, which make them more family friendly, and improve the overall ‘experience’ for visitors”.  It also highlights a number of examples of innovative practice.

In addition to these, at the end of December, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published the findings and recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel, and a related report by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) – ‘High Streets 2030’.

The IPM report gathered the opinions of local people, including young people, about their town centre, what they would like to see developed, and the related challenges that they perceive.

Over the next two blog posts, we will look at some of these reports’ key recommendations, and highlight some innovative examples of good practice.

A diverse high street

A recent tweet by Fountain Bookstore in the U.S. highlighted the difficulties presented by ‘showrooming’ – where people visit high street stores to view items which they subsequently purchase online, often only for a marginally cheaper price.  The tweet went viral and sparked much debate.

However, realistically, online shopping is not going away – and in recognition of this, it has been widely recommended that high streets should diversify their offer, placing greater focus on services and experiences that cannot be replicated online – including food and drink uses, and leisure facilities, such as cinemas and gyms.

There does appear to be some evidence of this happening in practice – barbershops and beauty salons were ranked first and second respectively in terms of their number of net retail openings in 2017.  And Fountain Bookstore may be pleased to learn that there has been a small increase in the numbers of indepedent booksellers in towns across the UK.

A unique high street

Another key recommendation is for town centres to identify their own unique selling points (USPs).

Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, is a fantastic example of a town that has developed a USP in order to regenerate the community.  In 1998, Wigtown was designated Scotland’s national book town, and it has since become home to a wide range of book-related businesses, including both new and used booksellers, and an annual book festival that attracts many people to the town.

Other towns have sought to capitalise on their heritage to bring people back to the town centre – such as through the relatively new Heritage Action Zones programme and the £55 million fund announced in the 2018 budgetfor heritage-based regeneration, restoring historic high streets to boost retail and bring properties back into use as homes, offices and cultural venues”.

A digital high street

While the ubiquitous growth of technology has presented high streets with some of its key challenges – in the form of online shopping and showrooming – it also presents a number of opportunities.

As well as making the most of click and collect services, many town centres may also be able to capitalise on the ‘clicks to bricks’ phenomenon – where online retailers open physical stores in order to provide their customers with an enhanced experience, such as being able to trial goods before purchasing.

Grimsey 2 also outlines a number of other ways in which high streets can capitalise on technology – from providing free wifi and spaces for freelancers to work/come together, to becoming involved in digital marketing campaigns and gathering/using local datasets.

In Scotland, a number of ‘Digital Town’ pilots have been set up with a view to improving the high street’s digital infrastructure and skills, and supporting high streets to take advantage of these in order to boost tourism and local economies. Related guidance on the development of ‘Digital Towns’ has also been produced.

A well-supported high street

There is also a range of innovative supports for high streets – some more traditional, like business improvement districts, and others more unconventional – such as the growth of popup shops and other supports for local entrepreneurs.  We have discussed the many benefits of markets for town centres in a previous blog post. There have also been various awards and awareness-raising campaigns, such as Love Your Local Market, and the Great British High Street.

Another approach is to use the planning system.  One particularly innovative example of is that of the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ – Scotland’s first Simplifed Planning Zone (SPZ) focusing on town centres.  It was set up in 2015 and built on the success of Glasgow’s award-winning Hillington Park SPZ.

The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle. According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Renfrewshire Council have published a ‘how to’ guide detailing their experience.

To be continued…

These are but a few of the many innovative ideas and experiences that have helped town centres across the country.

In our next post, we will continue this theme and outline some additional ways that town centres can help to address their challenges and increase footfall – through community involvement, good quality, inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street.


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“The great British sell-off” – losing community assets to balance budgets

Since 2016, local authorities have been allowed to invest the proceeds of assets sold by April 2019 (now extended to 2021-22) into transforming frontline services, something they were previously prohibited from doing.  Following years of austerity and the extent of recent government funding cuts, it is not surprising that councils have used such money in this way.

However, the rate at which such assets are being sold has raised concerns over the potential loss of publicly-owned buildings and spaces.  Earlier this year, coinciding with the launch of their Save our Spaces campaign, Locality highlighted that on average more than 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces in England are being sold off every year – “more than four times the number of Starbucks in the UK.”

‘Financial predicament’

This year’s National Audit Office (NAO) report on the financial sustainability of councils highlights the financial predicament facing councils across the country. While it notes that the sector has done well to manage substantial funding cuts since 2010-11, financial pressure has increased markedly since 2014. In real terms, there has been a reduction in government funding of 49.1% since 2010, representing a reduction in local government spending power of 28.6%.

These cuts are coupled with rising demand for services and other cost pressures. For example, demand has increased for homelessness services and adult and children’s social care. The NAO highlights that from 2010-11 to 2016-17:

  • the number of households assessed as homeless and entitled to temporary accommodation under the statutory homeless duty increased by 33.9%;
  • the number of looked-after children grew by 10.9%; and
  • the estimated number of people in need of care aged 65 and over increased by 14.3%.

Other cost pressures have included higher national insurance contributions, the apprenticeship levy and the National Living Wage.

It is perhaps no shock that Northamptonshire county council became the first local authority since 1998 to be issued with a section 114 notice earlier this year, indicating it was unable to balance its books and at risk of being unable to set a legal budget for 2018/19. Nor is it indeed a shock that the NAO have identified other councils that are in danger of following suit in the next three years.

Despite this dire financial situation, it seems worse is to come. It has been recently announced that local services are to face a further £1.3bn cut in government funding in 2019/20. The revenue support grant, the main source of government funding for local services, will be cut by 36% next year – the largest annual deduction in almost a decade.

While the 2018 Budget has made provision for extra funding for adult social care, recent analysis suggests this falls short of what is needed to plug the projected funding gap.

Plugging the gap

In a desperate bid to raise finances, councils have been trying to find alternative income streams. A growing reliance on the use of reserves to offset funding reductions is an approach highlighted as unsustainable by the NAO. Most councils plan to increase or introduce charges for various services and many have also been making use of the government’s flexibility offer of using capital receipts to make improvements to services.

According to the NAO, in the year to April 2017, £118.5m of such capital receipts were used in this way. Locality has reported that the rate of asset sales has been consistently high for the last five years, with an average of 4,131 publicly owned buildings and spaces being sold off each year. Many councils are hoping to sell off their historic town halls to save much needed money. But it’s not just buildings that are under threat; council-owned parks and other land are also at risk. A recent parks survey, published by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), found that 85% of councils surveyed expect a cut in parks and green space funding in the next year. In January, Knowsley council voted to go ahead with proposals to sell 10% of its parkland to fund the running of its remaining parks, since funding for its green spaces is to end in March 2019.

Locality warns that selling such assets on the open market could result in them being lost to the community forever as they have no real influence over what they will be used for; and could potentially lead to social, economic and environmental decline.

Indeed, concerns have been raised over the programme of disposing of council assets by Norfolk County Council, which has recently been reported to be looking to save £10m by selling its assets.

Locality suggests that community ownership is the answer to saving such assets under threat. Community Asset Transfer, set up in 2003, enables councils to sell assets to community organisations at below market rates in return for demonstrable community benefit.

In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations. However, the Locality report shows that less than half of councils have a Community Asset Transfer policy. It also notes that while community ownership is a ‘powerful alternative’ to losing public buildings and spaces, it is not straight forward, and community organisations face a number of barriers, including:

  • funding;
  • lack of expertise;
  • limited time; and
  • a lack of clear process.

With 95% of councils surveyed expecting the sell-off of publicly owned buildings and spaces to play an increasingly important role in the next five years, it is surely paramount that something is done to protect important community assets from being lost.

Way forward

Locality has called for the government to create a Community Ownership Fund and for a change in legislation to make it easier for community organisations to gain control of such assets.

Or perhaps councils could follow the example of others who, instead of selling their assets, are using them to generate revenue. Lewisham Council for example, is planning to raise £500k through hosting large commercial events in its parks.

Whatever route local authorities take, it remains to be seen if others will follow in the  footsteps of Northamptonshire or succeed in counteracting continuing cuts to maintain services and balance budgets; and indeed protect important community assets.


If you enjoyed reading this you may also like our previous blogs on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of green spaces.

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Want to understand what’s going on in the world? New books in our library can help

Our research team are focused on helping our members put evidence into practice in fields as diverse as planning, housing, education and social services. But more generally, our library collection covers social commentary and political critique – books to help you understand the state of the world and the times we are living through.

Here are some of the latest and most popular books in our library just now.

  • Human+Machine

Where is Artificial Intelligence heading and what does it mean for our lives, especially how we work?  AI has huge potential for redesigning jobs and tasks to support productivity and economic growth. But what are the wider implications? This book from Harvard Business Review explores the steps any organisation should be taking to understand and benefit from AI. It also considers the human consequences of skills gaps and disruption.

  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Winner of multiple book awards, Reni Eddo-Lodge has written an essential handbook for anyone who wants to understand race relations in Britain today. As well as analysing structural racism, she calls on everyone to see, acknowledge and counter racism. Going forward, Eddo-Lodge calls for us to ‘listen intently, learn from marginalised perspectives, intervene as bystanders and collectively address profound inequalities’.

  • Prosperity Without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow

In a challenge to conventional economics and the unquestioning pursuit of growth through material consumption, Tim Jackson considers what prosperity could look like if sustainability was taken seriously as an objective. The new edition of this classic text brings the discussion up-to-date and identifies clear steps to make a ‘post-growth economy’ a reality.

  • WTF

Robert Peston is a hugely successful political, economics and business journalist and his book WTF gives a personal view of what has gone wrong within our society and how we could put at least some of it right. From Trump to Brexit, Facebook scandals to austerity, this book may be an easy read but it’s also an intelligent, thought-provoking call to action.

  • The Tyranny of Metrics

The objectivity promised by metrics, and the decision-making that results, is critiqued in this book which claims that we’ve gone from measuring performance to fixating on measuring itself. With examples from across the public and private sectors it explores the trend towards measuring and paying for performance. And considers when and how to use metrics appropriately.

  • Doughnut Economics

Is it a sign of the times that many of our most popular books at the moment are focused on economic theory? Kate Raworth’s book critiques mainstream economics and offers a new economic model fit for the 21st century. This new model would take justice, fairness and rights as foundational principles.

  • The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration

David Goodhart’s book draws on both interviews and statistics to chart the ways in which Britain has transformed through immigration over the last seventy years. What does this say about race, immigration and multiculturalism today, and how can we have a more nuanced discussion of the winners and losers of such social shifts.

  • Poverty Safari

Winner of 2018’s Orwell book prize, Darren McGarvey (aka rapper Loki) brings together in this book his own experiences growing up in Pollok, Glasgow and testimonies of people in deprived communities across Britain. A powerful critique of how both left-wing and right-wing politics misunderstand the complexity of poverty as it is experienced, the book ultimately provides an uplifting focus on the potential of individuals to create change.

Books for all

These are just some of the books currently popular among our members. Created over forty years, there are more than 60,000 books and reports in our library collection, as well as hundreds of different journal titles. Our members can borrow any book from our collection via a postal loan service – offered free as part of the organisational membership subscription to our Idox Information Service.

Quick reads – such as the policy briefings written by our own team – will always be popular given the pressures on people’s time, but book loans are still a hugely important part of our service. Many organisations use membership of our service as a way to support their staff’s CPD – whether that’s informal personal interest or supplementary support for staff doing formal courses or degrees.


Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Get more information on membership here or contact us to arrange a free trial of our service for your organisation.

Creating caring places: placemaking in our town centres

What do caring places look like? How can planners, developers and project organisers contribute to the discourse around creating caring places? And what responsibility do they have to communities to help develop places that put people at their heart?

They are just some of the questions being increasingly raised by organisations in Scotland, trying to identify if there is a new way to focus on place and wellbeing in Scotland’s towns. Projects such as Carnegie Trust’s Kindness, Scottish Towns partnerships’ Town Centres First, or Architecture and Design Scotland’s Creating Caring Places are all exploring the importance of the quality of a place to the wellbeing of people who live there. But what does this mean for people who actually plan these areas, and what could they consider in the future to help develop more caring places?

The 3 P’s: place, people, practice

Many of the discussions around creating places which foster wellbeing and wellness centre around 3 key concepts:

Place: Understanding place and the impact that it has on wellbeing is a significant part of this agenda. The environment in which people live day-to-day has a significant impact on individuals and can be both a positive or negative influence. It can help to facilitate positive community interaction, creating stronger community ties and helping organisations and people to feel more valued within their community.

In order for places to be caring a number of factors have been identified, and these are common across research done by a number of organisations including Architecture and Design Scotland and the Carnegie Trust. These include: a sense of support (from people); a sense of purpose (stuff to do); a sense of place (familiar surroundings); and a sense of worth (feeling wanted).

People: Loneliness or social isolation has the same impact on health and mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Traditionally, it has often been assumed that older people are most often victims of social isolation (as they are less mobile and less willing or able to participate in community activities). Recently however more research has been produced which highlights the growing isolation of younger people. Understanding the nature of isolation, which impacts across the whole community, can help us to identify effective solutions which benefit and engage multiple groups.

Practice: This particularly relates to care within communities. The process of deciding where and how we care for the old or ill is a vital part of how we function as a society. Effective care extends far beyond the physical act of caring for someone, although this is obviously a key element. It also includes creating more and better jobs within the sector, and encouraging people to enter the profession as a worthwhile career choice; shifting the focus from acute to primary care settings and away from hospital-based emergency care; and giving people greater choice about how and where they receive care through increasing and improved personalisation of services.

There is a responsibility on both spatial and community planners to identify need and to create places which facilitate wellness, choice and care at home. This could be through the building of new infrastructure or more effective transport, or it could be through the creating of a community centre which offers recreational classes to someone who would otherwise have no contact with the outside world. Putting place at the centre of discussions provides an opportunity for a community approach to wellbeing, with strategies on placemaking being linked to other approaches such as asset-based, or strengths-based, planning.

Thinking about people like we think about the environment

Even as little as 10 years ago, the prevalence of environmental impact assessments for development projects was limited. Now we take for granted that we measure the impact of a project on the environment. What if we thought about people and in particular the risk of isolation, in the same way during planning processes? What if developers, planners and project organisers considered the “isolation impact” of a project, how it would impact the people of a local area, and whether it would specifically impact one group more than another (either for good or for bad), and reported on the steps they were taking to mitigate any adverse impact?

It is a striking notion, but creating a set of criteria to measure the social impact of developments, may be hugely useful if we are trying to place an increasing emphasis on inclusion and community within our town centres.

In fact, planners are beginning to realise the critical role they play in connecting services to people, and the necessity of understanding which services are needed in an area and how to make them as accessible for the whole community as possible. And while it is down to the community to use the resources they are given by planners to create connections and networks that help to combat things like poor mental health and social isolation, the decisions that planners make about how and where to plan in services and infrastructure can be the difference between someone leading an active and engaged life, and someone living a life where the only human contact they have in a day is a carer.

Planners can and should recognise the significant role they can play in making someone’s life more livable.

Final thoughts

Creating caring places for people to live and grow old in is vital to the success of our communities. Effective and thoughtful decisions on investments such as infrastructure and community planning projects can have a significant positive impact on wellbeing and reduce loneliness not only among older people, but throughout the community.

Increasingly, policy makers in Scotland are being asked to consider the human element of planning in their work. Creating places that allow people to feel safe, valued and happy is key for planners to help bridge the gap between the creation of places, and the wellbeing of people who live in them.


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