Trevor Davies: Solid foundations build a real community
DEAF to local people and their needs planners and politicians conspire to blight the landscape, writes Trevor Davies
I need to say it quietly these days – I never watch sport. Here we are, the golden Olympics just over and the Paralympics happening, the nation still enthralled, and I don’t watch sport. Perhaps I should practice the Mobot in front of the mirror and just pretend.
But I was as enthralled as everyone else when Team GB medals kept rolling in. It was the relief and joy on the faces of the athletes and the almost equal joy in the roars of the spectators. That grin on Mo Farah’s face. Chris Hoy’s tears. Wiggo on his throne. And Jessica Ennis seeming to float on air.
The extraordinary opening ceremony too. A bold thing to put the NHS centre stage but Danny Boyle was right. When we come down to it, the NHS is one of our country’s institutions we value above all else. It is just as much a huge British achievement as all those medals from Team GB. It’s something that we made together as a country, as a community, it belongs to all of us and it feels good to celebrate it.
Later, when Jessica Ennis went back to her home town, the welcome was almost louder and more ecstatic than in the Olympic stadium itself. All Sheffield seemed to be there. They were celebrating Sheffield as much as Jessica Ennis’ achievements. Same with Chris Hoy in Edinburgh. There’s his golden post box on the corner of Princes Street and locals and tourists queuing up to be photographed, grinning, next to it.
It was that burst-forth sense of belonging, and joy in the achievement of others as well as ourselves, which struck me. We’re such a funny mix of a country, always have been, people migrating in and out, different beliefs, different colours, but yet there’s that real delight in being us, whether that’s Britain or Scotland or Sheffield or Edinburgh. It’s all “us”. It’s being included as part of this place that tells us who we are, never mind how different each of us is.
In another sense, too, place makes us who we are. Where we live affects how we live and how well we live. Some places, we know, are safer than others and some are healthier than others, some even help us to be more active. There are some places where children grow up happily and in contact with a wide range of people and there are some places where fearfulness keeps kids indoors. There are places where enterprise and business flourish and others where work is hard to get and harder still to keep.
The places we live shape the wellbeing of each one of us. They say who we are. They are where we belong, sports stars and ordinary folk. That’s why they’re important. Question is – who makes the places? Who gives them their shape, makes them good places or bad places to be?
Even the very idea of places being “made” seems odd. They seem like accidents. And that in a country where belonging to a place is so important.
Of course, places are made – made by human action. But so often today, unlike when Glasgow’s Merchant City or Edinburgh’s New Town were built, there seems to be little common community intention. A study by Glasgow University for Architecture+Design Scotland and a report by the Scottish Government’s own council of economic advisers both found the places we build today to be mostly mediocre, certainly not as good as those our European colleagues now build.
Few people seem to ask – what do we want our place to be like and how is it going to provide all-round well-being for the people who’ll live and work here? The new places we build seem to be driven by money and not much else. “Carpet-bombing the countryside” was how one architect described some housing schemes.
Except when using events to stir up a kind of small-focus patriotism, intended to exclude people who don’t share their position as much as to include those who do, like David Cameron with the Olympics and Alex Salmond with almost everything, governments tend not to care about place very much. They do services, they do law-making, but place-making doesn’t register.
It leads to terrible waste of public money. The Total Place initiative in England (we have no such thing in Scotland) found that just to develop the economy of one place – Leicester and Leicestershire … there were 64 different national-to-local funding streams, each with their own national rules, and at least 44 per cent of funds lost in control and administration.
Of course, the private sector can do at least as much for the local place economy as any government spending. But in the free-market free-for-all that passes as our economy any thought of nurturing the local economy and local attachment to place, despite the efforts of Chambers of Commerce is overwhelmed by “clone town” chains and the uninterested ownership of hedge funds or foreign investors.
Local government ought to have the powers and show the leadership to shape local market forces. But the powers aren’t there. Government ministers, with no attachment to that local place can, and do, interfere in every local decision from playgrounds to shop signs. And, without powers to act responsibly, much local leadership is withering. It can be reversed and in Places Need Leaders Architecture+Design Scotland shows how.
Most important the people who belong to a place don’t get enough say in making their place. We seem to have lost the space and the words for us to debate with each other the question – what do we want our place to be like? Perhaps it’s time to roar, in Olympic volume, to those who have ears to hear – “this place matters!”
• Trevor Davies is honorary professor in urban studies at the University of Glasgow
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