‘Oor Summit’ and its Big Ears

Professor Leigh Sparks writes on the World Towns Leadership Summit, 15-16 June. Professor Sparks is Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. 


Towards the end of the first day of the World Towns Leadership Summit in Edinburgh last week, Neil McInroy tried to describe and capture the sense of engagement and endeavour that the delegates were displaying and he used the phrase ‘Oor Summit’, suggesting collective ownership and collegiality as opposed to just another conference event.

It certainly felt like that, as the delegates strove to amend, rethink and embrace the putative World Towns Agreement.

This is not the place to go through the many excellent provocations, presentations and discussions, and as a participant in two panel sessions, I am not necessarily the best person to make such reflections.  But, I do want to draw out a couple of themes that I felt capture the mood about rethinking and reinventing towns and places.

A recurring element from the outset was the framing of towns and our actions with them as issues of connectivity.  Connectivity can mean many things to many people – and indeed the summit was about connectivity.  The Cabinet Secretary, Angela Constance MSP spoke about the connectivity of political and government actions that runs from the National Review through to the way towns help produce a fairer Scotland.  Connectivity encompassed the idea of towns as spaces where digital meets physical; and where unique identities can be forged.  Connectivity in human form came in the persuasive arguments ofMichael Shuman and the need to truly embrace localism and the local economy and the need for human ‘pollinations’ in places.  This was also developed very strongly by Kelvin Campbell (see for example Smart Urbanism and Massive Small) and the need for radical incrementalism and compact urbanism.

Tina Saaby coined a phrase that resonated with many when she described her and Copenhagen’s approach as being ‘Big Ears’, constantly listening to and not telling, people about their lives, places, desires and ambitions.  She described new ways of working, engaging and co-creating in places and made the initial point that there will need to be time for people to get used to this and to work out roles, relationships and shared actions.  As Jim Yanchula, channeling his inner Shakespeare noted: ‘What is the city, but the people’.  We should be listening to them from the outset.

These themes of connecting and listening were exampled in very different ways by many of the discussants and presenters and resonated strongly across the Summit.  Whether it was Cape Town or Times Square, New York the need to relink, re-energise and c0-create our communities shone through, as did the passion and ambitions to deliver great towns and urban spaces.

These international perspectives added valuable dimensions to our Scottish reflections.  It is of course only a short time since the Town Centre Review and the Town Centre Action Plan and we should be quietly proud of our achievements.  It is the reason this first Summit came to Scotland.  Actions on the ground in towns across Scotland are beginning to see rewards.  New ways of working/listening/engaging, whether using tools such as the Towns Toolkit, Understanding Scottish Places and the Place Standard or through rethinking the Charrette process as outlined by Kevin Murray are transforming engagement and action.  As we move from anecdote to structured data (of all forms) comparing and linking places and ideas, we can open up real opportunities locally, nationally and internationally.

On a personal level, I was also taken by the idea of ‘health by stealth’ mentioned by Charlie Langhorne and his Wild in Art.  I am not sure that after two days of engagement in the Summit I was in any mental or physical state to do a full Art Trail, but I do want one of his dragons for my garden.

A storify of the Summit by Cathy Parker can be found here and an ‘official’ one is also being prepared.  A quick Scotland Towns Partnership blog review is here. A Summary document from the Summit is available here as is the new and current version of theFramework. During the Summit a visual representation of the debate and discussion, as well as the Framework was drawn by Chris Beynon of MIG and can be seen in the photo at the top of this blog.

 So what next? The World Towns Framework has been developed and will be adapted, altered and re-worked to fit the broad needs of places and people.  I will say more on that again.  STP will house and organise this ‘living’ development of the Framework, so check with their website as it evolves the Framework.  But for all the delegates at ‘Oor Summit’ there is more than enough inspiration, enthusiasm and perspiration to take forward the Framework and the detailed learnings and apply them in their own unique places.

Source: Stirling Retail

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