Creating a World Towns Agreement for the 21st Century

CSPP features a series of ongoing blogs from Diarmaid Lawlor, Head of Urbanism at Architecture and Design Scotland, who explains and explores the key ideas informing the creation of a World Towns Agreement. The Agreement is being crowdsourced globally to shape the priorities of urban development in the 21st century, and will be further refined and launched at the World Towns Leadership Summit in Edinburgh, Scotland 15-16 June. Diarmaid’s posts can be read on LinkedIn.  


Crowdsourcing a World Towns Agreement

Diarmaid Lawlor, Head of Urbanism at Architecture and Design Scotland

“Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century. Our success or failure in building sustainable cities will be a major factor in the success of the post-2015 UN development agenda”

John Wilmoth, Director of UN DESA’s Population Division

Today the world is faced with unprecedented challenges and opportunities: by 2030 two thirds of the world population will live in urban areas; 15% of world population will be over 65 in 2050. Nearly half of the world’s 3.9 billion urban dwellers reside in relatively small settlements with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants. Only around one in eight live in the 28 mega-cities with 10 million inhabitants or more. Many of the fastest growing urban areas in the world are relatively small urban settlements. So, towns and urban neighbourhoods matter.

However, the narrative is under represented in debates about contemporary urban change.  All too often our towns and urban neighbourhoods:

  • are subsumed into wider city or city regional planning, reducing the potential to advance town sensitive solutions and opportunities;
  • have local economies which are dominated by the wider city economy, weakening local economic energy and activity;
  • Are often remote from decision making, as they governed at a scale which sometimes fails to serve the needs, wants and desires of citizens.

Towns and urban neighbourhoods are places in themselves, the dynamics of which can help manage services, address climate change and address cultural shifts by migration. The challenge is around the ‘how’.

The World Town Leadership Summit in Edinburgh from June 15-16 will debate the role of towns in addressing global urban change. A key element of the conference will be the signing of an agreement on town futures in a changing global context. The agreement is being crowdsourced from communities and institutions across the world.  A draft provocation to initiate debate has been prepared by Architecture and Design Scotland, the national placemaking champion in Scotland, the Centre for Local Economic StrategiesScotland’s Towns Partnership with support from the Academy of Urbanism. Your insights are welcome. Please follow this link to contribute to the agreement, which is hosted as an open source editable document.


Uniqueness of Place

The provocation follows four overarching principles:

1: The unique identity of place

2: Local economies

3: Governance and citizenship

4: Environments

 This post invites discussion on the ‘Uniqueness of place’ principle:

 “We need to support the unique characteristics of each town and urban neighbourhood -  the ‘DNA of place’, to engage communities, businesses and institutions in driving forward their future, and address the plural and distinctive set  of challenges facing towns.”

Perhaps we can think about four kinds of place, each unique. The first is the place in crisis. Life support comes, or not. It invites strategy. The second is the place on the brink. The cracks aren’t visible, but the creaks are audible. Looking OK invites inertia. The third is the comfortably numb. Affluence leads to indifference. Problems are someone else’s problem. The fourth is the mainstream ordinary. Things work OK. It’s hard to excite confidence beyond the way it has always been.

The context of place isn’t always about scale. There are big failed places. It’s about narratives that invite action for impact: the unique DNA of place.


Place Plans

This blog looks at the idea of ‘place plans’ under the first overarching principle, 'The Uniqueness of Place'.

We must recognise the specific of each place.  We should draw up a unique vision for that place, drawing on learning from around the world.

Most problems in most places are about complexity. And the complexity in each place is often specific to the there of there. Initiating action to change places can be easy, and difficult. Sustaining action can be tiring, and vulnerable.

Plans are about stating benefits, and creating paths to achieve them. There are different types of plan for place. People have to act around the crisis plan. The prize is status, recognition, profile in plans driven by competitions. The third is anger with purpose. There are different and better futures if we make them. 

But, most action results from starting anywhere. Then provoking possibilities.



Collaborative working is as much about building a community for action as it is about the action. This blog addresses the issue of multiple pathways to town futures under the first overarching principle of the Agreement, The Uniqueness of Place:

We recognize that there are multiple pathways to future success. There is no single way. We accept that different towns will adopt different strategies based on triggers for action, forms of leadership, and cultural values. We recognize that doing the ‘same as usual’ won’t work.

Francesco Careri suggests that the first form of place shaping was a grass line crushed by the marching of men, in search of food. The motivation to march was provoked by the instinct to survive. The first pathways led to knowledge, about resources, plenty and poverty. Different pathways allow different possibilities to be pursued with choices and conscious decisions. The right way isn’t always obvious or easy, or mapped. They are probed and sensed. Different places have different paths, made with different decisions for different reasons. Maybe the issue isn’t the path. It is the purpose.



The power of the crowd is in mobilising ideas and feedback. It provides the opportunity for authenticity. This blog looks at the idea of ‘plurality’ under overarching principle 1, The Uniqueness of Place.

We recognize that towns and urban neighbourhoods are rapidly changing. Drawing on the insights of new citizens, cultures, businesses and institutions we must build the capacity to deal with rapid change. We recognize the importance of a plurality of views as a key aspect of town resilience.

In some places, you feel always the outsider. Even after a lifetime there. It's not about time. It’s about a specific way of seeing roots. Some see citizenship rooted in the norms, traditions and values of a specific place.

 In some places, you are accepted. Even after the briefest of moments. It’s not about time. It’s about attachment, an allegiance to ideas, possibilities, people. Some see citizenship as root-less, a value in itself, negotiated between people in places. A way of being wherever you are.

Participation is about finding the space between us. To connect. To act.



One idea of leadership ability relates to a single question: what do you do when you don’t know what to do? The ability to act is linked to knowledge, the capacity to know. This is about learning, and open-ness. Learning places share knowledge. That becomes a basis for advantage.

The purpose of the World Town Leaders Summit in Edinburgh June 15-16 is to share knowledge about the possible futures of small settlements and urban neighbourhoods. We don’t know the future. But we do know the need to work together to navigate complex, changing urban challenges. This blog addresses the issue of the 'open sharing of knowledge', one of the principles of the crowdsourced World Towns Agreement which will be debated at the Summit in June.

We believe that knowledge should be owned by the many, not the few. Great towns thrive on shared knowledge and connections, within the town and between networks of towns. Towns should find their own place in the networked economy. We need a knowledge architecture with open systems.

There are two ways to look at knowledge through services. The first is about resolution. There are problems, and there are fixers. The fixer needs the knowledge to fix. But people need the knowledge of where to find the fixer. The second is about seeing services as platforms to do other things. The setting of where and how problems are resolved also invites other interactions. People respond to the invitation and share. New opportunities are built, new relationships, new possibilities. This creates the knowledge of how to be open.

Open places need new networks to welcome, engage, and share knowledge.


Local Data

At the heart of the Agreement is the principle of supporting resilient local economies. This recognises the opportunities of ‘small’ working along side the big.

A resilient place links economic systems; the public economy, the social economy, the commercial economy. How these systems link varies from place to place depending on needs and opportunities. However, central to the 'how' are strong relationships and open data. This blog focuses on the issue of Local Data, which sits under the second Overarching Principle of the draft World Towns Agreement: Local Economies.

We recognize that the scale of small towns and urban neighbourhoods facilitates people meeting each other, sharing information, opportunity and insights. Driving effective change needs rich local data,conversational, experiential, quantitative, and local ways to harvest the data.

There are two kinds of data. The first is the ‘balcony’ view, the strategic overview. This is an observation of pattern, transactions, trends. The second is the ‘dancefloor’ view. This is experience, familiarity, insight. Both are about scale.

The problem of the first is the space in between observations. This is where assumptions about what should work are made. What actually works may be different. The problem of the second is validation; finding folk, listening and validating their experience as useful data to inform decisions.

Most decisions for most places need both the balcony and dancefloor view, simultaneously. Balcony data needs greater accuracy. Dancefloor data needs settings to meet, to build relationships, to share. Towns and urban neighbourhoods offer the right scale. Do they though offer enough of the right settings?

For more of Diarmaid’s blog entries on the World Towns Agreement, visit his page on LinkedIn

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