The World Towns Leadership Summit: Renewing Hope for Towns

Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) Chief Officer Phil Prentice shares his thoughts on a variety of opportunities and issues for towns to be addressed at the World Towns Leadership Summit.


The world we live in often feels chaotic, individuals display a growing disaffection with society, we appear desensitised to conflict and corruption. A lack of control and influence in a superficial world that crowns reality TV kings and then switches to children drowning in the Mediterranean without a second thought. We learn that 1% of the world’s population owns more than 50% of its wealth, that our children will be worse off than us, that we are currently consuming at a rate of 3.4 planet earths - last time I looked there was still only the one.

As a child of Northern Ireland’s conflict (I was born the year the “Troubles” started), perhaps this has always been the way, maybe now it’s just how all of this is presented to us via a constant media bombardment.

However, when we pause to reflect, the parts of the world we can influence are usually those which matter most to our sense of contentment and fulfilment. Our family and community relations, the places where we live, the individual paths we choose.

As our world began its journey towards urbanisation we had various champions such as Robert Owen, Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes who all struggled to make sense of humanity and urbanity.

Scotland is now taking a world lead again in preparing to grasp this thistle; all roads are leading to Edinburgh this summer, the world is coming to talk towns, the future, social justice and environmentally sustainable communities.

Over the last few months we have been engaging the world’s leading urbanists, economists and social reformers. We have been asking them – how can we learn from the mistakes of the past to recreate economic models and environments in our towns that create hope.

We have developed a number of new overarching principles to start shaping this new agenda – these focus on the four pillars of;

1: The unique identity of place - 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. Develop unique visions,encourage plurality and participationacknowledge there will be multiple pathways.

2: Local economies - We recognise that the scale of small towns and urban neighbourhoods facilitates people meeting each other, sharing information, opportunities and insights. Driving effective change needs rich local data –conversational, experiential, quantitative – and local ways to harvest that data. That should lead to open sharing of data and knowledge. Differentiate and create comparative advantage and smart specialisations. Foster localLeadershipmix up traditional top down initiative, alongside new spaces for co-creation, and co-production.

 3: Governance and citizenship - Great relationships with blurred boundaries. We recognise that great towns have great economic relationships. These relationships foster collaboration, based on shared outcomes. We recognise that successful places will embrace the blurring, bridging and fusion of the traditional boundaries between public, commercial, and community sectors. We can have Hubs to integrate new cultures and citizens, alongside modern governance structures with inclusive, transparent and open structures that engage citizens and direct the future of towns and urban neighbourhoods. 

4: Environments – it is vital that we reduce the environmental footprint of towns, recognise the value of environmental resources, and the responsibility for stewardship. Nurture assets - we must respect and nurture all assets, including environmental, cultural, built, economic, social, human and technological. This leads to quality of experience - We recognise that the trajectory of each town is different. There are different types of place, with different functions. We should support the enhancement of the quality of experience for people in each type of town and urban neighbourhood, informing strategies around the blend of services, amenities and design quality.

These are big thoughts for a big issue. Join us at the World Towns Leadership Summit in Our Dynamic Earth in June to see how we can start building a better world. My Belfast of the future is already taking steps towards healing the wounds and rebuilding: there is hope in bomb city.

Centre for Scottish Public Policy
c/o Digby Brown LLP
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Causewayside House
Edinburgh EH9 1PR
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