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Delivering Action in Your Town Centre

Chris Jones runs Chris Jones Regeneration, a values based consultancy that cares about bringing long lasting benefits for communities across Wales, the United Kingdom and beyond. Chris was project lead for the Blaenau Ffestiniog revitalisation process featured as one of the case studies in 20/20 Visions.

By Chris Jones

As you embark on a journey to revitalize your town centre or community, it’s important to be clear about where you want to go.  Understanding where you are and where you want to be, making best use of the physical assets of a place, energising people and bringing them together with a common focus is all equally important.

Developing a Vision and a Plan for a place can work on all levels – a building, street, square, large area of land, town centre or for the wider settlement.  It is also important to realise that sometimes having fuzzy boundaries is good as places don’t stop at the city limits but relate to other places whether there are workforce, transportation, employment and/or other factors that may have an influence.

A Vision for….

When a town needs a vision it is sometimes because it lacks one or it needs to remind itself about its function, identity and future opportunities.  The need to reimagine town centres is important as we’re not about “popping out to the shops” anymore but about using towns as place to do business, spend social time in and engage in arts or cultural activity.  A vision isn’t just a physical visualization of where a place wants to be, it also needs to consider its social make-up and how it can unlock economic and social opportunity, and local service delivery for a diverse and maturing population.  It also needs to reflect on the distinct environmental qualities of its place that define its history, setting and modern day identity.

A vision can also work alongside destination building, acting as a messenger for economic development, inward investment and tourism. This creates an open door for companies and investors that see the potential and who want to locate in the city or town to be part of the local business community.

Lastly and importantly, a vision needs to relate to its local community so people understand the current health of their town or place, to understand choices and how development and infrastructure can meet their needs, and how it can benefit them.

Language is therefore important so that it connects with strategic organisations and local residents, shows a sensible logic to proposed actions and sets out some ambition. Visions by their nature need to be forward looking and about horizons.  They also need to show through their accompanying plans the steps to get to the end goals, so that they build confidence and show visible benefits along the way.

Involving People

Plans will only succeed if people have been involved and have ownership.  Sadly, words like stakeholder management are creeping into regeneration these days.  Values of participation and involvement as a continuum is therefore critical to people understanding, responding and helping co-deliver future plans and action.  Communication is often over-looked when addressing who needs to have a voice in the process and how they can join the conversation, whether this be through open meetings, roadshows or roaming place workshops. Use of the web, social media and surveys are also good tools for getting people involved.

In developing plans for the regeneration of Blaenau Ffestiniog, involving local people was critical to the success of future plans.  This included creative examples of visitor journey reflections on the local steam train, town centre walkabouts, community workshops sessions using local slate as a canvass for sketching out ideas, and the use of physical models in workshops and exhibitions.

Community participation is important to mapping the physical and social capital and challenges of a town, often revealing stories and the personality of a place that aren’t written down but told by people. Local people also help us understand how they use their towns and why they don’t.  They will also tell you what will attract them back into a place, often wanting to get involved through a community organization or as a local resident.

It is equally important to involve people that have direct influence such as large and small businesses/employers, landlords, public sector bodies, educational institutions, transport providers – among others. Finally make sure young people have a chance to get involved, after all they will be adults, perhaps parents, when they start to see the plan come to fruition!

Whilst the client within the local authority may consider themselves as a leader of a visioning and place based process, they need a champion.  This needn’t just be the Council’s cabinet member. This could be a local business person, a major employer or a community organization, or could involve a series of champions that represent business, transport, learning, culture, etc.  You may want to consider somebody that is new to a town or a place and who brings a different perspective.  Equally, somebody born and bred locally would understand how the town has evolved as well as its people.

Maintaining the energy, trust and relationship beyond a plan-making process is also important as people want to see things happen and be reminded that they were a part of the initial conversation that led to action.  Remember managing change in towns and communities takes time and how you communicate progress is key to showing the value of your town’s vision and plan, and keeping people interested.

A Doing Plan

When looking for a focused approach to delivering change in town centres, masterplans tend to be favoured as they present and analyse an understanding of place, and provide a structured approach to creating a clear and consistent framework for development.  These tend to focus on:

  • suitable locations for commercial, housing and mixed-use development;
  • locations where the town or city should increase density, use redevelopment, or intervene in other ways;
  • opportunities to extend and/or improve open space, recreational areas, and civic facilities;
  • strategies from increasing or growing economic development;
  • environmental, historic and cultural resources that need conservation; and
  • strategies for solving congestion and improving transportation

Master plan-led approaches often tackle issues through a process founded on co-ordination, sharing ideas and collaboration across professional disciplines that includes matching assets with potential users.

Whilst masterplans are about physical place-led solutions they also need to understand the current behavior of users and whether enhancements and new uses can stimulate additional activity that makes towns and places that are pleasurable to live, work and enjoy.  The knitting together of masterplans with economic development and destination management needs is key as well as planning-led allocations so an integrated approach to delivering policy is achieved.

In addition to having an awareness of specific opportunities for sites and properties, sustainability should run through a masterplan as a constant check with affordability, energy efficiency, green infrastructure, biodiversity, health and well-being and good connectivity. Masterplanning should also be about raising the quality of place-led design solutions that show creativity, innovation and make statements of intent.  They should not be about window dressing and piece-meal solutions but demonstrate a real understanding of a town centre’s built assets, its distinctiveness and identify where new interventions can add to the form and activity.

Design should be about recognition of a town’s distinctiveness and should also show opportunities for making statements that take a community forward.  Design codes should therefore cover key strategic sites, a group of buildings or key streets and can be adopted by the local planning authority as supplementary planning guidance. They should also be about ‘talking-up’ a place through a plan-led prospectus that identifies the unique selling points of a place, proposed infrastructure enhancements and how investors can complement a place.

Some examples of where towns have used digital medium to show their visions and plans can be found further away in Warringah, New South Wales, Australia.  These short films help visualise issues, opportunities and show to the local community and future investors the way that visions and masterplans are going to be delivered.

Research undertaken for the North East branch of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) identifies that: where masterplans tend to work they have either met or exceeded the brief, complied with policy, undertaken a sound and thorough approach, responded to constraints, proposed efficient infrastructure, suggested viable components and set out a framework for positive inter relationships. Town centre visions and masterplans can also help provide a business case for funding and grants – often at a programme level – or can support individual sites and buildings. This could be through Government programmes, Heritage Lottery Funding, transport grants and to shape capital programmes.

Working for Isle of Anglesey County Council in Holyhead, we helped develop a Vision and Masterplan document which led to securing Heritage Lottery funding and Vibrant and Viable Places funding from Welsh Government.  If you want to find out about best practice advice for masterplanning, guidance can be found in England and Scotland.

In addition to masterplans, Neighbourhood Plans and Place Plans are also about realising economic, environmental and social ambitions for a place that are informed, logical and delivered through a partnership approach.  In England, the Government’s 2012 Localism Act provided powers to produce Neighbourhood Plans which help shape development in terms of location and what it will look like for uses such as housing and employment.  The development of Neighbourhood Plans is through strong community engagement as debates focus on how best to provide for new housing and employment and to understand the implications for local services in line with future growth.  Plans that have been held up as best practice include Thame in Oxfordshire, which was awarded the 2013 RTPI award for Innovative Plan Making.

This approach to neighbourhood planning is fairly new in Wales with Place Plans now forming part of the Planning Wales Act 2015.  Abergele in Conwy County Borough, North Wales is an example of where a Place Plan process has been undertaken.  The Design Commission for Wales has also invested in a toolkit “shape my town” which provides a step by step guide to assessing the quality of their place, town, village or neighbourhood before investing time and money in improving it.  Other Welsh Councils such as Monmouthshire County Council have adopted a service delivery focus to places with their whole place planning approach.  This is an initiative that looks at how a whole area approach to public services can lead to better services at less cost.

Are We There Yet?

Often overlooked is the need to monitor and understand the impacts of a town centre vision and masterplan.  Establishing a strategic headline level of indicators is important as well as local street level ways of measurement.  Away from statistics, citizen panels, e-zines, social media updates and vox pops through audio and video, annual reports help communicate progress to the wider community as well as local people communicating how they feel.  The mid Wales market town of Llandrindod Wells has recently launched an annual report for its economic action plan for the town in the form of a short film on its activity to date.

Key Pointers

Some of the main tips when considering a vision or plan for your place or town centre include:

  • Understand why you need a vision and a plan and whether it has a specific focus
  • Identify who needs to be involved, how to communicate with your community and find champions that will promote the opportunity
  • Find ways of understanding your place or town centre and not just through physical analysis
  • Look at what types of activity can be unlocked through physical development and improvement
  • Have a timeline that allows for ambition and making progress on small wins and longer term goals
  • Think of your audience – your local community and also people that want to invest – what are you unique selling points?
  • Build in monitoring and establish some outcomes that are realistic and show holistic as well as project related

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