Who owns the town centre?

Pop up cinema for interactive showing of GirlWalk brought new life to Glasgow stalled space

Sometimes the transformation seems magical. A rubbish dump becomes a wild flower meadow, blighted town centre turns into vibrant street market, forbidding wasteland twinkles with a pop-up cinema. But there is no magic wand. Community empowerment is a two-way commitment with a vital message for policy makers.

Top down policy won’t transform those wasted spaces. Meaningful regeneration has to grow upwards from community grassroots. But that takes skilful and sensitive encouragement from both local and national governments. OK, let’s get back to the magical bit.

At first, as Fife Council discovered, local people can be reluctant to get involved. What did the town centre have to do with them? What could they do to improve neglected sites, surely that’s a council responsibility? In other words, perhaps they wonder, ‘who owns the town centre?’

Jaws on Kirkcaldy waterfront

But with just enough support – and a route map through the maze of planning regulations – community groups began to take control, bringing new life to town centres with gusto. A beach appears in the centre and then a pop-up screening of Jaws on the waterfront of Kirkcaldy, a community garden grows in Cupar, murals make the most of building site hoardings, storytelling tents add dreams to the summer holidays.

That was a story told by Andrew Walker of Fife Council at Seeding Success: learning from Stalled Spaces Scotland in Paisley in May. The event celebrated the way communities are transforming local eyesores across Scotland. It was a cheering challenge to what often feels to be our prevailing mood of doom and despair.

As Magnus Jamieson observes (Natural landscapes shaped by social injustice) there is no part of the Scottish landscape which has not been shaped by human action. For better and, too often, for worse, rural and urban environments are marked and enclosed by the decisions of a few powerful people.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Where there is the will – and they know the way to do it – local communities can reclaim and make good use of at least some of their surrounding space. The evidence lies in the remarkable successes of the Stalled Spaces project described in two articles by Susan Mansfield elsewhere on Sceptical Scot (see From eyesore to empowerment and Regeneration comes from community grassroots).

There are no quick fixes. It takes time, hard work and a certain amount of hard cash to create a successful community venture. Yet, an untold wealth of local talent, energy and imagination is there to be unleashed if the local authority is ready to open the right doors.

Without support, the language and skills required to make applications may exclude some. Fife Council had supported community groups with applications. Most sites were in public ownership – there were no issues negotiating access: Andrew Walker Fife Council, Seeding Success newsletter

Community toolkit

The Stalled Spaces project – which grew out of a visionary Glasgow City Council scheme and spread with support from the Scottish Government – has come to an end. But examples (temporary and permanent) remain as inspiration. And Architecture and Design Scotland, which managed the national project, has produced a Stalled Spaces toolkit to guide community groups through the essential steps of creating a successful scheme.

It contains much more than the seeds of a new community garden. It is a step towards investing in real and fairly shared regeneration. The point is underlined by Diarmaid Lawlor, Director of A&DS:

We talk about getting increased participation in community involvement and civic action, but not everybody wants to participate in workshops, meetings and agendas. The stalled space is a place where you meet, grow cabbages and begin to talk about what regeneration actually looks like in your area.

We’ve got ways of getting rid of bad buildings and replacing them with new ones, but we don’t actually have ways of building a community. The Stalled Space could be a prototype, a way of building a community of interest which then builds a kind of governance framework. It’s about citizen participation: about creating empowered communities.

Download the Stalled Spaces toolkit HERE

Featured image: GirlWalk pop up interactive cinema in Glasgow riverside stalled space : picture Stuart Crawford 


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