To fall back in love with Scotland's towns, let's get to know them better first
"Now this is the best set of traffic lights in the whole of Scotland."
It's not every day that a taxi driver is so effusive about the street furniture, so I was intrigued to find out what this particular set of Glasgow Southside lights had done to get my cabbie going. It turns out that these are 'smart' lights. To speed things up, they make flash decisions about changing colour based on the volume of cars waiting rather than being simply timed to change on a fixed pattern.
Online resource for Scottish towns launched
Interview with Phil Prentice, chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership
This is one small part of the Glasgow Future Cities project, a major pilot to help large UK cities combine data and technology to improve efficiency. With more people than ever moving into urban areas, understanding how places are actually functioning and being used is becoming critical to keeping them moving and working.
However, Scotland is a country of small to medium sized town communities. Towns have, for many years, been a slightly overlooked and poorly understood part of our economy and society.
Carnegie UK Trust, based in the town of Dunfermline, has been a long-time supporter of policy and practical innovation in towns. Thinking about support for towns, we came up again and again against the same two barriers:
- A lot of strategic planning about towns was based on little evidence, but a lot of gut instinct
- Policymakers lacked investigative tools and we often ended up investing the same amounts and providing the same services in every town, regardless of need or local context or indeed measurable outcomes
In 2014, co-funded with the Scottish Government and delivered by a broad consortium of partners, we began a major new project to try and design a single data platform for all towns or places of more than 1,000 people across Scotland. The result? Understanding Scottish Places (USP) launched this spring.
Any town can be compared with any other, on any one of dozens of data indicators. The consortium has also built a new typology of towns, to help show similarities and differences between communities, and the first time we have developed an interrelationships framework to show how towns work with their neighbours. Towns work in systems with each helping the other, they are rarely in total isolation, and knowing how we actually use these systems can help us to rethink strategies for them over time.
People are already using USP to spark new discussions about their towns: about where they are today, what they want to be like, and where they want to go as vibrant places. Over the course of this year we will be listening to communities across the country to improve the tool, but for now we hope that at least it helps us to start the job of facing up to the realities of our towns. Rather than making guesses.