A wit once observed that if civic planning is an art, then the state of Swindon Town centre at the moment is a load of Jackson Pollocks.
What might help, if Swindon is to continue to flourish and grow, is expert advice. Last night such an expert took the stage at the Art Centre as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature.
Charles Landry is an author, speaker and international adviser on urban change. His job, put simply, is to “rethink cities” to make them function on a cultural, psychological and creative level.
He is a Sigmund Freud for cities.
Although without the Oedipal bit.
Landry’s proposal, as I understand it, is that we are becoming more nomadic as a people. As the possibilities of mobile working expand the concept of an old fashioned office space is rapidly becoming an old fashioned notion. It’s equally true across other industries. Businesses become more conceptual. For example: Uber don’t own any taxis, Airbnb don’t own any properties and Facebook don’t create their own media.
But equally, as the work force becomes more fractured and displaced the urge to be rooted somewhere, to have a still point, becomes even stronger. Many people are drawn towards population “hubs”, like London and Bristol, and this meeting of the insiders and the outsiders refreshes these cities’ “blood”.
But what of the other large towns and cities that don’t hold the same attraction? How do they sustain growth and civic health?
Landy’s suggestion seems to be to look at how the bigger world is working, but also look within. Make the best and most interesting use of the existing heritage today and build knowing that contemporary buildings now will be the heritage of tomorrow. Heritage next to advancement is key. There should be ambition to experiment with the existing infrastructure and a willingness to take risks.
Most importantly there should be a collaborative spirit of openness between the decision makers and the people who who live there. A give and take on both sides is a must. Stubborn intransigents can only lead to decline. A healthy city is like a healthy mind: open, flexible and willing to take on new ideas.
It’s more complicated than that, obviously, or else we’d all be doing it and Charles Landry wouldn’t have to travel the world striving to make it happen. But is it a possibility here? There’s heritage; a wealth of old building waiting for fresh life to be breathed into them. And there’s creativity; events like the Swindon Festival of Literature and the Swindon Fringe Festival prove that. And there are many, many people from many different backgrounds. In Landry’s words, what’s needed is for all these things to be “knitted together”.
Perhaps all that is lacking, at the moment, is the courage and the will.