Places Need Leaders – Part II : Places and Leaders

©  Architecture and Design Scotland 2011 uk

Trevor Davies and David Adams
Professor David Adams holds the Ian Mactaggart Chair of Property and Urban Studies in the University of Glasgow


This is part two of a short study which follows on from “Delivering Better Places in Scotland: learning from broader experience”.  Published in 2010, it investigated eight case studies elsewhere in the UK and Europe.  It provided valuable lessons from them about the process of delivering better places and set out a framework for action in Scotland.  It laid out three critical elements of that framework.  These were good leadership, the co-ordination of delivery and investment in the stewardship of place over time.

Places Need Leaders now looks at the first critical element: that of leadership.  Good leadership is first in order – but also first in importance.

This is not a definitive study; rather it sets out the scope of the issues. Part one is a summary. This part asks why the quality of place is important to all of us and examines the nature and task of local leadership.  Part three examines improvements we consider necessary if local leadership is to deliver successful places.

Our study suggests that good leadership asks, and answers, two deceptively simple and fundamental questions:  “What do we want our place to be like?”  And “How do we get there?”

Why ask those questions?

Why is the quality of our place important?

Our place affects our well-being. Where we live affects how we live and how well we live. Some places, we know, are safer than others and some are healthier than others, some even help us to be more active. There are some places where children grow up happily and in contact with a wide range of people and there are some places where fearfulness keeps kids indoors. There are places where enterprise and business flourish and others where work is hard to get and harder still to keep – and better access to opportunities to work appears to be what most quickly improves the overall well-being of communities. It makes a difference, too, if we can get easily to the services we need, to our family, friends and neighbours and if we have access to nature, to learning, to support. Some people can choose the place they live and work and have opportunities to move; others have no choice.

The places we live say who we are. That’s why they’re important. The quality of the places we live shapes the well-being of each one of us. It affects the well-being of our society, our economy, our environment. Some places are successful in improving our well-being.  Others are not; and if they are really bad, they may even lessen our well-being.

So what is it that makes a place ‘successful’?  Is there a way in which can define that?  Is there more to it than whether a place is rich or poor?

It’s easier to look at individual places and test whether they are successful or not than it is to make generalisations. That’s because we can usually judge when a place is where people want to be, whether they be rich or poor. If it’s attractive to them, they’ll want to live there, work there, set up business there, bring up families there, meet friends there.

However, it is possible to speculate on some broader characteristics of successful places. We know the place people live affects the daily lives of everyone in it, so we can say that by making successful places (or making places ‘successful’) we can build or nurture many of the relationships between people, those curious confluences of self-interest and personal obligations, that make our society better for each of us. Or, to put it another way, successful places build ‘social capital’.  They make possible and encourage all the relationships, social and economic, which allow the people there to flourish.

One way to explore the idea of social capital is to ask – what are the ways to well-being?  The New Economics Foundation, commissioned by the UK government’s futures thinktank Foresight, said there are five routes to well-being1:  connect with the people around you, be active, take notice of the world around you, keep learning, and give to someone near you or in the wider world. Successful places will help people along those routes to well-being.

If social capital grows and puts its roots down in successful places – improving the well-being of the place and its people – then other forms of capital will grow there as well.  Enterprises will find successful places are good for business, because successful places sustain local economies by encouraging economic capital to put its roots down too; successful places ‘fix’ capital, economic as well as social. They are the ground in which a successful and resilient local economy grows.

The question then becomes one of understanding how, in successful places, the physical infrastructure contains and allows and nurtures the social and economic infrastructure of our well-being; put another way it becomes about understanding how the physical capital of place can be so ordered as to be fertile ground for the growth and nurture of social capital and economic capital.  A great deal has been written about this.

Simply, there seem to be five characteristics of success.  Successful places are people places: they are where people feel they belong and can be safe, active, comfortable – all those things which make places attractive for their purpose.  Successful places are well-connected: there’s good movement and connections in and out and through and within. Successful places are diverse: they have many uses within them, a diversity of people and a varied density.  Successful places are distinctive:  they’ll have a good sense of themselves, with many places to live, work, meet and shop which are of that place and not the clone of the same thing in every other place.  Successful places are resilient and robust: they adapt well to change and set-back and sustain themselves in various guises over generations.

And those places that are not successful? As ever seeing the characteristics of the bad is easier than those of the good.

Unsuccessful places can hold back our economic prosperity.  For example, in a league measuring the relative prosperity of the top 60 European cities in 2001 Edinburgh came 25th and Glasgow 29th.2 British cities as a whole used to do better. Are we slipping because our cities contain mediocre or unsuccessful places, places that don’t work as well as they should? For instance, Gehl Architects reported to the City of Edinburgh Council in 20113 that footfall on Princes Street had declined by over 30% since 1998 with the reduction in economic activity that implies. They said there is over-the-limit air and noise pollution, poor pedestrian safety and amenity and what should be a grand pedestrian promenade is dominated by buses. They say it’s simply not pleasant to be there. It seems our cities may not be contributing to our prosperity as much as they could because we don’t plan them to work well: we know successful cities create innovation and prosperity through characteristics like concentration or proximity, diversity of scale and density, good networks, connections and market niches4. But often we don’t, or can’t, plan our places to be like that. Large scale, big box, disconnected and therefore un-resilient sprawl has been common. Out of town becomes out of place.

Unsuccessful places can damage our social relationships with each other too. We know that in our towns and cities people live increasingly separate lives;5 poor people have been moved to areas of cheap housing and the better-off have moved to their own suburbs, graded according to affluence. The knowledge and understanding of people in different circumstances thus becomes so diminished that any sense of civic common purpose or social cohesion naturally declines.6 American studies7 suggest that when a big supermarket settles on the edge of town it leads to such big changes in social relations and attitudes in the neighbourhood that even the percentage of people voting in elections goes down.

Unsuccessful places can contribute to harming the environment we live in – locally and globally. Research by the GRaBS8 project suggests that when green space and water space in urban areas (where most of us live) is treated as essential high-quality infrastructure it helps us adapt to climate change and also brings many social benefits. Yet in many of our places, green spaces are simply those bits left over after the buildings have been arranged. In the planning of buildings and their use, making the best use of what sunshine there is as well as protecting ourselves from wind and cold is often ignored. In our climate, doing so would not only make our lives more comfortable, it would also save energy, boost social interaction and help our economy9.

There’s a big lesson here for leaders and others in both public and private spheres and it’s this.  The quality of place matters to achieving all the political, economic, social or environmental objectives they have. For elected politicians in particular, looking to the success of their place helps them do what they were elected to do.

So leaders need to know that places, successful or unsuccessful, don’t just drop from the sky: they are made by human action, either through thought and deliberate deeds – or through accident.  Those that happen by accident are likely to be worse and to be shaped by powerful actors with no interest in the quality of place because they’ll neither live there nor use it.  Those that are thoughtfully and deliberately created are likely to carry and embody the dreams and aspirations of the leaders who helped make them.

But of course – all places and all leaders are different.

Good leadership matters, says Delivering Better Places in Scotland, because, when the authors saw it in action in their eight case studies, they understood that it drives forward action, breeds confidence, reduces risk and widens participation.

But if all places and all leaders are different, where does good place-making leadership start?

It starts with this common and hard-to-answer question: what do we want our place to be like?

This is a question about desire, about culture, about aspiration. Its answer – and it will be different in each place and to each leader – will be rooted in the values that leaders can articulate and entice others to share.  If the answer arises from values then it (and the question) is essentially political – and not only elected politicians that ask political questions or give political answers. All of us do.

Our values are so fundamental to us that they shape every metaphor by which we think. But when asked about their “political” values, people, even practiced politicians, find it difficult to say what their fundamental political values are and therefore what they want for their place. Perhaps that’s because our values are so fundamental, so ingrained in our psyches and, therefore, are so very obvious to us (even when others hold completely opposite values) that they become hard to see. A primary task of all leaders therefore becomes to understand and articulate their own values – and this can take education and practice. In doing so, they will learn that we don’t talk about values through lists of facts and figures, we talk about values through stories and metaphors.

George Lakoff10 explains how the dominant metaphors we use when thinking about society, politics and place are rooted in the family. We all commonly talk, for instance, about the founding fathers of a nation, or brothers in arms or a successful school as ‘one big happy family’. But his analysis goes deeper; the metaphors and stories each individual will use or respond to are rooted in moral values which reflect his or her own particular emotional attitudes towards the family.

For instance, when asked what do we want our place to be like, some might, from the political right, express values like “ordered, clean, a place of opportunity”, because of one kind of family metaphor. From the left, some might answer “prosperous, cared-for and fair”, because of a different kind of ingrained moral outlook about family. Most of us have both ideas of family in us to different degrees and something of both sets of values.

It is emotions, not factual information, that attach us to our values and therefore to political positions and ideas of place. Leaders who know this and are able to communicate through value-laden, emotionally compelling stories and metaphors are more likely to sustain their relationship with those around them and help them to cleave to a common vision of what we want our place to be like.11

The common vision is the particular local answer to the question what do we want our place to be like. It converts broad and timeless values into a particular place and a particular time. It is not a policy document. It is the picture, or the story, of what we want our place to be like. Based in evidence and current reality, it illustrates what the leaders stand for – and what they won’t stand for. It is a statement of principles, of the big picture. It aims high, not low. And it anticipates the next question: How do we get there?

First of all, though, we need to look at who we mean by those who lead the making of places.

Who are the ‘place-making’ leaders?

Generally, the public sector provides the leadership. Only rarely does this leadership come wholly from the private sector. Local public leadership, especially local political leadership with its democratic mandate, is crucial to the economic, social and physical fabric of a locality.

If the first role of leadership is about the political articulation of values and vision, it is also, thereafter, about the capacity to initiate the practical realization of that vision. That’s where the professionals come in. They must have the skills to take a project from vision to delivery, to be able to kick start, cajole, provoke and otherwise force the ‘powers-that-be’ to think about place-making and demonstrate their commitment to it. They will have initiation skills (the ability to communicate place potential) and orchestration skills (the political and operational acumen to enthuse and bring together a variety of other people and organisations). At their most effective, the place-making professionals provide the critical spark to turn a ‘vague’ aspiration into a concrete project.

Effective place-making needs high-level political and professional commitment over time and requires political leaders and their senior professional colleagues to enjoy close working relationships with each other. In the European case studies in Delivering Better Places in Scotland professional expertise in place-making was accorded a central role in the way the local authority was structured. However, in British cities, too often such understanding and commitment is limited, especially among politicians, and professional expertise has been relegated to lower tiers of the organisation.

In addition to the leadership of politicians and professionals in the local council there’s another set of leaders who are part of this ‘federation’ of place-making leadership.  These are the community leaders – who may be from the active local community, from local business, from local transport operators, from local health and welfare services or elsewhere.

Community leaders face a special challenge. Most people in the community won’t normally spend a minute of their lives thinking about ‘the quality of place’, there’s so much else to do. So how do they find out what the wider community think of their ‘place’?  Does it have any meaning for them, individually or collectively? Do they think that its quality is important to the quality of their lives?  If they do, could they do anything about it anyway?  Is there, at least, a way to encourage everyone to talk about their place?  Do we even yet have the right words to do that?

Gary Lawrence, of Arup Associates, makes sense of his experience with the Mayor of Seattle in working closely with communities, by saying there are three questions he asks, questions similar to the ones in this paper.  “Who are you today?” brings clarity about the good and bad of a place as it is.  “Who do you want to become?” looks to the future and must be clearly distinguished from “Who can we become?” because that can be dominated by the interests of external power and money. And the third “How do we stay on course?” because there is never a straight line to success. Work through that process well and the evidence from Seattle shows that not only does place-making improve, so does, for elected politicians, popular and electoral support.12

Local public sector leadership is thus a triangle – of the elected politicians, the community leaders and the professionals. The eventual quality of place will be better if that triangular federation of place-making leadership is strong, trusting and forthright.  Open, equal and collaborative leadership behaviour will become a necessity.

How would people notice there’s been good place-making leadership?

We would expect to see a wider understanding of why successful places are important to the lives of all of us.  So we’d expect to see that leaders understood that making successful places is more than just about organizing the buildings and the spaces in-between; it’s also about the people and institutions that inhabit the place.

We would expect a greater public sense of confidence and certainty about the future of the place where they live.

We would expect leaders to be fostering a place-making culture across the local council, the local community and the private developers. This requires thinking and action that is holistic and joined-up rather than fragmented into silos and professional territories, so we’d expect to see less institutional wrangling of the kind that bedevils so much local investment in Scotland.

We’d expect more focus and more time and money spent on developing and debating, in a wide context, the vision of the future place. However, following European examples, we’d then expect substantially quicker, and therefore cheaper, delivery on the ground.

And, of course, we’d hope in time to see more successful places and an improvement in our social, economic and environmental well-being.

‘Delivering Better Places in Scotland’ was funded by the Scottish Government, with the participation of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in Scotland, the Scottish Centre for Regeneration and Architecture and Design Scotland.  On publication its findings were fully endorsed by them.  It was written by a team at the University of Glasgow.  It can be found at Resource/Doc/336587/0110158.pdf

1. (14 Sep 2010)

2 Parkinson, M et al. (2004) Competitive European Cities: Where Do The Core Cities Stand? Report to the Core Cities Group.

3 Edinburgh Revisited – Public Space Public Life  (2011)  Gehl Architects on behalf of  City of Edinburgh Council

4 Athey, G et al (2007) Two-track cities The challenge of sustaining growth and building opportunity  Centre for Cities

5 Dorling, D and Rees, P (2003) ‘A nation still dividing: the British census and social polarization’, Environment and Planning 35 1287-1313

6 Toynbee, P. and Walker D. (2008) Unjust Rewards London, Granta Publications  Chapter 1

7 Goetz and Rupasingha, ‘Wal-Mart and Social Capital’ (2006) American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 88, 5,

8 Green and Blue Space Adaptation for Urban Areas and Eco Towns

9 for instance: Gehl Architects (2011) ibid

10 Lakoff, G. (1996 ) Moral Politics, London and Chicago, University of Chicago Press

11 Westen, D  (2007) The Political Brain New York, Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group

12 Lawrence, G.  (2007) Transcript of speech to Belfast conference, Ove Arup Associates