The World Towns Leadership Summit: a new global agenda on towns

Phil Prentice, Chief Executive Officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, introduces next week’s World Towns Leadership Summit. Find out more and book tickets here.

On 15 and 16 June 2016 Scotland will play host to a world first – the World Towns Leadership Summit. Organised by STP, IDA, BIDs Scotland and ATCM, the summit will bring together senior stakeholders in urban development from all sectors, travelling in from across the UK and diverse countries in Europe, Africa and the Americas. Speakers include Michael Schuman, the world’s leading social economist; David Downey, Chief Executive of the International Downtown Association; Tina Saaby, Copenhagan City Architect; George Ferguson, the transformational former Mayor of Bristol; and Bulelwa Ngwena, CEO of Cape Town Partnership. All are coming with the common endeavour to discuss how we can make our towns and city districts better places to work and live.

A key output of these discussions will be the World Towns Agreement – A Public-Private-Social Vision for Urban Centres, co-produced with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Architecture and Design Scotland. The articles of this Agreement are being crowdsourced from around the globe ahead of the summit, and will be finalised by delegates in Edinburgh. This will then feed into high-level discussions with governments and international organisations, including the United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito, October 2016.

Ahead of this gathering, it’s worth asking: why are towns and urban neighbourhoods important to equity and sustainable growth, and why do we need a new global agenda on towns?

The opportunities, contradictions and inequalities of urban growth and the transition to a globalised economy are evident wherever you look. As urbanisation continues, for the first time in human history there are more of us living in cities and urbanisations than in rural areas. Meanwhile for the first time in human history the next generation, despite being the most educated ever, will be worse off than their parents due to income stagnation, unemployment and the gap in wealth.

In the UK, Europe and North America we have been relentlessly pursuing urbanisation and growth and looking to the economic engines of our biggest cities to deliver prosperity for all. But have they?

Our society encourages political and economic power to cluster together. The direct result is that major metropolitan centres have become congested, with infrastructure stretched and their housing markets overheated. The periphery suffers and the promise of networked transformation stalls.

But with the advent of new technologies and the need for improved productivity and equity, surely the obvious solution would be to distribute wealth and opportunity across regions and states more evenly? With the associated housebuilding, infrastructure improvements, digital investments and supply chain networks that would follow, all of this could create a sustainable revival which would enable our towns to create a decent lifestyle with a job and home to go with it. Towns themselves need to be agile in order to take the lead from successful places like Montreal, Vancouver or Bristol. Develop a niche, scale up in partnership with surrounding towns, create the conditions, then deliver the proposition.

This call to action is now vital and with the right leadership, investment, coordination and vision, our towns and neighbourhoods can once more become a key element of global urban infrastructure. They are the largest scale for community, and the smallest scale for urbanity. At the level of nations, towns are nodes of labour force, distinct local production and tourism. Across regions, networks of towns connect people and infrastructure at scale. Towns and neighbourhoods matter to the transformation of modern economies, promising value; blending local and global opportunities. Amongst the challenge lies opportunity.

The issues are complex, and we encourage you to join international town and urban leaders for this world first to discuss the new alliances and approaches we must develop to achieve strong competitive economies combined with fairer, more equal societies.