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May 2024

“If You Want to Build a Town, Do It Yourself

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Once again, the Hay Festival will next week transform the small Welsh border town into a global literary hub, so it’s a good time to revisit last year’s post about placemaking pioneer Richard Booth “So many Welsh towns are run by stupid people” . Booth was certainly known for his memorable quotes and pioneering spirit, that profoundly transformed an anonymous town and put it on the global stage.

Booth’s disdain for bureaucracy was legendary and with a General Election announced for 4th July, it’s worth recalling his belief in direct action and community-driven regeneration. Booth famously said, “If you want to build a town, do it yourself. You don’t rely on politicians and bureaucrats who only think about their next election.”

I’ve often said that Wales is the birthplace of regeneration, and there’s no doubt that we have long exported ideas and practices in this field. Richard Booth’s transformation of Hay-on-Wye did just this; it sparked a global movement. His model of turning a small town into a cultural hub centred around books has been replicated in over 50 towns worldwide, from Redu in Belgium to Montolieu in France. Booth’s vision created a template for cultural and economic revival that continues to inspire.

Despite his personal reservations about the Hay Festival, its global reach significantly boosted Hay-on-Wye’s economy and international profile. Attracting over 250,000 visitors annually and spawning sister festivals globally, the Hay Festival underscores the lasting impact of Booth’s initial vision.

Today, as towns and cities grapple with the challenges of online retail and shifting consumer behaviours, Booth’s model remains highly relevant. His emphasis on uniqueness, localism, and community can be seen as a precursor to modern trends in urban planning and cultural economic regeneration. Booth’s philosophy was clear: “Culture isn’t something you can package and sell. It’s something you live and breathe every day.”

Richard Booth’s eccentricity, vision, and commitment to culture have left an indelible mark. Revisiting the story of Hay reminds us of the power of combining personality and regeneration, and the enduring importance of community and tradition in an ever-modernising world.

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