#placemaking Archives | Owen Davies Consulting

“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.

Digital placemaking & skills for mid Wales towns

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Poor digital connectivity, a lack of supporting business infrastructure, a skills ‘digital divide’ are part of the regional economic picture shaping towns in mid Wales. The economy is large and predominantly rural and is known for its natural beauty, historic towns, and strong cultural identities. And despite many economic strengths, the region’s economy has its digital and data challenges with structural weaknesses that are currently hindering the potential of its residents and businesses to flourish.

Driving investment in digital through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, and supporting the adoption and exploitation of next-generation technologies has been prioritised to make Mid Wales a more competitive as a region. New digital technology like 5G plus the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence and data analytics have the potential to open up new businesses and improve the lives of communities. To capitalise on recent investment, Powys County Council are working with Owen Davies Consulting and Cwmpas to harness the full potential of infrastructure investment across three towns – Llanfair Caereinion, Newtown and Ystradgynlais.

Each town will prepare its own Digital Place Plan including a digital place diagnostic – a series of placemaking, physical infrastructure, software and third-party data criteria – for assessing how far a town has traveled along the ‘journey’ towards becoming a ‘smart town’. And businesses, organisation or groups will receive bespoke digital support including a bespoke digital improvement plan outlining, areas for development, examples of similar businesses utilising digital in productive ways and areas where ongoing learning would be beneficial/should be considered.

Digital placemaking is a key strategic opportunity for rural towns across Mid Wales and its implementation over the next 12 months will inform potential expansion across an additional six towns to enable Mid Wales to accelerate our economic ambitions and add even further value to ongoing investments at both a regional and local level.

If you are interested in this project and digital placemaking, we recently delivered an online masterclass as part of Welsh Government’s Smart Towns Cymru initiative. If you missed it, you can now watch it on YouTube: https://youtu.be/FVspi0X6g3E

We also have a short film explaining all about our Digital Place Plans you can watch here: https://youtu.be/7yFechhxRrE




Digital placemaking – harnessing technology & data to revitalise our towns

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How do you realise the potential of digital as part of mainstream placemaking and place strategies? There’s six key lessons we’ve learnt through preparing Digital Place Plans that harness technology and data to regenerate urban spaces, revitalising high streets and boost local tourism

At Owen Davies Consulting, we’ve been thinking about the future of places for almost 30 years and in that time have helped places big and small to understand the opportunities for increasing their social, economic, cultural and environmental prosperity. But it has only been in the last few years – and especially through our involvement in the Welsh Governments Year of Smart Towns programme and including supporting 15 towns across Wales to pilot a new approach to digital placemaking – that we have fully realised the potential of digital within mainstream placemaking and place strategies of towns. 

We’ve already supported 15 towns across Wales to pilot a new approach to digital placemaking, but we’re still learning, of course, but here are six things we’ve learned so far: 

1 – Digital is everywhere, so places of all sizes need to embrace it rather than hide from it. 

All aspects of local, regional and national policy now have a digital dimension deeply embedded within them, so if you want to stay aligned with or influence it – and of course access related public funding such as Transforming Towns here in Wales – you need to embrace it. 

2 – Although some of the jargon involved can be baffling, the principles of digital placemaking are straightforward. 

With mysterious terms like ‘smart cities’, ‘LoRaWAN’ and the ‘Internet of Things’ widespread in the digital dialect, it’s perhaps no surprise that place leaders are often unclear about how to harness technology and data to regenerate urban spaces, revitalise high streets and boost local tourism. For us, digital placemaking is straightforward: it’s about bringing together the practice of placemaking with the exploitation of technology and data. Or put even more simply, it’s about including consideration of how using technology and data can help make better places. 

3 – Digital placemaking is just as important for smaller places as for bigger ones. 

The concept of ‘Smart Cities’ has been around for a long time now, but programmes like the Year of Smart Towns have demonstrated that there’s no reason why smaller (but no less important) places can’t reap the benefits of becoming smarter too. No town should be left behind! 

4 -Digital placemaking is a journey, and you’ve got to start that journey somewhere. 

When we work with towns to produce a Digital Place Plan or properly consider digital within a Placemaking Plan, we encourage them to do things thoroughly by following a five-step process to produce the Plan, and then when looking at delivery, to focus first on delivering a few simple wins. As with many things, it’s better to start small, learn lessons and then grow, rather than try and do too much, too quickly, and get overwhelmed.  

5 – Digital placemaking isn’t easy and there are plenty of barriers to overcome. 

Needing to understand the dynamics of local decision making, overcome apathy, and demystify key concepts… sound familiar? The barriers to digital placemaking are similar to those faced when taking a more traditional placemaking approach. Fortunately, we’ve learned plenty of lessons from our pilot work and now have a toolbox of techniques to help stakeholders achieve the best outcomes. 

6 -Get it right and you can have a big impact. 

By using data, people can make better decisions for their town and local area. With transparency on actions, activities, and trends, they can recognise opportunities and act on them faster. Just for starters, this can mean giving people the confidence to launch new businesses, helping existing businesses grow, and attracting and evidencing the success of public events. 

All the above means that digital placemaking is a key strategic opportunity for practitioners in the heritage, regeneration and urban development sectors, including developers, place managers, planners, architects, designers, heritage trusts, and local governments. 

If you are interested in learning more about our work in digital placemaking, we recently delivered an online masterclass as part of Welsh Government’s Smart Towns Cymru initiative. If you missed it, you can now watch it on YouTube: https://youtu.be/FVspi0X6g3E  

We also have a short film explaining all about our Digital Place Plans you can watch here: https://youtu.be/7yFechhxRrE 

Digital Placemaking Team

owen@owendaviesconsulting.co.uk  + adam@owendaviesconsulting.co.uk +ieuan@owendaviesconsulting.co.uk



Velo Park promises to be of “national importance” for the growth of cycling & wheeled sports

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PLANS to build a velo park in Monmouthshire which promises to be of “national importance” for the growth of cycling and wheeled sport have been approved by councillors.

Owen Davies Consulting has led the feasibility, design, planning and project management on behalf of Monmouthshire CC and Welsh Cycling. The development of this unique sporting, leisure and education facility will include a closed road circuit with facilities for road, cyclocross and entry-level mountain biking.

In 2020 the council was awarded a grant from the Welsh Government, via Sport Wales, to develop a project. Facilities will be suitable for leisure, coaching, training and competitive cycling, and for all forms of wheeled sports.

The closed road circuit will be six metres wide and one kilometre in length, on a unique undulating course with street lighting covering part of the circuit to allow for its use during the evening.

The project has been complex to develop, because of the site’s topography, biodiversity and ecology, with a number of protected species identified on or immediately adjacent to the site.

At a planning committee meeting on Tuesday, Councillors backed the application. The following day the Council’s Cabinet backed the scheme with over £490k to fund the construction of the first phase of the multi-million pound Abergavenny velo park.

We blogged about the velo park design in 2020 https://owendaviesconsulting.co.uk/velo-park-enhancing-monmouthshires-national-international-reputation-cycle-sport-tourism/

The Abergavenny velo park project has been a ‘sweetspot’  project for our team where we were able to combine Owen’s lifetime experience of racing cycling and experience as a British Cycling qualified coach with our professional masterplanning and development skills to plan, design and enable this nationally significant scheme.


Yes or No to City Status?

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Yesterdays decision by Wrexham Council to apply for City Status has stirred passions on all sides of the debate. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-59569058. Although the application process does not require a town to provide evidence of the economic benefits of becoming a city, much of the discussion in Wrexham and elsewhere in the UK has often been framed in economic terms.

There is no published evidence of the economic benefits (or disbenefits) of the award of city status, so to address this gap Wrexham CBC commissioned our independent study to specifically examine the potential economic benefits for towns like Wrexham.

The study found that the towns awarded city status have experienced economic growth, but data does not show that the rate of growth accelerated following the award of city status. However, the comparative analysis of new cities and towns suggests there is a potential for benefit where city status has been used to strengthen other economic and regeneration initiatives in an area.

We undertook a comparative analysis of towns similar in profile to Wrexham that’s have been awarded city status. The case studies shows that areas which have been successful in gaining city status identify a range of benefits including:

  • Helping to boost local pride which, in turn, may have economic benefits
  • Providing a new platform to promote the city and raise ambitions
  • Creating opportunities for anchor institutions, economic clusters, and sectors to raise their profile
  • Enabling some cities to attract major projects such as a university and enterprise zone, which they might not otherwise have secured as towns
  • Allowing relationships to be developed with other cities and helping them to collectively ‘punch above their weight’, securing both public and private investment and collaborating with Government on strategic issues
  • Providing a reason for, and focus for re-branding campaigns
  • Perceived successes in attracting inward investment – attributed to city awareness and the infrastructure and facilities they offer e.g. business incubator, high-profile local businesses and organisations, alongside city status
  • Higher expectations of placemaking with cities thought of as more vibrant places to live, work, and invest
  • Cities with an accessible rural hinterland are seen as very attractive places.

The evidence suggests the opportunity for a range of potential benefits for Wrexham from city status if it links such an award to delivering more ambitious place shaping plans and investment strategies, connected to local attributes such as the University, employment and transport infrastructure and cultural attractions.

Owen Davies Consulting with economic specialists Hardisty Jones Associates researched the economic benefits of city status.

Does granting City Status have a measurable impact on economic performance?

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Announced by the Cabinet Office in June, the Civic Honours Contest will see winning towns granted City Status for the first time in ten years, during May 2022.

In total there have been three rounds of applications for city status since 2000 – one to celebrate the Millennium and two for the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees respectively. Across these three competitions, a total of 48 towns in Great Britain have applied for city status and 9 towns granted the honour.

Towns awarded City Status

Although almost all towns that apply for City Status believed becoming a city would stimulate the economy and support regeneration, there’s very little published evidence of a measurable economic boost as a consequence of becoming a city. Research undertaken by Reading University (Reading has submitted three unsuccessful City Status applications) suggests the linking of City Status to economic success is mixed. For every place that experiences growth after becoming a city, there are others that don’t see direct economic benefits.

Working alongside Hardisty Jones Associates, we have been appointed by a Local Authority to investigate the economic benefits and disbenefits of being awarded City Status and we are keen to identify the measurable benefits that have been recorded in the UK.

City Status doesn’t come with any fiscal levers like tax breaks or extra powers, and with less than decisive evidence, our study has been commissioned precisely to investigate the economic impacts.

Even though the Governments guidance lacks detail, the competition application form is clear that an award will be made in recognition of historic and current achievements, associations, and civic status with no mention of future economic growth and performance. It seems that a town’s historical importance (and Royal connections), its role as a centre of government and culture, current economic strength are more important in becoming a city than future growth.

We are interested to hear of examples you may know of measurable impact on the economic performance following the award of City Status.

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If you prefer then send an email to Owen Davies at owen@owendaviesconsulting.co.uk