Making Europe’s small towns more attractive

The figure of Hans Clauert is used in public art in the centre of Trebbin to brand the town.

How do you make small towns in rural areas more attractive? This is the central concern of a Baltic Sea INTERREG IVB project that I have been working on. Trans-in-Form brought together partners from Norway, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. Some of them have had to contend with serious loss of population, and especially young people, who move to the capitals or go abroad to work or study and never return. The project has experimented with a range of techniques to engage local politicians, officers and the public in thinking about what scope there is for action – locally, in co-operation together and across similar regions.

With one or two exceptions the partners in the TiF project are located outside convenient commuting range from a large city. Not surprisingly, the exceptions have the option of accommodating commuter growth, though before the project began commuting was more seen as a threat than as an opportunity.

A key early part of the project was to open up this debate and to disaggregate the idea of attractiveness, so as to recognise that attraction of residents, businesses and tourists all needed to be considered. A team from Telemark in Norway did this analysis that basically undertook a correlation analysis at municipality level of the change in jobs and net domestic migration. Thus the small Swedish town of Tranemo, for example, was found to be suffering net out-migration despite increasing jobs.

Using scenarios

An understanding of these pressures was used in a scenario building exercise in each town or region. The actual scenarios differed from place to place in tune with local situations. What was impressive was the extent to which these were used to engage local politicians and the public, and to feed ideas into statutory plans.

Story telling
Another feature of the project was story telling. At first this seemed a nebulous idea to some of the participants but two years down the line it has clearly been a success. Again different partners took it in different ways. For example the German town of Trebbin has focused on a legendary 16th local rogue and prankster, Hans Clauert. He figures in public art around the centre of the town. Streets and squares are named after him and there is even a Caluert’s beer and a Clauert’s schnapps.

Suwalki, near the Polish border with Lithuania, used the project to conduct a thorough re-branding of a town that had previously had a rather negative image. Jelgava in Latvia asked villagers as young as 3 and as old as 83 to tell stories to illustrate what made them proud of their village. A new logo for the local authority was produced. Joniskis in Lithuania asked people for their dreams for their town in the future.

In different ways in the different places, story-telling helped to reach out to groups often left out in conventional approaches to citizen consultation. It proved an innovative and valuable means to get policy makers and the public thinking in new ways about the place where they lived.

Urban design

A further important strand of the project has been work on using urban design to enhance the quality of public spaces. The partners invested considerable time in workshops and use of experts to help pursue this objective. In Suwalki, there was a design competition to regenerate Maria Konopnicka Square , a park in the centre that has been rather neglected for some time. The aim is to convert it into a space for cultural events, and to create new value and economic opportunities. The plan is for cafes and also temporary stands for selling regional products, along with fountains, chess tables and a children’s playground.

Two of the partners, Notodden (Norway) and Vidzeme (Latvia) were also partners in the ESPON project on the Potential of Rural Regions (PURR). From the UK, Dumfries and Galloway, North Yorkshire County Council and the Cambrian Mountains in Wales were also researched in the ESPON project. There seems to have been a valuable cross-fertilisation between TiF and the PURR project. Neil Adams from London South Bank University, a member of the PURR research team, said he was very impressed by the imaginative way that TiF partners had tackled the challenges of involving local residents in thinking about ways to improve the places where they live.

New research on small towns

Small towns across Europe are the focus of a new ESPON study in which the University of the West of England will play an important role. TOWN  is a project that will explore a number of questions:
• What kind of roles and functions do small and medium sized towns perform?
• What are the potentials and barriers for development of small and medium sized towns in different territorial contexts, and how can policy at different levels unleash the potentials and diminish the barriers in ways that strengthen their functional character?
• What type of governance and cooperation arrangements exist at various levels aiming to support the development of small and medium-sized towns and their territorial context, and how can policy further support these types of arrangements in order to strengthen their contribution to a more balanced territorial development of the European regions?

Wales will be one of the regions of Europe that this study will focus upon.

Practice and research

Trans-in-Form, PURR and TOWN have different approaches. Trans-in-Form is very much led by the practitioners, though researcher have provided important inputs along the way. TOWN will be a much more comprehensive and research-based project, that will look at small towns across the whole of Europe, and collect and analyse a lot of data. PURR comes someway between the two, with a narrower focus than TOWN but a stronger researcvh base than Trans-in-Form. However, what they all point to is the need for small towns to think in new ways, not least in terms of co-operating with neighbours and even across national boundaries. The key to sustaining such places seems to be a strong focus on local networks and stakeholder involvement. However, as the analysis in Trans-in-Form shows, national economic conditions also will significantly shape the attractiveness of a town in a Europe in which there is free movement of labour.

  • Steven Boxall

    I can’t help thinking that the last sentence in this piece is the most important.

    • Cliff Hague

      Thanks for your comment Steven. Of course national and regional economies shape the prospects and opportunities for local economic development actions. In our book on Regional and Local Economic Development (2011) my co-authors and I stressed that the strength on the market in any one time and place is likely to shape the kind of local actions that are taken, and their propsects for success. As we know the condition of a national economy will not be reflected uniformly across its regions, and equally within any region there are some sites and places much more likely than others to attract private investors. In short I am arguing that you have to understand the local, regional and national development conditions / prospects but also need innovative governance at local level. Furthermore, INTERREG projects like TiF need to better analyse and understand this context vis a vis the variety of partners, and tailor actions and evaluation accordingly.

  • Alasdair Morrison

    Cliff – this is a great blog and in my view the European examples quoted have a lot in common with Scottish towns who feel they have “lost their identity” in recent years. For me, like their European counterparts, it is the Scottish towns that “grasp the nettle” of a need to change their present approach (in order to alter the way existing and potential residents view them) that will be the most sucessful. Technology, employment and commerce are all rapidly changing and development strategies for towns need to respond accordingly.

    • CliffHague

      Thanks for the kind words, Alasdair. I have worked with the same core group of people and councils in the Baltic Sea for over 10 years now and they always do great projects. In terms of the comparison with Scotland, one key difference is that in general even quite small towns in the Baltic Sea Rgion are usually municipalities, with their own elected mayors and some capacity to raise their own income. That said there are also rationalisations of local government structures – either recently completed or being advocated. Obviously some municipalities are more proactive than others, but across the board in my experience the sense of having your own LOCAL mayor and council seems to enance a sense of local identity and provide channels for democratic discourse.

      Change has been immense over the past 20 years in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia and Germany’s Eastern Lander. There is still something of a generational divide in those countries, with some very impressive young professionals.

      The Built Environment Forum Scotland has taken Small Towns as the theme for its conference this year. It will be in Linlithgow on 20 Nov.