What went wrong with the Scottish Government’s flagship Spaces for People programme?
It was billed as a “community-led” initiative, to create space in towns and cities so that people could move around safely during the time of Covid. The logic was that since road travel was heavily restricted from March 2020 onwards, the roads were empty, so pedestrians and cyclists could spill out onto unused streets and maintain a safe distance.

Spaces for People is part of a growing trend of Tactical Urbanism which, just like New Urbanism, is a concept imported from the US.  New Urbanism failed (see my article about Knockroon) because it gave people something they didn’t want, and didn’t offer any alternative – yet the Scottish Government backed the charette process through the good offices of A&DS because it offered a chimera of public consultation.
Tactical Urbanism is the same. “Cities around the world are using flexible and short-term projects to advance long-term goals related to street safety, public space, and more. Tactical Urbanism is all about action. Also known as DIY Urbanism, Planning-by-Doing, Urban Acupuncture, or Urban Prototyping, this approach refers to a city, organisational, and/or citizen-led approach to neighbourhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions to catalyse long-term change.”

But under cover of offering public consultation (rather than true public involvement or public empowerment) Tactical Urbanism pushes through a pre-agreed agenda.  People quickly recognised that offering them the chance to leave comments and feedback, isn’t the same as giving them the right to object and demand meaningful change, so Spaces for People has become a PR disaster for councils.
What were specifically billed as “community-led” projects were carried out hurriedly with no public consultation beforehand. There was no mechanism to impel councils to reverse unpopular, ineffective or even dangerous measures. Hence the open outcry, petitions putting pressure on councillors and ultimately the threat of court action. So much for democratic change and people power.
The first Spaces for People measures were imposed on communities using Temporary Traffic Regulation Orders (TTRO’s) which council officers say were used to reduce “specific risks” to the public – in this case the transmission of the coronavirus.  These powers allowed the council to install measures without prior consultation for up to 18 months. 

Once that period was up, the councils added another 18 month “temporary” period by switching to Experimental Traffic Regulation Orders (ETRO’s), rather than the usual legal process during which formal objections can be lodged by residents. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that the Spaces for People projects were sneaked through during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the mechanism of TTRO’s was used to prevent people from having any say or influence over their own community.

18 months later, the inquest has begun on whether that was fair, or even legal. Edinburgh Evening news reported on 10th August that -
“City of Edinburgh Council's internal audit report did not pull any punches when it stated that the specific measures were based on suggestions from ‘a relatively small group of officers and external stakeholders’ and most were initially prioritised by six project team members ‘with limited justification available to support prioritisation outcomes’.” 

“So, as many people have long suspected, the proposals were hastily drawn up by a small group of people and rubber-stamped by Coalition councillors with ‘limited justification available’ and then imposed on the Edinburgh public.  No meaningful consultation or engagement with local residents or community groups before implementation, just a ‘we know what’s best for you’ attitude.”
The impact on disabled people wasn’t considered, either.  The Edinburgh Access Panel, RNIB and the National Federation of the Blind were belatedly consulted by City of Edinburgh Council.  The EAP raised concerns about the risk of people with mobility difficulties being injured in collisions with cyclists where they have to cross a cycle lane to reach their bus.  The panel’s other major concern is that access and parking for Edinburgh’s 6500 disabled blue badge holders is being made much more difficult because blue badge parking is prohibited on the new “temporary” cycle lanes.  For many blue badge users their only option for getting about is to use their car.

It looks like the proponents of Spaces for People have a very narrow view of urbanism – presumably they are young, able-bodied and fit – and take no account of anyone else.  I guess they don’t have elderly parents or grandparents, or know anyone who uses a wheelchair or zimmer frame to get around, or who has impaired vision or hearing.  So Spaces for People has pitted the able-bodied against the disabled which is unfathomable and deeply discriminatory.

Perhaps they should have asked architects to get involved, because our training and the regulatory framework of the Technical Standards mean we have to consider accessibility for all at every stage of a project. The losers are everyone. Cyclists who are targeted by enraged drivers. Pedestrians who fear being knocked flying by aggressive cyclists. Disabled people who can no longer reach shops and offices. Bus passengers who struggle to reach “floating” bus stops. Emergency services whose response times have increased. And of course faith in local democracy.
Spaces for People misses the point. Studies have repeatedly shown that Scotland needs multi-modal transport, so the Spaces for People cash should have been spent on things like better park and ride facilities, commuter trains on which bikes are allowed, and electrifying all the railways in Scotland to make them swifter and greener. After that, perhaps providing public transport in rural areas which have been systematically stripped of bus and train services during the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s would be a wise move.

But the biggest lesson from Spaces for People is that Tactical Urbanism isn’t “community-led”.  It has taken urban design out of the realm of professional designers who consider users’ needs as paramount, and handed it to a coterie of special interest groups vying for government funding, and politicians desperate to be seen to “do something”. Spaces for People demonstrates that the champions of Tactical Urbanism pay no attention to what people actually want and need.

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