23/11/2012 06:46 GMT | Updated 21/01/2013 05:12 GMT

From 'Me' Towns to 'We' Towns

Lou Reed famously sang that there was only one good use for a small town. When you grow up in a small town you 'grow down' - 'you hate it and you know you'll have to leave'.

But something interesting is happening in many of our small towns: something that many larger places, still in hock to cloned aspirations of economic development and an institutional inertia that appears to believe the development boom of the last decade will return, have yet to grasp.

What's happening is that 'me' towns are starting to become 'we' towns. The narrative handed down by political and business leaders that says we are all consumers and that success is a matter of competing better for consumers' spending is being challenged.

'We' towns are starting to celebrate the cooperative and collaborative efforts of their citizens. They're making space for home-grown interpretations of place and space, as in Todmorden, for local producers and businesses, as in Sowerby Bridge and other Totally Locally towns, and for citizen-led planning, as demonstrated by towns like Neilston and Linlithgow in Scotland.

'We' towns are about production, not just consumption. They're places to spend time, not just money. And they're building new, resilient approaches to the local economy that link the civic, the commercial and the community, seeking out opportunities where all benefit. They encourage the kind of entrepreneurship that produces places like Dean Clough in Halifax and The Tobacco Factory in Bristol, which are investments in places and not just in the pockets of developers.

I was speaking at the Built Environment Forum Scotland's congress this week, and there was a lot of talk about the challenges facing towns and their apparent absence from the policy agenda. But there was also much positive discussion about how they could be different, and about the power of local people to make that difference (you can see my slides from the day here).

I was particularly taken with architect Malcolm Fraser's five-point plan for better town centres. Create living accommodation in the high street, encourage community development, keep public services accessible (don't shut libraries, for a start), plan for physical change and embrace digital innovation. What's particularly good about this is that Mr Fraser is chairing the Scottish Government's Town Centres Review.

A right-thinking architect can be an inspiration. The election of George Ferguson as mayor of Bristol, and his vow to be paid entirely in the local Bristol Pounds, shows how 'we town' thinking can infiltrate cities too.

We shouldn't underestimate the pitfalls. Changing the mindset of people who've grown up wanting the same big-brand bling as everyone else will take time, and some people and places won't want to change. But hard times might help us ask the hard questions we need to pose about who benefits from the money we spend and the time we invest in the places where we live and work.