Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

In Search of a Small City's éLan Vital: Inverness: Towards Progressive Change?

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

In Search of a Small City's éLan Vital: Inverness: Towards Progressive Change?

Article excerpt

This paper seeks to contribute to the growing urban research agenda around the small city by examining the nature of innovative institutional sub-municipal governance in securing and sustaining vitality and viability at the local level. It revisits Bergson's Creative Evolution and his ideas around the élan vital and the need to invoke both a philosophical and an empirical approach to understanding change. We use these insights to consider the nature of 'the vital city'. The paper then contrasts these 'softer' and intrinsic qualities with the 'harder' policy rhetoric of 'vitality and viability' used in the context of British town centres and retail policy. The discussion is illustrated through a case study of a recently successful attempt to introduce a Business Improvement District in Inverness, Scotland. The paper suggests that in order to be considered vital, a city should not be complacent, conservative, or resistant to change. Moreover, vitality can be enhanced through the softer and more spiritual dimensions suggested by the thinking around the élan vital. The paper advances the case for progressive change through creative evolution.

The concept of the vital city may be interpreted in various ways according to scale, culture, historical experience, professional practice, and conceptual ideas around the construction of urban well-being. It involves a multi-dimensional appreciation of the various and differentiated structures, relations, processes and agents involved in active urban management. In this paper we suggest it goes further by invoking an intangible, invisible or even spiritual, force and impetus for change - what we term the élan vital (translated as 'vital impetus'). Our argument interweaves a philosophical and a policy strand in order to question the theme of 'the vital city'. This is then illustrated and discussed through a case study of an embryonic Business Improvement District (BID) in Inverness, Scotland. As a contemporary form of urban intervention the BID approach has been characterised in a number of ways: as a new phase in the philosophy and operation of the established UK taxation regime (Evans and Bate, 2000); as a contractualised articulation of modern town centre management practices (Lloyd and Peel, 2008); and as a mechanism to facilitate shared responsibilities in the provision of local public services (Hoyt, 2005). In short, as a fashionable policy measure for resuscitating, re-animating, or providing the impetus for a new urban vigour, BIDs have the potential to provide a topical prism for investigating the nature of 'the vital city'.

A BID is a designated geographical area within which a coalition of business interests come together to organise a local fiscal and delivery regime to improve the range and provision of services and the quality of a delineated environment (Scottish Executive, 2007). BIDs are predicated as a partnership between public- and private-sector interests (Scottish Executive, 2003). In effect, the participating businesses form a local governance framework according to pre-set constitutional rules laid down by central government. Detailed criteria inform the balloting arrangements to legitimise the setting up of a BID. Here, agreement with the local authority is an important prerequisite. If the ballot is successful, the formal BID adopts a business plan which involves an agreed levy over and above conventional business rates. The revenues are then directly hypothecated to the jurisdiction according to the business plan. The intention of a BID is principally to strengthen the trading environment for the benefit of local businesses and communities. In environmental terms, for example, this might involve new street furniture, tree-planting, dealing with graffiti and litter, improving transport, accessibility and security measures, or 'softer' initiatives relating to marketing and promotion. Any BID project should seek to address specific local concerns and deliver measurable benefits. …

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