Paisley: a pilot vision for Scotland’s towns

IT takes a degree of courage to admit that a place has seen better days.

So, credit has to go to Renfrewshire Council for creating the conditions that led to its major town, Paisley, being chosen as a pilot study, by the Scottish Government and Scotland’s Towns Partnership, to re-imagine how a town centre could be re-designed to better meet future need.

Our practice, Threesixty Architecture, was fortunate enough to be chosen to produce a set of ideas for Paisley, called Paisley is Open, a vision for Paisley Town Centre 2030.

The vision is an excellent example of collaboration across the public, private and community sectors.

If you passionately believe, as I do, that the health of our communities is intrinsically tied to the health of our town centres, then the vision for Paisley provides a beacon of hope: that it is possible to reverse the decline of town centres.

Paisley town centre has gone the way of many Scottish town centres: empty, neglected shops standing as depressing testimony to changing shopping habits – to online and out-of-town.

There is not going to be a return to the golden age of the retail-dominated high street, during the 1970s and 1980s. But we can take inspiration from the past, including before the 1960s, when the town centre could be described as compact and easily accessible for people who didn’t have a car.

So we concluded pretty quickly that Paisley’s future lay in its town centre buildings playing host to a mix of uses, so that it could potentially become busy again. Re-energising the town centre of course helps support those retail outlets that have chosen to remain in the centre, to help prevent further haemorrhaging.

Many options were considered, to re-energise the town and stimulate footfall. These included cinema, a food hall, residential, hotel provision and education. These have not only been thought through in some detail, but are beginning to come to pass. 

The key mindset shift isn’t to locate such options in spaces that are available and possibly cheaper than alternatives but where they will have the most potential impact.

In that regard, Paisley is fortunate to have such a key location at its disposal: the Paisley Centre, a shopping centre that accounts for over 45 per cent of the town’s retail space. Underlet and struggling, the centre is of a scale and location that could begin to turn the town around. 

The vision document has earmarked it as a residential-led, mixed-use quarter, with retail relocated to the street edges, rather than buried deep in the block.

The Paisley Centre has been recently sold and its new owners cite the published vision as being influential in their decision and have stated their ambition to re-develop the centre along the lines of the vision.

Other valuable town assets, such as the Victorian building known as the Paisley Liberal Club, are being looked at. It might be more difficult to refurbish this building, to accommodate new uses, than it would be to construct a new-build on a peripheral site, but it would ensure that the building is saved for future generations and activity is brought into the heart of the town.

Earlier this year, a partnership agreement was signed between the Paisley Community Trust and Renfrewshire Council to deliver a community-owned cinema and a digital skills academy, with initial funding already being provided by both the council and the national agency, Screen Scotland.

As a pilot project, the work that has been done to re-energise Paisley town centre has helped create a methodology for other towns to consider. A Vision for High Street Regeneration has been published as guidance by the Scottish Government.

The Paisley Vision is just that: a vision document. It shows how things  could be, if we nurture our collective ambition and prioritise our efforts. It’s going to take more courage, plus a good deal of time and effort, to transform Paisley into what it could become, but it’s heartening to see that it is already happening.

Alan Anthony is managing director of Threesixty Architecture and chair of Revo Scotland (the retail, property and placemaking community).

Image courtesy of Threesixty Architecture

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