Three decades ago Glasgow stunned the world. A place that had become shorthand for urban decline, poverty and violence had the audacity to win the accolade European City of Culture. Not only win and mount a year of world beating cultural and artistic events, but to use the event to fundamentally change the city’s economy. It was a heady time. A new concert hall renewed the city’s commitment to great music. The recently opened Burrell Collection drew a million visitors a year. Princess Square led Scotland in fashion and style. Glasgow Garden Festival was a six-month triumph for its organisers and for the people of Glasgow and the West of Scotland.
From those bold and visionary times came a new Glasgow. Local and international investment flooded into hotels, restaurants, mass audience venues and upmarket shopping. The financial services industry and IT, telecommunications and advanced R&D firms picked Glasgow as a location that could provide a skilled workforce and an exciting, stimulating, and well-connected city. Those decades of change, energy and success seemed to be crowned by Glasgow’s glorious hosting if the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Closing the games, Malaysia’s Prince Isram called it the greatest Commonwealth Games ever. “Glasgow’, he said, “you were pure, dead, brilliant.” But the world has changed. In cities worldwide the combination of internet-driven revolutions in retailing and office life have seen thousands of shops close and countless thousands of offices lie empty or significantly under-occupied. Covid simply accelerated the end for cities as we knew them for 150 years.
Litter-blown streets create a malaise
The result has been to take people out of city centres. There are few sadder sites than a once-prosperous city centre down on its luck. The litter-blown streets create a malaise. As the workers and shoppers drift away an air of neglect takes over. Where once the lights were bright and the bustle and energy of the city produced ringing tills and fun-filled office nights out, now the people are nervous of walking there. At night, the once thriving bars struggle to turn a buck and alleys grow darker. A vicious circle of decline can soon enter the soul of the city and its people.
There is only one sure route to stopping the rot. It is called political leadership. When democracy gifts ordinary men and women the legitimacy, power and authority that comes with success at the ballot box the voters expect the winners to lead. It was political leadership that pulled Glasgow out of the slough of despond that had engulfed it in the 1970s and 80s. The people’s tribunes acted, and the city became a global byword for successful regeneration.
So, what now? What is Glasgow’s new generation of leaders doing to let Glasgow flourish?
Bylines Scotland asked Angus Millar, the Glasgow City councillor responsible for city centre recovery. Millar explains that a core part of the SNP administration’s strategy is not only to support development and initiatives that reenergise the traditional city centre, but also extent to areas on the periphery. Here he includes the enormous Sighthill regeneration programme. Once an area of poor-quality mid-20th century public housing, deep-seated social issues, and a contaminated post-industrial wasteland, Sighthill is one of the UK’s largest urban regeneration undertakings. A multi-use development high on landscaping, green spaces and infrastructure, a key feature is the new pedestrian bridge that spans the M8 motorway. The bridge is designed to physically and metaphorically unite two parts of the city.
Turning physical barriers to positive advantage
Millar is an advocate for seeing physical barriers as irritants that can be turned to positive advantage. In essence, he’s saying that if you make what’s on the other side attractive – e.g., homes, businesses, leisure facilities and education, and you make the routes safe and appealing people will come. Crossing over will be seen as simply that and not perceived as a great leap into another world.
In addition to Sighthill, Millar talks about the Barclays Campus on the south bank of the Clyde, at Tradeston. Opened in October 2019, the banking giant’s new facility brings thousands of new, high-quality, jobs to a part of the city characterised for years by weed-rich vacant plots. Close to Glasgow Central Station is the St Enoch Centre, a classic 1980s shopping centre now scheduled to be reborn as a 2.5mn sq ft of retail, leisure, hospitality, housing, performance space and landscaped public realm. It will also take in the adjacent, and enormous, former Debenham’s store. Taking up to 20 years to bring to fruition, the project is envisaged as a grid-pattern, reflecting Glasgow’s 19th century city lay out. Its format, it is hoped, will open new walking routes to the Clyde.
Half a mile to the east of St Enoch’s is The Briggat, the city’s former fish market. Built in 1873, the building is one of the finest remaining examples of a Victorian market. It is to have a 21st century life as a food and drink market and creative hub. In the Merchant City area, the building of 346 new homes for rent began earlier this year at Candleriggs Square. Millar says there’s a place for rented accommodation, “But we want to see population growth via a variety of tenures and a broad range of occupiers.”
Glasgow is a growing city
The vision is to double the current city centre population of just under 20,000 to 40,000 by 2030. The good news is that the decline in Glasgow’s population has been halted, with modest increases in recent years. The Greater Glasgow region is forecast to grow from today’s 1.6mn people to 1.8mn.
“Recovering the city centre will not be done overnight,” says Millar. He goes on to say there continues to be developer confidence in Glasgow.
“Glasgow is a growing city. We prefer development that is in tune with the historic city centre and our presumption is saving old buildings, not demolition.”
One of the big issues councils often face when dealing with redundant or poorly maintained historic and listed buildings is persuading owners to either find a new use that will give a property new life or sell it on the open market. Angus Millar says there’s a case for reform of Compulsory Purchase Orders. He argues they are too slow, too expensive, and too burdensome on council resources and taxpayer cash. Another route being mooted is a form of compulsory sales orders. Councils would have the power to force owners to sell a given listed or important property on the open market. It’s a “last resort” idea, but one that many see as necessary to retaining the character and architectural uniqueness of city centres.
The city’s historic and listed Customs House building is to be the centrepiece of a £25mn mixed-use project that aims to reconnect the city to the river. It will “see the creation of more public green space and a creative and attractive river frontage that helps the city fulfil its aspiration for a “River Park,” says the development blurb.
“Our ambition is a river park that runs from Glasgow Green all the way west to Partick and Thornwood, embracing both banks of the Clyde,” explains Councillor Millar.
In the very heart of the city is George Square. At its eastern end is the fabulous confection that is the City Chambers. The square itself is Glasgow’s most loved place of celebration, protest, entertainment, and civic pomp. It is to be given a facelift. Millar says it is to be more open, more welcoming, and greener. The public is currently being consulted on how the square should look after its revamp. Already, all traffic has been banished from its east and west sides. Only busses, taxis and cycles are allowed on the north and south sides.
Glasgow needs to tell the world and tell Glasgow
The city’s public relations machine has, no doubt, been full on managing the communications forced on it by Covid. With the virus a (let us pray) a fast-fading memory, now is the time for one of those witty, imaginative, and persuasive PR campaigns the city used to powerful effect in the past. This Glaswegian keeps a keen eye on what’s happening in the city. He thought he was abreast of developments. Turns out he didn’t know the half of it. Glasgow needs to tell the world. Even more importantly, it needs to tell Glasgow.
The 15-minute city
The emerging Glasgow sounds similar in philosophy to the ideas of Professor Carlos Moreno of the Sorbonne in Paris. He envisaged what he calls “the 15-minute city.” The idea is that everything needed for everyday life is within 15 minutes of home. Typically, work, shops, schools, leisure, entertainment, and medical services are all nearby. The concept is seen as a way of ensuring cities are on a human scale, responsive to human needs and environmentally sustainable. Critically, rebuilding the population of the inner city is viewed as a key mechanism to underpinning economic renewal. Local populations provide the customer base for local services and make the city an appealing destination for people in surrounding areas and for leisure and business tourism.
In a world that to many seems increasingly uncertain, insecure and forbidding, remodelling the city to make what Angus Millar calls “spaces for people” has both an economic and a psychological rationale. After all, as it says in banners and posters all over the city, “People make Glasgow.”