Can People Make Glasgow’s built environment a place of greater equality?

From dirty old town to post-industrial playground, participation is the key to sustainable growth.

Depending on how you translate it from Gallic, Glaschú can mean ‘open green valley’ or ‘depressive grey hole’. Fiercely political, feelings about the city and her citizens are open to subjective interpretation. Long maligned as a centre for violence and social deprivation, Glasgow is beginning to buck the trend of other post-industrial cities to become a creative hub, growing in size and diversity, with an upwardly mobile population of young educated networked citizens. It is no coincidence that as London sinks deeper into an increasingly xenophobic playground for oligarchs, Glasgow is fast becoming a beacon of community resilience.

People Making Glasgow. The city’s growing diversity is influencing its identity. Donagh Horgan

‘People Make Glasgow’, the city’s enduring tag-line is constantly reinforced through bottom-up social initiatives such as Refuweegee. The city has long provided a welcome for immigrants from Ireland and the Indian subcontinent, so much a socialist heartland that its electoral and local authority boundaries have constantly been tinkered with to hide its red veins. Recently it’s otherness has been manifest with a swing to the SNP, something that may yet be repeated in local elections providing an interesting context to upcoming national elections. However the city has a tragic past, tumbling into decline during the post-war period as its industrial power base evaporated. This left behind a city much too big for its inhabitants, wearing an oversized tartan which grew clatty with urban voids and open punctures. As the shipyards — like the mines — were privatised and closed down, the unions of Glasgow had to be broken before the neo-liberal capitalism of the Thatcher era could be born.

The flight of industrial earls left behind fissures in the urban fabric so dreich that they impact negatively on the life expectation of its inhabitants. Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at my own University of Strathclyde has produced research to show that in Glasgow, sixty per cent of inhabitants live within 500m of derelict land influencing public health significantly. In areas such as the East End, where a large proportion of residents are descendants of Irish immigrants imported as a cheap labour source to the once all-consuming industrial powerhouse, this rises to 71% and higher. The once thriving port of Govan has a glut of abandoned large industrial spaces concentrated within the shipyards along the river and adjacent it's planned motorway boundaries. Just like the workers’ lobbies and unions were broken down to allow for the neo-liberal policies that displaced jobs and economy, the urban fabric of Govan has been ripped apart leaving a languishing mess of industrial ruins and disconnected yards.

“From the late 60’s onwards, Glasgow became a jungle into which the media fearlessly ventured to portray the wild animals.” spoke sociologist Sean Damer, of the city back in 1990. Over the previous thirty years, planners and policy makers had conspired to social engineer the steely lobby of Glasgow’s working class through physical and psycho-geographic boundaries. Speaking about boundaries in cities, sociologist Richard Sennett could be speaking about Glasgow’s M8 which cuts deep into the former heart of the tenement city, in his book The Craftsman.

“Most pervasive in the modern city is the inert boundary established by high traffic, cutting off parts of the city from each other…. resistance to the outside is meant to become absolute, the boundary fending off human interaction.”

Just as I began my PhD in late 2016, I was invited to participate in the ISOCARP young planning professionals week long workshop in my adopted home of Glasgow. I felt acutely aware of the context of our site at Govan, and the legacy and politics of poor planning decisions in the area. Notwithstanding the weighty constituency of the descendants of large volume of Irish labour that was exported to Glasgow at the zenith of the industrial revolution. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Clyde docks was able to avail of a steady stream of migrants fleeing famine and genocide only across the pond, where there was concerted policy to thwart industrialisation at the expense of a burgeoning indigenous merchant class. The legacy of this migrant community has shaped the experience and politics of the city ever since. While not overt in any design or strategy, the duty of care required to the community of the Clyde docks was ever present in my mind throughout the workshop.

Our study in Govan and Partick was informed by a curated set of presentations on Glasgow’s urban development, led by Gillian Dick, ‎Principal Place Strategy and Environmental Infrastructure at Glasgow City Council. These expert studies allowed us all to get deep under the skin of the city and to understand how it works from a truly holistic standpoint — encompassing the geological and logistics corridors that knit together the urban fabric. As the only design professional on my team, it was a born-again baptism of sorts to be back at the drawing board, pens and pantones in hand. My team consisted of members from Glasgow, Greece and the Czech Republic, engineers excited about the legacy of this industrial powerhouse. It was immediately evident that this type of collaboration, at the ideation and strategy stage should be integral to any holistic planning exercise. Cognisant of the model set out in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, which features heavily in previous posts,
“In a network-based transition, collaborative business models are the most important thing we can foster… co-ops where the legal form is backed up by a real, collaborative form of production or consumption, with clear social outcomes”

IMAGE of Govan — Partick site to be included here. Coming soon.

Our vision for the Govan-Partick section of the Clyde built upon a number of strategic principles, that form the simple (yet undeniably cheesy) acronym;

G-L-A-S-G-O-W. These values tie together a holistic vision for change based around sustainable social innovation and transformation through new links and connections
Great — Promoting the unique qualities that make Partick and Govan such special parts of Glasgow, one great destination
Lively — Helping the community programme new community spaces, entertainment and activities that allow for lively dialogue and exchange among citizens.
Active — Providing numerous opportunities for sports recreation and active living along the river and connecting to green linkages across the site.
Smart — Developing and testing local solutions using smart technologies, and transport strategies that focus on better built and social environment for users.
Gateway — Positioning this part of the Clyde as a gateway to Glasgow, to Govan and Partick, as a crossroads that provides new connections for the west of the city.
On — Bringing a whole host of new audiences, new community uses and 24-hour activity to the area that ensures for a safe and secure neighbourhood that is always on.
Waterfront — Reimaging the river as a common asset to the entire city that can provide more delightful public spaces, but also new enterprise and employment opportunities.
Taking these ideas into consideration our group have devised a programme that ties together through new use and activity. We have chosen to focus on a large area, zooming out to take a view of the entire context of Govan and Partick. While the river currently forms a hard border between the communities, we have scoped out a number of interventions that aim to bridge the two and create new opportunities for exchange and enterprise. An exercise in placemaking, it is important to bring to the fore the unique qualities of both neighbourhoods: the outstanding world heritage of Govan and the bustling creativity of sociable Partick. Our proposal seeks to bring these places together in a common vision for the west of the Clyde. We believe that with the right ingredients, together this can become a destination that offers an alternative to visiting the centre of Glasgow.

Outline sketch design of phased development districts over masterplan. Donagh Horgan

We identified five core sites that can be developed over a phased strategy, through deep engagement with their local communities informing co-production of new service and delivery models.

Govan Green Bridge — One of the most important features of our plan is a green bridge to link both banks of the Clyde. Part of our strategy is to built build a number of pontoon like connections that form green public spaces that can link either side of the river. The main green bridge to the west of the Riverside Museum will contain a regular farmers market that could bring communities of Partick down to the Clyde. Smaller connections are flexible and can bridge the Riverside Museum to green areas on the Govan side. All of these floating bridges are to be made at on-site workshops

Maritime Museum and Makerspaces — In order to guarantee a sustainable legacy for Govan we must bring new use to the shipyard in the form of smaller scale makerspaces that maintain the cultural heritage of the area. Engaging the local community in designing a maritime museum — that tells their story, interactively and among the renewed and bustling shipyard. Workers will also build the pontoons and party boats that will take small groups and parties boating among the floating islands between the banks.
Innovation and Ecology Park — In order to build upon a renewed culture of making and enterprise for Govan, we propose an innovation park for sustainable startups and enterprise. This area will be developed as a learning lab, mixing parkland and green spaces for active living, with spaces for enterprise, research and innovation. This will help to bring new audiences and opportunities to Govan.

High-density mixed use — On the Partick side of the river, a key element of our proposal will be zoning mixed use residential, retail and entertainment alongside the existing SSE Hydro centre. Alongside activating the river embankment for cycling and active use, we propose new leisure and entertainment uses that mean that visitors to adjacent attractions have a reason to stay and provide quality residential accommodation in the area.

Mixed-programmed neighbourhood — The large ex-hospital site at Yorkhill represents the biggest opportunity to connect Partick to the river and with Govan. Already there are a number of student housing developments being built along the narrow canal side greenway. Bringing these communities down to the river will mean knitting together more residential areas with large and open terracing, among flourishing meadow. Covering the road with a green and glazed walkway is intended to remove the barrier currently imposed by the expressway. Lining the promenade with pop-up shops and restaurant will breath new life to the Clyde.
The G-L-A-S-G-O-W vision was considered as a holistic strategy that can be planned and funded as phases in an open and collaborative process with diverse stakeholders across the key sites we have identified. Without question, core to the success of this strategy will be unlocking the vast amount of resources that exist — human capital and infrastructural functions that can reduce costs and make for more sustainable regeneration. Some of these resources include tunnels under the Yorkhill site that can be reimagined as connecting spaces between new functions and spaces. Other tunnels under the river can be connected in an integrated system of walkways and cycle paths, both exposed and covered. This network of new routes is intended to bring new visitors from Partick and elsewhere down to the riverside and across to Govan. We would also propose that a light-rail system be built along the old tram sections that could connect residents along a circular route around the area.

Perhaps what was most enlightening about this experience of working with practitioners from elsewhere, meaning that our ideas and proposals for Govan were absent of baggage and negative prejudice which can often inform plans and strategies for the area. Many parts of Glasgow have been regenerated to pieces, with each successive generation bringing a new set of quickly redundant built environment interventions that ignore the root causes for renewal and neglect to engage the local community in any meaningful participation. Often these team seek to fix the problems of these communities once and for all, in large schemes that throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett evokes the advice of Zen masters that, “if you try too hard, are too assertive, you will aim badly and hit the target erratically”.

“The Zen master’s advice could be applied to urbanism. Much twentieth-century urban planning proceeded on the principle: demolish all you can, grade it flat, and then build from scratch. The existing environment has been seen as standing in the way of the planner’s will. This aggressive recipe has frequently proved disastrous, destroying many viable buildings as well as ways of life beaded into urban fabric. The replacements for these destroyed buildings have also, too often proved worse; big projects suffer from overdetermined, fit-for-purpose form; when history moves on, as it always does, tightly defined buildings can soon become obsolete.”

Sennett understands that “recasting a problem with a different protagonist is a technique to be employed when that detective work reaches a dead end”. An enduringly resilient city, Glasgow is adept at adapting to change, turning her nineteenth century churches into warehouses and now warehouses into the building typologies of today. While our proposal has set out some defined key interventions we understand that these are seeds for strategies that should be refined and developed in detail with the relevant citizens and stakeholders. True ownership and buy-in for transformation must be achieved through open consultation and co-design processes that will help locals shape a sustainable strategy for them to deliver themselves. As our group has found, bringing together a number of different disciplines, professions and perspectives in collaboration makes for well-considered and responsive solutions. Examples and methodologies of this will be showcased in subsequent blog posts. Glasgow City Council has recently announced plans for a new bridge spanning this section of the city. I hope that their strategy was influenced by some of the ideas and discourse at the ISOCARP event in Glasgow. There is enormous value in setting up multi-disciplinary highly-skilled teams to work together creatively on solving the challenges of urban renewal.

Participatory dialogue in Glasgow as part of (Y)our City Centre project, ongoing. Donagh Horgan

“Faced with these challenges”, explains Paul Mason, “we can meet them, if we can understand postcapitalism as both a long-term process and an urgent project.” What is encouraging is that over the course of the workshop, concepts and ideas of individual groups became fluid and the differences between each framework blurred, to produce a final report that synthesises the proposals by the whole group. The full ISCOCARP report, which pulls together all the ideas and concepts worked through at the workshop can be downloaded here.

What remains absent in these strategies are the holistic frameworks or proposals that might tie social services and non-built civic infrastructure into any masterplans. In order to plan for truly resilient community in Govan we must empower the grassroots and encourager the sort of social entrepreneurship evident in Refuweegee and other great community or policy initiatives like Stalled Spaces or the work of Milk Cafe in Govanhill. Given that service design darlings such as Snook have grown from this context, the local authority needs to open up its vision to a more participatory approach to decision-making, planning and regeneration. It will be the cross fertilisation of ideas among a diverse set of professional and amatuer stakeholders that will ensure Glasgow’s transition into a sustainable post-capitalist centre of social value creation. Richard Sennett’s book, which will form the basis of future discussion on this channel emphasises that, “self rule supposes the capacity of citizens to work collectively on objective problems, to suspect quick solutions”. Sennett however, is under no illusions around “the disabling filter of mass media”, and how consistent the UK media has been in bashing Glasgow, unsurprisingly given its enduringly resilient demographic make-up. As built environment professionals, working at ground level, we need to be brave enough to challenge these false narratives.

“The remedy to these ills must lie in the experience, on the ground, of citizen participation, participation that stresses the virtues of practice with its repetitions and slow revision… it might be better said of modern democracy that it demands too little…belief in those skills is the homage pragmaticism pays to the craft of experience.”


Many thanks to the ISOCARP community and my group, consisting Matek Buzek, George Doulkas, Jamie Shields and Jana Vydrova.