By Georgiana Varna, Research Fellow (Management), The University of Glasgow.
I have always been fascinated by cities and especially their capacity for changing and re-inventing themselves; in other words my interest and passion has always been focused on what the urban literature calls ‘urban regeneration’ or ‘urban renaissance’. In my research on cities, I have discovered that although the local environment of each project and each city has its own particular strengths and weaknesses, two factors are fundamental to the success of big projects: vision and political support.
In the city of Glasgow, the vision for the city’s physical regeneration began at the end of the 1980s, lead by the urbanist Gordon Cullen. This was focused on two main areas: the city centre and the waterfront of the River Clyde. Over the past two decades the vision for Glasgow’s city centre, based on Cullen’s ideas, has been more or less implemented; today Buchanan Street is a major axis, flanked East and West by the Merchant City and the IFSD (International Financial Services District). The river’s fate followed a much slower and more fragmented path. Although many of the current Glasgow City Council’s publications boast an image with a ‘regenerated’ part of the river (a new bridge or a new piece of architecture), the overall situation is of disjointed developments, without a continuous walkable riverfront path, often bordered and barred by derelict pieces of land and extensive car parks. Sadly, in an age when cities actively compete to attract flows of capital and tourists while creating liveable and enjoyable urban environments for their inhabitants, Glasgow falls behind. The obvious truth is that whether you are a local looking for an enjoyable walk on a Sunday morning or a curious tourist, a trip along the Clyde is a far from pleasant or interesting endeavour. One of the greatest assets of the city in terms of historical and cultural heritage, contribution to quality of life and to the overall improvement of the city’s image has been left forgotten.
What we see today is an almost dead river, without much activity to look at or engage with, and a few new ‘iconic’ buildings (with a rigorous question mark as to what iconic means) such as the Clyde Auditorium (1995), The Riverside Museum (2011) and the new SSE Hydro (2013). There have also been efforts to increase the north south connectivity with new bridges such as the Millennium Bridge or the Clyde Arc – also known as the ‘Squinty Bridge’ – in Broomielaw. In addition, several larger-scale housing developments have appeared in the Gorbals and Glasgow Harbour, while a slowly developing media quarter is emerging at Pacific Quay. In this location, the first event to spark the river’s regeneration was The Garden Festival, which took place in 1984, when for the first time in decades, Glaswegians were given the chance to enjoy their river. Here, thirty years later, the former site of the festival is a park, little visible and poorly accessible from the water’s edge while the last pocket of water remaining from the busy days of the industrial age, the Prince’s Dock, is still awaiting a marina development.
Overall, the present situation is miles away from Cullen’s vision for the river, who saw the Clyde as becoming Glasgow’s major public space, meant to be developed as a series of ‘rooms’ – a series of spaces each with its own identity that together would entice one to come to the Clyde and have a variety of pleasant experiences. Therefore the vision has always been of a comfortable and attractive waterfront with different themes that would make it fun and interesting for one to go along its banks. However, after three decades, very little invites people to walk along or sit by the river or to enjoy the river through boats or water-side cafes and restaurants.
Many would ask why is this the situation today? Through my research I have uncovered three main reasons that combined to give one possible answer to this question.
- 1. The council planners’ lack of vision, co-ordination and inability to make ‘placemaking’ a priority
Although many of the planners I have spoken to are aware of the issues related to the Clyde’s waterfront, there seems to be little co-ordination within the Council’s planning department. There are different planners for different areas of the river with different budgets and priorities and to have them aligned at the same time seems to be very difficult in the council’s Development and Regeneration Services division. Although officially there is a planner in charge of the river, she or he has little power to co-ordinate budgets and deliver the coherence that the development of the Clyde so desperately needs. Although the Clyde walkway is safeguarded in the City Plan, it seems that there is an acute lack of concentrated effort and focus on the riverfront; the planner in charge of the river in 2009 when I was conducting my fieldwork has stated:
We don’t even have a strategy for the spaces. We’re just saying we want to leave this space for the private developer, we don’t even have in our head: “Why are we leaving that space? Do we want to have soft amenity, do we want to have amenity or do we want it big enough to hold a concert out there?” Nobody is actually thinking: “Well maybe now and then we need a node that will do this or a space that will do that.” Nobody is thinking at all… (Interview with GCC planner for the river)
2. A permanently empty public purse
As in the case with many waterfront projects, the coherent and successful regeneration of the Clyde in Glasgow is a highly costly process due to the considerable scale of brownfield land needing decontamination, and owing to the legacy of large infrastructure inherited from the industrialisation and canalisation of the river. One of the council’s planners stated:
We have a working river, which is very long with lots of decay, quay walls… Some of the sections on the north side are not open just because it’s so dangerous that there is a big public liability if you open those sections. We have to find the money to do these sections up before people can go there and restore quay walls, put all the infrastructure that sometime nobody will see, you know just building the quay walls again, which is an infrastructure project it’s not an environmental enhancement project. Then you’ve got to find the money for resurfacing it and the public realm and creating the green space. (Interview with GCC area planner for the City Centre)
Faced with these costly issues, the Glasgow City Council’s approach has been to prime pump development; the few resources available were part spent on several infrastructure works and part for advertising and promoting the area to the private sector. One of the outcomes of a severe lack of public funds has been the delay of the Fastlink project – a rapid transport bus link between key sites on the Clyde waterfront – now dependent on the contributions from the various developers involved along its proposed route. There are serious concerns that the project will happen at all, and it seems that sadly the Fastlink, just as many other projects on the Clyde, has become dependent on the market fluctuations. This is a not a specific phenomenon for Glasgow but a characteristic of waterfront developments in general; however, in order to bypass the market’s fluctuations, the local authority needs to show strong vision and commitment to carry this and other projects through and secure the necessary starting funds.
3. Divided ownership and power struggles on the banks of the Clyde
One of the fundamental issues preventing a more articulated development of the Clyde waterfront is the divided ownership and power struggles among the major landowners, the two public bodies: GCC (Glasgow City Council) and SEG (Scottish Enterprise Glasgow), the local branch of Scottish Enterprise, and the main private landowner, Clydeport (the former Port Authority). Research has shown time and time again that good cooperation among different stakeholders, each with their own interests and agendas, is fundamental for the successful outcome of large development projects such as the regeneration of the Clyde. In Glasgow it seems that major disagreements among these three main actors greatly affects the overall state of the Clyde and its waterfront. One of the main arguments that is given to explain the badly connected and often deserted waterfront is the lack of activity on the water’s edge: time and time again, it has been argued that there is no point in making large public investment regarding the waterfront’s quality, if there is nothing on the water that can attract people to the river’s edge. The current lack of activity on the river is one of the most important and visible outcomes of the lack of successful cooperation between the GCC and Clydeport. Most waterfront development projects show vibrant revitalised rivers of boats, yachts, water taxis and houseboats. The Clyde however is devoid of activity for the most part of the year, except for the one weekend in the summer when the River Festival takes place. The GCC holds the view that Clydeport does not promote activity on the river and has stopped dredging upstream, in the city centre area (Interview with GCC planner). The council’s planning department also believes that a public water based transport system would not be economically viable and they will not have it financed. Clydeport argues that they do not find it commercially viable to dredge upstream because of lack of demand from vessels and very slow activity in the central part of the river (Interview with Clydeport spokesman).
In conclusion, the River Clyde regeneration in Glasgow falls short of what it could be. It has been shown here that the vision emerged long ago and that those who plan and design the urban spaces acknowledge the current failings. What seems to be completely missing in Glasgow is the political support from the leadership of the Glasgow City Council to see the river through and allow it to become a key asset of Glasgow. Glasgow is hosting the Commonwealth Games this year and wants to be a vibrant, smart city; in 2013 it secured a £ 24 million grant from the UK government to invest in smart technologies for its inhabitants. But where is the quality of life that a modern, smart city should offer the ones who live, work and play in the city or visit its streets? For this, it is crucial that the river is made into a priority for Glasgow’s development and that the quality of the public spaces, at least in the city centre, needs to be improved. And this needs to happen fast. At the moment, the best way to take this forward would be to translate it into a River Task Force, a team combining politicians, planners, business professionals, architects, environmental officers and space managers and crucially, academics. The knowledge of how to improve the state of Glasgow’s public realm, its quality of life and its image is there; the University of Glasgow, Glasgow School of Art and Strathclyde University all have strong urban studies departments. We know what needs to be done but knowing is not enough. The expertise needs to be backed up by decision makers. A task force, properly resourced with a time frame of say two years and one objective: a walkable and enjoyable waterfront and an active river. And in the current climate of austerity, the investment in the quality of the outdoor environment is much less than in other types of infrastructure or building projects. It requires things like planting grass and flowers, and to enliven places such as the surroundings of the BBC and the Science Centre in Pacific Quay or around the New Museum of Transport, lying at the moment in a sea of derelict land and car parks, together with comfortable and attractive street furniture. It should include the widening of the pavements and planting of a row of trees along the walkway from Glasgow Harbour to the new Transport Museum and further on to the Science Centre and the Hydro, to make a natural barrier to the busy expressway. In addition, the walkway should have several stops along the way with a few benches, and basic pavilion type structures so that on a rainy day one could stop and have a sandwich or just rest and enjoy the river view. Crucial for functional and busy public places is the presence of public toilets, as they are very much needed by more fragile citizens: the sick, the elderly and children. Until the land can be secured to establish a continuous and pleasant river walkway, an affordable waterbus can be put in place to connect the new developments and support investors to open river restaurants and cafes. In order to support the activation of the water space, mooring posts and services need to be put in place so that boats can once again come up the Clyde. And in order to support the reconnection of locals with the river, the council can support various events, and use for example the new public space at Broomielaw, where it has invested over £2 million. An example of a basic event strategy would be that one weekend per month, from April to November, the young creative class of the city, the young artists of Glasgow, will be allowed to showcase their work and alternatively, a once monthly flea market could be organized.
Often we hear the phrase ‘Glasgow is no Barcelona’; that the weather is so bad in Glasgow that it doesn’t justify improving the outdoor environment. However, the Nordic cities of Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Stockholm, which have climates similar to Glasgow, have concentrated a lot of effort, resources and expertise in making their urban environment a livable, pleasant and environment friendly experience. They are pedestrian and bicycle friendly and have fantastic outdoor places. They are highly popular tourist destinations because they are walkable and easy to navigate. They have lively public spaces because they have taken advantage of their natural assets (rivers and canals) to provide a pleasant environment for people. A lesson that Glasgow has not yet learnt.
Further discussion of these issues and in depth case studies to support the arguments presented are detailed in Georgiana Varna’s upcoming book: Measuring Publicness: The Five Star Model, to be published August 2014 by Ashgate.