Learning Moments


Category: European City of the Year Award 2011
Assessor: David Rudlin
Date of Visit: 2010

Learning Moments

1. Glasgow has a competent and proactive council that has come to grips with regeneration while staying aware of the need to spread the wealth created by working to improve housing, schools, leisure facilities and cultural venues across the city

2. Partnership working is entrenched in the city operations. Even when the vote to set up a BID failed the business owners pressed on

3. While the city has developed a strong image, many of its planning documents are said to be weak in terms of vision – this issue has been recognised and a vision for the city has been developed

4. With a distinctly Scottish feel, the council has definitive ideas on how the image of Glasgow can be emphasised – partly about climate, partly about a different way of living, and partly by a conscious attempt to use Macintosh imagery

5. An example of how to regenerate a big city, Glasgow has made efforts to reurbanise focusing on the relationship between the university buildings and roads in the area, among other recreated public space projects


Assessment Summary

Many locals refer to the infamous front cover from the Observer Magazine in the 1980s with the headline ‘Home Rotten Home, what its like to live in the worst corner of Britian’, by which, of course, they meant Glasgow. This was the city’s nadir and in hindsight also its turning point.  It is difficult to believe that this is the same city described last year by Conde Nast as ‘a fantastic world class city’ by the OECD as the ‘the New Berlin’ or even more improbably by Vogue as ‘the chicest city in the world’.

However once you spend some time in the city, walking around the city centre –  it’s stylish shops, new financial district and creative Merchant Quarter – and travel around the environs of Kelvingrove, the redeveloped Clyde Waterfront and the new urban quarter of Crown Street the hyperbole is not so far-fetched. In the words of Time Magazine; ‘brimming with style and culture, Scotland’s city is a revelation’.

Glasgow is a city transformed and it is almost impossible to imagine it, as it was when it had an unemployment rate of 60% and as described as a ‘Hellish mix of drink poverty and violence’. Well almost impossible. On visiting the city’s East End and hearing about districts like Carlton where male life expectancy is just 53.9 years (compared to 67.4 years in Iraq as the Sun Newspaper helpfully pointed out) you realise that the Glasgow of old has not been entirely banished despite huge efforts and investment by the council and other agencies.

Glasgow’s transformation may not be complete but the extent of its renaissance is astonishing. No other city has recovered so well having fallen so far and it holds lessons for the reinvention of industrial cities across the western world. However as we heard, Glasgow’s origins are not, in fact, as an industrial city. It started as a religious centre founded on the rather dubious myth and relics of St. Mungo. The cathedral is the oldest in Scotland and the University is the fourth oldest in the UK (after Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrews).

It developed as a trading centre based on the Clyde and built on the back of slaves in the cotton and tobacco trades.  Such was its wealth and growth rate in the early 19th century that a new town was build. This extension was gridded like a North American city, regardless of the topography, and one of the presentations described it as Chicago on the Clyde, the most easterly American city. There was in fact an interchange between Glasgow and the US with Glasgow architects helping to shape the architectural character of cities like Chicago and then reimporting the American influence to Scotland. So successful was the new town that the city centre shifted westwards. Today Trongate and High Street, once the heart of the city, marks its eastern boundary.

By the beginning of the 20th century Glasgow’s population had grown to more than a million and the city was designing and building half of all the iron-built, sea-going ships on the world’s seas. It was one of the preeminent industrial cities of the empire specialising in heavy engineering and was one of the ‘shock’ cities of the age doubling and trebling in size as it sucked in people from the highlands and Ireland. At its peak it was a city of great contrasts – able to stage the Empire Exhibition in 1938 that attracted 13 Million visitors and commission world-class architecture like Gilbert Scott’s University Building and Macintosh’s School of Art, yet with some of the most notorious slums in Europe.

It was from these heady heights that Glasgow fell. In the latter half of the 20th century its industrial base collapsed, its population halved and it became the ‘Home rotten home’ described by the Observer. Its route back from the brink has been an object lesson in city regeneration. This stated in the 1980s with the establishment of the Tourist Board and the opening of the Burrell Collection along with the 1988 Garden Festival. However the big breakthrough was designation in 1990 as European City of Culture that Glasgow used very skilfully to relaunch itself.

The two decades since then has seen the physical transformation of much of the city. The city centre has regenerated and is now the most successful retail centre outside London. The Merchant City has been revived as a cultural quarter, the Universities are expanding and being restructured to create a new learning quarter while the city centre has expanded towards the river with the new International Financial Services District. To the west the former ship yards on the Clyde house the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (the Armadillo) together with the new Digital Media Village and the HQ buildings for the BBC and Scottish Media Group. To the East the Clyde Gateway project is being managed by an Urban Regeneration Company that is using the 2014 Commonwealth Games to kick-start a £2 Billion regeneration programme starting with a Games Village of 700 units and four new venues. Across the city 21,000 social housing units are being redeveloped and neighbourhoods like Crown Street (the former Gorbals) are being used as model to regenerate neighbourhoods around the city.

The results are impressive. In the decade to 2007 the city’s economy grew by 20% creating 63,000 jobs and attracting 45,000 new residents. The city’s confidence is reflected in its carefully managed image – ‘Scotland with Style’ and its momentum has carried it through the recession. In 2009 there was a £3.95 Billion investment programme underway.  Some of the plans, especially in the East End seem ambitious in the current economic climate but even here the city is fortunate to have the Commonwealth Games as a focus for investment to see it through the worst days of public sector cutbacks.

Today Glasgow really does have style and confidence. In the UK we are not always very good at recognising that we have our own great cities to rival Milan, Barcelona, Copenhagen and Chicago. Glasgow still has some work to do before it can match these cities in every respect, but considering where it was in the 1980s it is remarkable that it can be spoken about as being in the same league.