Log in | Register

Glasgow City Deal: Reflections on a river

Words: Simon Wicks
River Clyde waterfront

Glasgow once owed its prosperity to the River Clyde and the industries it spawned and supported. Simon Wicks wonders where the river fits now into a city – and region – that is trying to reinvent itself for the 21st century

Despite being attached to a Glasgwegian (ok, she’s from Lanarkshire), my previous visits to Glasgow have been merely fleeting ­– to pick up a camper van for our jaunts up the west coast and into the Highlands and islands, for instance. I’ve never taken the time to become even passingly familiar with the city.

First impressions stick. Stepping into the city centre from Grand Central Station, my feeling is that I’m in a handsome metropolis that has known prosperity – a ’proper’ city, if you will, where the architecture is impressive, but not over the top. I like the rationality of its grid pattern. It feels conscious, purposeful, practical. The sandstone blocks from which the city is built generate a warm luminosity in the evening sunshine. I like it immediately.

But this impression is somewhat at odds with what (I think) I know about Glasgow. There are the stats about the huge variation in life expectancy in different parts of the city. There’s the history of shipbuilding and its subsequent decline; the decanting of citizens from the city itself into new towns and suburbs. There are the deepening shades of red, indicating poverty, on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation that encircle the city itself and snake along its riverside to the former shipbuilding centres in the west. Loss of industry and poverty are lasting bedfellows.

If I looked more closely, I’d see the vacant lots, the weary riverside and the fraying at the city’s fringes. But I’d also see the many efforts at regeneration dotted throughout the city, and their effects. Over the course of two days I visit projects at Sighthill, Ravenscraig and Glasgow airport. Here, the narrative of a city built on heavy industry cleaning itself up and laying the foundations for a new economy speaks clearly. It’s a narrative relayed by several of the people I speak to, notably Forbes Barron, Glasgow’s head of planning, and Kevin Rush, a director with the Glasgow City Region partnership that’s responsible for spending City Deal cash.

Riverside story

At the heart of the story is a river. As with so many great cities, Glasgow is built on water. The River Clyde – and its sheltered estuary – makes this a perfect location for a port. A port means trade. It means industry. In Glasgow’s case that means shipbuilding and the trades that support it; but also other forms of manufacturing that either rely on raw materials brought from overseas or for which the destination markets have been opened up by the local shipping trade.

The Clyde was dredged, deepened and embanked to better serve the city’s industries. The Forth and Clyde Canal was constructed to create a transport link through the city itself but also eastwards to the Forth estuary and Scotland’s eastern seaboard. Communities grew up around the industries – Govan, Clydebank, Ravenscraig – where workers lived and spent much of their lives.

Glasgow, like all cities, configured itself around its sources of income. The distribution of people, infrastructure and commerce was embedded into this configuration. Much remains to this day, despite the loss of the industries it served.

“The Clyde is the biggest park we’ve got in the city. And it’s what the city has embraced over a couple of hundred years”

A glance at the map of Glasgow on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation tells you how deeply this relationship was forged into the city’s shape. It’s easier to talk about the lighter, bluer shades that indicate relative prosperity than the oranges and reds that mark its opposite – a deprivation across income, health, education, employment, crime, access to services.

The West End is more blue than not (how many other British cities are the same? Think about Britain's prevailing westerly wind). Everywhere else around the centre is red, and red all along the riverbanks, five miles out to Renfrew on the south bank and further on the north, to Clydebank and beyond. There’s still some industry there, but most is gone now.

Even in the city centre the riverside feels tired and underused. There are reasons for that. For one, the city side of the river is separated from the city centre itself by Broomielaw, a dual carriageway. Then there’s the M8 motorway bridge across the river and the riverside walk. Its not exactly inviting and harks back to period when planners reconfigured our cities around the car, often with awful results.

There’s another issue, too. “The Victorian infrastructure is reaching the end of its life,” says Chris Burrows of Glasgow City Council’s development and regeneration team. It’s true – the quay walls built to hem the river in are falling apart. They simply won’t take the weight of development on the riverbank. In one place on the south bank, a stretch of maybe 50-100 metres has collapsed. It’s costing millions to repair. There are miles of quay wall, on both banks.

My impression is that the state of the quay walls embodies the challenge the city faces. In so many places, development cannot take place until the past is dug out, cleaned up, repaired, replaced. Only then do you have a platform for the new to rise. It’s costly and it’s difficult, and it’s not something that developers are keen to take on alone. Hence the focus of the City Deal, to create the platform for development and to bring back into the light the potential of the city’s assets – its land, its natural features, its people.

“The Clyde is the biggest park we’ve got in the city,” says Burrows’ colleague Ewan Curtis. “And it’s what the city has embraced over a couple of hundred years.”

There is a long-term regeneration plan, within the Glasgow Strategic Development Framework (SDF). River Clyde 2050 aims broadly to reinvent the Clyde for the 21st century, through fresh housing and community regeneration, through spurring economic and social activity, by utilising the Clyde’s potential as a green (and blue) corridor create a more attractive environment and to address climate change impacts.

It’s a modern vision of a riverside not as an asset to be sweated by industry, but one to be savoured as a platform for leisure, commerce, green infrastructure and wellbeing. Given its centrality to the history of Glasgow, renewal of the Clyde is something of proxy for the renewal of the city itself, and its wider region.

The plan talks about “character areas” for different stretches of riverside, what city planner Heather Claridge calls “river rooms”.

"We’re trying to strike a balance between between being prescriptive [and allowing developers freedom] in terms of a masterplan for the whole the river"

“The SDF is a framework,” she notes. “Part of it is that we’re taking a masterplan-led approach to city sites. We’re trying to strike a balance between between being prescriptive [and allowing developers freedom] in terms of a masterplan for the whole the river.”

Between 2003 and 2014, a 13-mile corridor from the city centre to Dumbarton was the focus of a massive regeneration project. One notable aspect of this work was the creation of the SSE Hydro, the SEC exhibition centre and the Zaha Hadid designed Riverside Museum on one bank and a pair of prestige cultural buildings on the facing bank – the BBC Scotland HQ and the eye-catching Glasgow Science Centre.

These are destinations which are pulling people to the riverside. There’s more to come: as I write, the BBC is reporting on a new City Deal funded plan to transform Custom House Quay. Then there is the forthcoming Buchanan Wharf development, which will overhaul a quarter mile stretch of the Clyde’s south bank between two bridges opposite the city centre’s financial services district. This will see the creation of a large mixed-use development with a million square feet of Grade A office space, housing, shops, restaurants, a hotel and public spaces.

Significantly, its also going to see the road diverted away from the riverside so that new public space is created between the development and the river itself. Equally significantly, Barclay Bank has already bought 470,000 square feet of office space and is planning to locate its Scottish operation in the development ­– creating some 2,500 jobs in the process. “This,” notes one of the planners accompanying me on my walk, “is our King’s Cross.”

Such developments provide focal points and reasons to visit the riverside. But a walk from the city centre to Govan (and then on to Renfrew) reveals discontinuity. Regeneration is as yet somewhat piecemeal, fragmented. For every development, there’s a stretch of neglected or vacant land. The disused dry dock in Govan, for example, would make a fantastic urban park.

There are pockets of industry still, pockets of housing, of variable design quality. Beyond the prestige cultural buildings is Govan, once the centre of Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry, now feeling separate, out on a limb. It’s cut off, hemmed in by the river to the north, the M8 to the south and east, and the A379 to the west. The only river crossings are at either end of the district – one of them a tunnel for motor traffic, the other the pedestrian Millennium Bridge which crosses to the SSE Hydro complex. 

The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation has this whole area shaded deep red. Yet, historically, Govan and the more prosperous community of Partick on the opposite bank of the Clyde were closely connected, with a regular flow of people and goods between them via regular ferry services. The city’s culturally and commercially rich West End was within walking distance, too. But, as industry declined, so did the ferries until, in the late 1960s the last one stopped running. It’s typical of a lack of connectivity across the Clyde at key points that hampers efforts to regenerate communities. Without a bridge or ferry, the journey from Govan to the West End or Partick is several miles and a bit of a drag.

Efforts to revive Govan are ongoing. In 2014, the RTPI’s Silver Jubilee Cup went to the Central Govan Action Plan which had seen £88m spent on improvements up to that point.

Then in January this year, Glasgow City Council approved a £56m project to build a new bridge between Govan and Partick, along with 200 new homes and more than 3,000 square metres of commercial space. Not only does it restore the historic link between the two communities, it opens an entire swathe of the city to the residents of Govan for leisure and employment.

Read our Glasgow City Deal case studies

Glasgow City Deal - analysis

Second sight: Cleaning up the gallligu to create a new city centre community at Sighthill

On the road again: New roads are unclocking developemnt at Ravenscraig, one of Europe's biggest regeneration sites

Quest for knowledge: A new business park for life sciences, right next to Glasgow Airport

Smart thinking: How technology is has created a 'smart' canal to control the flow of water through Glasgow

Building bridges

It’s a similar story a little further west, where Renfrew and Yoker face each other across the Clyde some five miles west of Glasgow city centre. On the south bank, beside Renfrew, there’s a huge shopping complex, Soar Into at Braehead. Just east of Renfrew is Glasgow City Airport. Both are a stone’s throw from Yoker as the crow flies; but about a 90-minute journey by car via a bridge five miles to the east or west. 

Just south of Renfrew is Paisley, the town which is set to benefit the most from the Glasgow Airport Investment Area. This, it’s expected, will bring some serious investment into the area and, along with it, a range of employment opportunities. Though Yoker itself has had substantial investment in housing in the past few years, it remains a community where levels of deprivation, according to the Index, are relatively high. Jobs on the south bank (at Soar Intu, for example) are more or less cut off. There is a ferry service between the two communities but it amounts to little more than a dinghy which can’t be relied upon to be running.

The Glasgow City Deal projects in East Renfrewshire are all about connectivity – creating the links between people and opportunities around the investment area. There are the various connections extending from the airport business park itself into Paisley and to Glasgow itself. But, here too, the Clyde’s first opening bridge will reliably connect the two communities of Renfrew and Yoker for the first time since the height of shipbuilding.

"The city centre requires a lot of power and a lot of data. We need to be sure as a city that we can strategically deal with that and it's stable"

Communities don’t vanish in the way that industry can. They are more deeply attached to place. But without the connections that facilitate the flow of people and goods (as well as information and ideas), they become isolated and stagnate. That circulation is as important in a post-industrial world as it was in an industrial one. But in Glasgow it needs new vehicles to enable it – bridges, walkways, cycleways.

Digital/technological infrastructure, too. Glasgow is also trying to recast itself as a hi-tech hub for 21st century business. The City Deal is helping fund three innovation centres, two in the city centre and the one next to the airport. The financial services district, also in the city centre, is a statement of intent. The Barclays Bank investment is a declaration of trust. Modern business is absolutely reliant on fast, broad and ultra-reliable digital connections.

A city has to be able to deliver, as Forbes Barron impressed upon me. “The city centre requires a lot of power and a lot of data. We need to be sure as a city that we can strategically deal with that and it's stable, because if someone's trading between JP Morgan Chase and rest of the world and they go offline during trades, your reputation is mud. These things actually matter.”

As do integrated transport systems that allow travellers to make a single payment for a single card and use it on all forms of public transport across the network. Glasgow, unlike London where all public transport falls under the aegis of a single body, doesn’t currently offer that.

More than anything, my trip to Glasgow has impressed upon me the importance of maintaining the connections that keep everything circulating within and between towns and cities. Whether in the city itself, at Ravenscraig, Sighthill, Govan, Renfrew or Yoker, it’s all about the network.

At one time, people lived where they worked and the water played a critical role in the circulatory system. That world has mostly passed. In a post-industrial age, these networks need to be re-established by other means to enable a city to thrive. The Glasgow City Deal takes this idea and runs with it. As Kevin Rush told me, they decided to spend the money on the fundamentals, the largely unseen platforms on which everything else can be built. This, surely, is how public money should be spent.

Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner

Photos | iStock, Imperial War Museum