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Spirit of place: An interview with Brian Evans

Words: Matt Moody

Glasgow’s first ‘City Urbanist’, Brian Evans FRTPI is charged with knitting together policy and practice to help create a city that works. He tells Matt Moody about the ‘existential challenges’ of one of the UK’s great cities

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As the first City Urbanist for Glasgow, Brian Evans is used to being asked what his role actually involves. He frames his answer in almost abstract terms: one aspect, he tells me, is to help shape “an overarching narrative for the city”.

It’s an intriguing idea, I suggest. “It’s something that’s frequently talked about in the academic sector, that one needs a narrative for one’s research,” Evans responds. “a point of departure and a direction of travel.

“In urbanism, there is no end state,” he continues. “Cities are alive, they’re on a journey. So I suppose it’s about trying to find a way to talk in a constructive and collaborative way about the journey that Glasgow is on.”

One way in which Evans is exerting an influence on the way we receive the story of one of the UK’s great cities is his insistence that “we cease and desist from talking about Glasgow as a post-industrial city, and start to talk about it as a proto-knowledge city”.

"Glasgow is used to existential challenges"

Close to a quarter of Glasgow’s population is students, he points out. “And we’ve got a constellation of great academic institutions wrapping around the city centre – Glasgow, Strathclyde and Caledonia Universities, the Glasgow School of Art, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and two major further education colleges. That’s a really powerful knowledge engine.”

But one that is likely to be misfiring in the foreseeable future because of Covid? “Quite probably, but so will every other higher education institution in every other city, and Glasgow is used to existential challenges.”

An urban consensus

Memorable stories are communal, their pleasure not just in their impact on the individual listener, but in the sharing and discussion of details, too.

Since taking up the part-time post in January 2019 (see Curriculum Vitae), Evans has been laying the foundation for a shared understanding of what the city’s future might hold. “[I have been] bringing ideas from practice and from my international experience into the city, and acting as link between the city council, communities, and the creative industries,” he says. “It’s a consensus-building, diplomatic role.”

Consensus, I suggest, is not something we see a deal of in England, where ideological opposition to the very concept of planning seems to be on the rise. Is it more achievable in Scotland? “I think, generally, there may be a greater consensus around urbanism and planning than in other places,” he says. “There is consensual thinking around national parks, biodiversity, water quality, for example.

“I don’t want to paint a picture that Scotland is the land of milk and honey and there are no disputes, but I’m conscious that in many discussions with colleagues from other places, they say ‘You’re lucky in Scotland that by and large you’re starting from the same point’ [of consensus], and you can point to national policies that try to enable that.”

So, there’s less political contention around planning, perhaps, than down south? “There is politics, but I would say it’s politics with a smaller ‘p’. The Scottish Parliament’s proportional representation system means that it’s unlikely ever to have one party with an absolute majority, so you don’t have quite the same yo-yoing of policy as you maybe do at Westminster.”

“The challenge for us as urban designers and planners comes in reconciling the genius loci – the spirit of the place – with the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times”

In Scotland, Evans explains, two instruments underpin a participatory approach to plan-making. The ‘Place Standard’ a tool jointly developed by the Scottish Government, the NHS and Architecture and Design Scotland, provides a structure for, in Evans’ words, “a formalised dialogue” with people about the places where they live. The similarly-named ‘Place Principle’ is more of a philosophy enshrined in policy, an approach to placemaking that, in the words of the Scottish Government “promotes a shared understanding of place, and the need to take a more collaborative approach to a place’s services and assets to achieve better outcomes for people and communities”.

“The Place Principle establishes a sort of primus inter pares from the government that people are required to work together,” explains Evans. “Because it’s policy, it means that when the government is looking at budget distribution, the degree to which agencies, local authorities, the private sector are honouring the principle by working together may factor into decisions on resource allocation.”

He adds: “Another advantage is that it is not overly prescriptive. In the past, or maybe in other parts of the UK, we have tended to start with some kind of overarching proposition, and then seek to prescribe methodologies for its delivery in order to hit targets.”

Curriculum vitae- Brian Mark Evans PhD FRTPI AoU

Born- St.Andrews, 1953

Education- Linlithgow Academy (1964-69), University of Edinburgh BSc Hons Earth Sciences (1975), University of Strathclyde PG Dip Urban & Regional Planning (1979), University of Strathclyde MSc Urban Design (1992), University of Glasgow PhD  Designing from Context (2017)

Career highlights

1990-2015 Partner, Gillespies LLP Landscape Architects & Urban Designers

1998-2004 Professor of Urban Design, Chalmers University, School of Architecture, Gothenburg

2003-2007 Enabler, CABE Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment

2004-2010 Deputy chair, Architecture and Design Scotland (2004-2010)

2005-2013 Founding academician and board member, The Academy of Urbanism

2012-present Director, the Glasgow Urban Laboratory, Glasgow School of Art

2015-present Professor of Urbanism and Landscape, Glasgow School of Art

2015-present Adviser on cities to United Nations Economic Commission for Europe 2019 Appointed City Urbanist for Glasgow

The genius loci

There is something else about which it must be vital to establish a common understanding in his civic role: what does Evans understand by the term ‘urbanism’?

“Well, to start with I say that urbanism is the pursuit of urbanity, which is perhaps a tautology,” he replies swiftly. “But then I use [Glasgow-born philosopher] John Armstrong’s definition of civilisation to describe what I mean by urbanity as a collective system of values, a certain level of economic and political development, the sophisticated pursuit of pleasure and happiness, and a high level of intellectual and artistic excellence.

"The challenge for us as urban designers and planners comes in reconciling the genius loci – the spirit of the place, – with the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times"

“I would contend that the neoliberal agenda, for quite some time really, focused on the second two of those four propositions, and, to some extent, paid lip service to intellectual and artistic excellence and a common set of values – depending on what country or jurisdiction you might be talking about. Urbanism is the pursuit of these propositions with designed intent.”

Admitting that this is “not an idea I can claim originality for”, Evans refers to an essay (‘Grasping the Thistle’) written by his professor of architectural history, Frank Arneiil Walker. “He said the challenge for us as urban designers and planners comes in reconciling the genius loci – the spirit of the place, – with the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times. Any discussion on the genius loci in Scotland will be a loud and vociferous affair, but you will often find people are strenuously agreeing with one another.“The zeitgeist at the moment is a kind of cocktail of demographic, climate and technological change, with health now propelled to the forefront of that. The interaction of these forces can I think be toxic or benign for communities, cities, towns, countries, depending on the degree to which the political leadership understands that all these factors are interrelated and acts accordingly.”

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When Covid comes

We cannot ignore the Covid-19 pandemic that has overrun the zeitgeist and threatens to have an irredeemable impact on the genius loci of many towns and cities, too. How does this change a city’s narrative?

“We’ve had ten years of change in ten weeks of lockdown,” says Evans. “People are reflecting on the wider consequences of the pandemic – for example, the clear health benefits from a reduction of air pollution as a result of less car traffic and beginning to reflect on whether we need to travel so much after all if this is a route to slowing climate change and environmental damage. Suddenly activities previously seen by many as bohemian or niche – locally sourced food for example – are becoming better understood.”

There are challenges ahead, he says, but also opportunities. In a way, the postponement of COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference which Glasgow was due to host in November 2020, illustrates both. The conference will now take place a year later. Evans was involved in COP26 as both city urbanist  and an advisor to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

“There are possible consequences, not just for Glasgow, internationally as well, but there might also be opportunities,” he stresses. “There has been, to some extent, a softening of the rhetoric [around climate change], but we don’t know the degree to which that has been born out of the pandemic. People are starting to think about the degree to which health and climate change are interrelated.

“One of the challenges for governments at every level will be to work out what was successfully adapted in this period, and what has maybe had its day”

“Internationally we’ve lost a year in which we could have perhaps advanced the protocols, although one wonders whether a conference held this year would have stood any more chance of success than previous ones, with the international wrangling that’s going on at the moment.”

As well as a “flowering of local community support” he has observed during this time of lockdown, Evans has been impressed by “the ability of certain sectors of industry to be so adaptive” to the new scenario.

“One of the challenges for governments at every level will be to work out what was successfully adapted in this period, and what has maybe had its day, like huge scale aviation for example. How could we capture and repurpose the skills of people who work in aviation while slimming that sector down?”

Questions remain, however, over the permanence of any changes. “I think there’s a passing chance, if the transition of public space for physical distancing is done well, that people may not want to go back. I do think there will be an irrevocable change in the way we live and work post-Covid.”

Is Evans optimistic for Glasgow? “I am, but it’s embedded in my DNA to be optimistic. If we’re thoughtful and we work collectively and in an integrated way, we can confront and overcome the challenges we face.” 

Books for a budding urbanist

A theorist as much as he is a practitioner, Evans credits a number of thinkers and writers with influencing his view of his vocation. In particular, having taken a landscape-orientated degree, he says that Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature is “the book that changed my life” and “perhaps what drew me to a practice with a landscape focus”.

We asked Brian for the five books that did most to shape his outlook.

  • Townscape by Gordon Cullen
  • The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
  • Design of Cities by Edmund Bacon
  • Design with Nature by Ian McHarg

Matt Moody is section editor for The Planner