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Interview with Glasgow’s first official ‘city urbanist’

Professor Brian Evans on how the city can celebrate the past without repeating it
8 May 2020
Posted in Reports

By Rhiannon J Davies

Rhiannon is a freelance multimedia journalist based in the Southside of Glasgow, where she edits Greater Govanhill magazine.

Last year, Glasgow City Council announced the appointment of its first ‘city urbanist’, Professor Brian Evans. It was an enlightened move, eschewing the more obvious appointment of a ‘city architect’ in favour of something new.

Founder and director of the Academy of Urbanism, Evans is also an adviser to the United Nations and directs the UN Charter Centre for Sustainable Urbanism at The Urban Lab, in the Glasgow School of Art.

The Glasgow Papers met Evans in the stylish Grahamston ‘concept bar’ in the Raddison Blu (pictured below), named after the village that once existed in the same location, now lost beneath the foundations of Glasgow Central station. Seated under a mural depicting a scene from Glasgow’s past, we begin a conversation about the city’s future.

How do you think of Glasgow as a city and its place in the world?

I want to focus on themes related to Glasgow’s genius loci (spirit of a place), rather than rely on adjectival terms like ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ or ‘resilient’.

The first theme is a ‘metropolitan’ city, because Glasgow is Scotland’s only metropolitan city. Depending on how you define Glasgow, its population might be 600,000 or it might be 1.7 million and this is important.

Prof Evans

The second theme is the ‘everyday’ city, the city we experience and touch every day – the buses we use, the quality of the public spaces. It’s the reality for residents, visitors and businesses – where they all meet one another. What’s the point in having a fabulous metropolitan city if the everyday city falls down?

The third theme is ‘international’ city. Glasgow regularly wins titles such as City of Architecture and Design, European City of Culture – it’s good at putting on a show and that’s to do with the nature of the people and the culture of the place.

What challenges does the city face?

One of my architecture professors wrote that in designing for place and identity, the challenge comes in reconciling the spirt of the place with the spirit of the time. Right now, the spirit of the time – the zeitgeist – has been hijacked by populism, Brexit and Trump. But behind that, is the interplay of demographics (ageing populations, low fertility rates, migration), climate change and automation.

These issues all impact on one another; if you’re changing a city for climate change, you’re also going to have to make it work for older people. No country can opt out of that. But enlightened leadership can engage with this cycle of change to make it benign rather than toxic, and that’s a theme that I want to work on as city urbanist.

How is Glasgow adapting to take on these new challenges?

The urban policy research unit Centre of Cities talks about replicator and reinventor cities. Replicator cities seek to overcome some of the challenges of the last 30 years by replicating what they did before – like the manufacturing cities of the north of England.

“Glasgow is a reinventor city; celebrating its inheritance without replicating it exactly” Professor Brian Evans

But Glasgow is a reinventor city; celebrating its inheritance without replicating it exactly. It’s picking up on the creative craft side of its manufacturing history and the inherited memory of the skill force, which perhaps explains why Glasgow is so successful in the creative industries.

It’s also undergoing a paradigm shift; the means of production has become knowledge when it used to be manufacturing and industrial processing. Partly by judgment, partly by luck, Glasgow has found itself able to transition to meet the challenges post-Brexit.

How can communities be brought into shaping the city’s future?

We need to have conversations in the open air, but not with an unrestricted agenda. We don’t need to be told that heritage is important or that we need more cycle lanes – we already know that. We want people to come along and tell us how these things can help the everyday, metropolitan or international city.

I want to get some communion between different sectors. The starting point can be ‘we want to save all our important buildings’, ‘we want to save our parks’, ‘we want our people to be healthier’ – there is unanimity between these things. But it’s when you get people to talk about what’s good in their place and their community, that new ideas start to emerge.

How much do you hope to achieve in the duration of your three-year tenure?

I’m only one person, part-time, independent, with no staff and no budget. But this can be an advantage, as I can be unthreatening. The city is already thinking that it needs to work in a much more multi-disciplinary way. Hopefully, I can bring some design thinking into it.

Realistically, what I might be able to do is realign a few things, a wee bit like a course adjustment on a super tanker. It only takes a two or three-degree course adjustment, but after 15 miles – or 15 years – you’re in a completely different place.

Brian Evans’ Five Favourite Places in Glasgow

Pollok Park. Image by Daniel Manastireanu from Pixabay

1. River Cart, through Pollok Park A bucolic landscape in the heart of the city, accessible to all for recreation.

2. Commonwealth Games Village, Dalmarnock A new, highly sustainable mixed tenure community created as part of the legacy from the 2014 Commonwealth Games and an exemplar of the city’s current approach to regeneration and inclusive growth.

3. Cafe Gandolfi, Merchant City and Glad Cafe, Shawlands These two places exemplify Glasgow’s cafe culture. Gandolfi in the Merchant City has been a Glasgow Institution for over 30 years. Whatever the season or the weather, the food is good, the ambience warm and the staff friendly. The Glad is more recent and combines a performance venue with a lovely cafe and periodic exhibitions.

Glad Cafe; Paul Chappells

4. The statue of Dolores Ibarruri “La Pasionaria” Republican leader from the Spanish Civil War Arms raised, the statute commemorates Glasgow’s contribution to the International Brigades and is emblematic of the egalitarian spirit of Glaswegians.

5. Royal Exchange Square The first of Glasgow’s squares to effect a radical redistribution of space in favour of people away from vehicles – a cultural institution surrounded by relaxed cafes.