Levelling Glasgow

“It is not the beauty of a building you should look at; its the construction of the foundation that will stand the test of time.” – David Allan Coe

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

In May 2019, Glasgow City Council declared a climate emergency. In November 2021, the city hosted COP26 and made a substantial effort in front of an international audience to show off its climate credentials. Over the next couple of years, it will be betraying all of that by continuing its long and apparently proud tradition of levelling and replacing every building it can get away with regardless of the financial, social or climate cost.


Recently on the Common Weal Policy Podcast I featured Malcolm Fraser as he described his part in campaigning against the demolition of the tower blocks of the Wyndford estate – housing that could be easily retrofitted and made future proof (something that is a stated goal of the Council’s climate emergency plans) – as the city tries to clear and disperse an established community so that the owning housing association can replace them with “affordable homes” and “mid-market rental” housing that will almost certainly be more profitable.
I fear something similar is happening to Buchanan Galleries. The newspapers were glowing with seeded articles about the demolition of this shopping centre and its proposed replacement. As part of the proposals, the city is going to lose the steps up to the Concert Hall. This has been a shibboleth for many proposals to “upgrade” the street over the past several years and I suspect that there are two reasons for it, namely that it is one of the few places in the city that a person can exist without the automatic expectation that they’re either passing through or there to buy something and that the steps have become a place to gather to make a political point – and thus their very existence is a challenge to the power structures of the city (and beyond). Proposals to include public space including venue space must be non-commercial in nature. An “open event space” cannot be locked off and only available if one pays a fee or negotiates a gatekeeper who becomes the ultimate arbiter of democratic expression.

The shopping centre itself is easy to criticise. It stands for a form of consumer capitalism that simply cannot continue exist in a Green New Deal (though it could be adapted to serve otherwise) and, as with so many other streets in the city, its very name evokes some of the darkest episodes of Glasgow’s bloody, slave-built colonial history. However any specific critique of this particular building itself are somewhat moot considering that its proposed replacement is not attempting to correct these issues, but is attempting merely to create a bigger, more profitable consumer experience. You can read about the proposals here.

Glasgow is an ancient city and is host to many buildings that are still in use after hundreds of years (such as the Cathedral, which began construction in the 1300s or, given this week saw Burns’ Night, a pub visited by The Bard in the 1700s). Even some of the buildings on Buchanan Street itself are more than 200 years old. This shopping centre was never designed to become as venerable as any of them and apparently now is never destined to be. The Galleries were constructed in the late 1990s. They haven’t even been open for a quarter of a century yet. They are younger even than the political careers of at least a couple of Glasgow’s currently serving Councillors. In fact, they’re so recent that it is perfectly possible that a worker hired to build them could well be still active in the construction sector and could be hired to help bring them down again (if you are such a worker then please get in touch, I’d love to hear your perspective).

There will be and are arguments about the “necessity” of the replacement of these buildings. This is a tacit admission of design failure that they were not built to be resilient and fit for purpose. If they truly must go, then their replacement must not be designed to fail as badly. Indeed, one of the key goals for the replacement buildings is that they must be “ever evolving” in line with the needs of the public. So I hope the city and the developers will be willing to publish their plans for how that will be the case and what steps they will take so as not to make the same mistakes that they think the previous designers made.

Their proposals claim that any renovations or conversions to the existing building would only result in “limited embodied carbon savings” but also that they are “exploring” (a term that perhaps reveals that they are only doing so as an afterthought rather than a fundamental design principle) plans to re-use or recycle materials from the buildings instead of just tipping everything into landfill. If that is the case, I want to see the carbon budget numbers. I want to see the percentage of embodied carbon and tonnage of materials that they think they can recover and re-use, how much they’ll be forced to recycle and how much they’ll resort to mere “offsetting” to make their numbers look less unbalanced (and how that offsetting will take place). And I want them to commit to a full audit of those numbers during and after the project so we can see how they performed compared to their estimates.

I also want to see the proposed lifespan and end-of-life plans for the new buildings. The replacements must surely be built not merely to the minimum legal standards currently in place but to the maximum feasible standards that we expect of the Green New Deal and the Circular Economy including on aspects such as energy efficiency and repairability and re-use built into the fabric of the design from the start. If they fall short of those standards, then I expect the City to publish their expected costs to retrofit the new buildings up to those standards when they become the minimum legal requirements along with their plan to pay for those retrofits (My preferred option being that the current developers place the required funds into an escrow account ahead of initial construction).

As Malcolm said on the podcast, Glasgow seems to have an obsession with demolishing itself every few decades in the name of “progress”. This “fast fashion” approach to construction was never appropriate before the climate emergency but is even less so now. If the city does not want to betray its own ambitions, betray its legacy as a climate conference host city, or betray everyone from its residents to the planet itself then it should consider every one of its actions in light of the climate emergency – and that includes how it approaches a building it hailed less than a lifetime ago as the face of a “European grand street – internationally famous”.

In summary, I would like people in Glasgow to ask the Council the following questions regarding these proposals:
1) Will the capacity for spontaneous, non-commercial public space such as that currently served by the Concert Hall stairs be increased?
2) Will the Council and/or developers publish a detailed material re-use and carbon budget as detailed above?
3) Will the replacement buildings be designed from the start to last centuries rather than mere decades?
4) Will the replacement buildings be designed from the start to be compatible with the Green New Deal and the Circular Economy?
5) Will the developers commit, now, to retrofitting, at their expense, any shortfall in expectations or standards as the city’s climate strategy becomes more pressing?

If the answer to any of the questions is “No”, then I’m afraid the city must take these plans right back to the drawing board and start again.

Photo © Thomas Nugent (cc-by-sa/2.0)


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