Culture Cities and Urban Renaissance

outlooktowerBy Graeme Purves

At a European planning conference I attended in Vilnius in December the City Architect quoted Wellington Webb, the first African American mayor of Denver, as claiming that:

“The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.”

On that timetable, Scotland may be running about a century late.

In thinking about our aspirations for Scotland’s cities and urban living in the 21st Century, there could hardly be a better place to start than the pioneer Scottish planner, Patrick Geddes.  My own research was on Geddes’ son-in-law, Frank Mears, and how he sought to apply Geddes’ ideas in the practice of urban and regional planning in the mid-20th Century.  Both Geddes and Mears were interested in cities as hubs of cultural creativity and, influenced by Darwin, they saw the job of the planner as being to foster progressive cultural evolution.  They both had a strong engagement with the health of Scotland’s culture and sense of itself.  Hugh MacDiarmid, the dominant figure in the literary revival of the nineteen-twenties which came to be known as the Scottish Renaissance, acknowledged Geddes as one of its progenitors.

Geddes’ initial inspiration was the historic culture-capital of Edinburgh and there was an anti-imperial and anti-metropolitan dimension to his thinking.  His knowledge of Scotland’s post-Union history led him to the general conclusion that the excessive dominance of the great imperial capitals of the world was having a negative impact on the social and cultural life of the lesser cities over which they held sway.  He believed that only with the removal of the imperial yoke would it be possible for the subordinate cities to realise their full social and cultural potentials and it was this conviction which drew him to the historic culture-capitals of Dublin and Jerusalem as they each re-emerged from long periods of enforced provincialism.

Geddes and Mears were ultimately concerned with spiritual more than material welfare. Insofar as their criteria for defining evolutionary social progress were ever made explicit, they were described largely in spiritual rather than material terms.  What they sought was the restoration of a “harmony” or “balance” to human life which they believed to have been lost during the trauma of the industrial revolution; in short, the recreation of physical and social environments in which human creativity could once again find full expression.  In this respect, their ideology had closer affinities with the modern environmental or “Green” movement than with the technocratic planning of the mid-20th Century and, considering its distinctly religious aspect, it is perhaps not so surprising that in extolling the environmental virtues of Perth, Mears should describe it as a “Garden of Eden”.

Scotland’s Cities

Scotland’s cities offer urban environments of a high quality and have a key role as drivers of the economy. They are each distinct manifestations of a Scottish urban tradition dating back to the foundation of the burghs by the Canmore kings.  That has physical dimensions such as urban form, tenement living and building in stone, but it has also been reflected in distinctive civic, mercantile and administrative cultures and traditions.  Scottish cities are still arguably more like Continental European cities than most other cities in the UK, though Glasgow wears its love affair with America on its sleeve.  For a small country, Scotland is regionally diverse and our cities reflect that.

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Scotland’s economy has changed dramatically over the last century and physical and cultural environments have changed to match.  Nowhere is that more evident than Glasgow.  Manufacturing and heavy industry have given way to a more diverse knowledge economy.  Both Glasgow and Edinburgh are strong knowledge economy centres in European terms.  However, past industrial activity, economic change and poor urban management have left a legacy of social and environmental problems.  A sizeable proportion of the population has seen little benefit from opportunities in the new economy. We still have wide geographical disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, health, life expectancy and environmental quality, with persistent concentrations of disadvantage in parts of the West of Scotland and problems of economic overheating in the East.  While Glasgow has seen an economic and physical transformation since the 1980s, the differences between the social profiles of the West and East of Scotland remain.  In employment terms, Glasgow has been less resilient than Edinburgh in the period since the economic crash.

For the past 40 years Aberdeen has played a distinctive role as a major centre for the oil and gas industry. It is now seeking to build on its offshore and engineering strengths to diversify into renewables technologies.  Dundee has transformed the quality of its city centre and is working to transform its waterfront. It has enhanced its cultural facilities and established new centres of expertise in key sectors of biotechnology and the knowledge economy.  A key challenge is to retain a higher proportion of the people who study there once they graduate.

And our four historic cities have recently been joined by three new ones – Stirling, Inverness and Perth.  Inverness is developing its role as Highland capital while Stirling and Perth sit at important strategic locations at the interface between Highland and Lowland Scotland.

Cultural Renaissance

The old imperial cities Geddes talked about are largely gone – we may be witnessing their final swan-song – but we live in an age of global capital where a handful of global mega-cities dominate world markets and the commercial media and have a huge influence on our economic prospects, culture, and tastes.   A recent Centre for Cities report found that the current economic recovery is strongly focused on the South-East of England and deepening the divide between London and most other UK cities.  Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics said recently: “London is the dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy. Nobody quite knows how to control it.”

In Scotland we are familiar with the challenge.  One of the things the referendum campaign has done is to stimulate a lot of creative thinking about possible futures for Scotland.  So it seems an appropriate time to be asking what our aspirations are for our cities.  What should we be looking for in a Scottish urban renaissance?

I think some of the developments we have seen in the 20th Century are very much in tune with what people like Geddes and Mears were looking for.  Today Scotland has a very vibrant and diverse urban culture.  In many ways our arts and literature are thriving, and no-one symbolises this better than Glasgow’s ultimate Renaissance man, Alasdair Gray, who urges us to work as if we lived in the early days of a better nation.

Our cities are also much more diverse and cosmopolitan than they were in the post-War years.  Our response to recent immigration has generally been much more enlightened and positive than it was to Irish immigration in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, but our urban culture still bears the dark scars of sectarianism as a legacy of that experience.

Edinburgh has its constellation of Festivals, including the biggest and longest running international arts festival in the world.  Edinburgh is the place to be in August, when the place is buzzing with entertainment and ideas.  But isn’t it odd that amidst all this creative ferment, the organisers of the International Festival seem reluctant to find a space at the table for Scottish culture and concerns?  Festival Director Sir Jonathan Mills has said that he does not intend to include works relating to Scotland’s referendum in the 2014 programme.

In Glasgow the Celtic Connections festival has recently had another great year.  What started as a brave attempt to fill venues at a slack time of year has turned into a major cultural and economic success, with ticket receipts in excess of £1 million for the seventh successive year.  Celtic Connections has raised the international profile of the city and brightened up the dark midwinter.  It has had all sorts of benefits and spin-offs for Scottish musicians and the wider music scene.  For example, we now have Celtic Music Radio broadcasting Scottish, Irish and Roots music across the globe.

And, of course, in August Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games.  That will be a great international celebration of culture as well as sporting prowess and a lot of work is being done in the east of the City to provide the facilities and leave a lasting legacy.

But one sector which is conspicuously failing to step up to the mark is film and broadcast media.  The level of cultural activity in Scotland is a tremendous resource for our media to draw on, but much of their output is timid, stale and provincial. Taggart was fun in its day, but Scottish popular drama output looks very dated and derivative in comparison to contemporary Scandinavian Noir!  Why aren’t BBC Scotland and STV signing up Festival talent for Scottish-based television series?  The world-class media facilities at Pacific Quay, incorporating the headquarters of BBC Scotland and Scottish Television, offer the potential for Scotland to become a globally significant player in television and film production for the whole English-speaking world.  There is also scope for building on the media infrastructure and expertise which exists in Aberdeen to develop its role as a media centre for the North East.  There is little sign of anything like this happening at present and I don’t see the potential being realised without a “Yes” vote.

Successful and Sustainable Cities

At the time I was working on Scotland’s first National Planning Framework, between 2004 and 2008, Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class was having a lot of influence. Everyone at Scottish Enterprise seemed to have been given a copy for Christmas. Florida’s essential message is that to be competitive cities must be well connected and able to offer high quality environments and a first-class quality of life.  Work on the West Coast of America has shown that cities which are good places to live are better at weathering recession.  People tend to stick around and create new opportunities rather than seeking employment elsewhere.

City Collaboration was another big idea, and then the emphasis was on collaboration between Glasgow and Edinburgh.  In this technocratic vision the two cities were to function as complementary economic and cultural hubs of a Central Belt conurbation large enough to compete on a global scale.  But thinking has moved on. Now a partnership of all seven of Scotland’s cities is working in collaboration with the Scottish Government under the umbrella of the Scottish Cities Alliance.  The Action Plan for Scotland’s cities states that successful cities tend to be:

  • Connected Cities; with strong digital and transport infrastructure.
  • Sustainable Cities; maximising the benefits and competitive advantage that the transition to a low carbon economy brings for the City, its region and its residents.
  • Knowledge Cities; with high performing research and educational institutions, high value sectors and access to a highly skilled labour pool; and
  • Vibrant and Cultural Cities, which have a distinct quality of place, amenities, retail and cultural offerings to attract and retain talent, investment and visitors.

City investment plans are being prepared to identify key investment and development opportunities in each city.

However, in practice, the challenge of urban renewal is clearly giving us problems.  In Aberdeen, Glasgow and Perth ambitious schemes for transforming the city centres have become mired in public controversy and, of course, Edinburgh has had its tram saga. Repeatedly we are seeing opportunities for progressive change squandered as a result of flawed processes, rampant egotism and cynical party politicking.

The Scottish Government is keen that Scotland should be both an exemplar and a focus of expertise in tackling the challenges of climate change and with transport, buildings and business activity accounting for a high proportion of emissions, their reduction will require substantial changes in our urban fabric.  It has been taking that agenda forward through the Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative, which seeks to create high quality exemplars of 21st Century low impact development.   However, to date efforts to promote sustainable living and reclaim our cities from the motor car have been fitful, piece-meal and half-hearted in comparison with Continental exemplars.

Eighteen months ago, I heard the Danish architect and design consultant, Jan Ghel, give the Patrick Geddes Memorial Lecture to a packed lecture theatre in Edinburgh.  He pointed out that the transformation of Copenhagen into a people and bicycle-friendly city hadn’t happened over-night.  It is something which demanded consistent commitment from civic leaders and officials over a period of 40 years.  That is something we need to learn.

There is an urgent need for debate about how we agree and deliver the changes needed to create sustainable and liveable cities for the 21st Century. I am somewhat sceptical about technocratic visions of sustainable cities.  There is a widespread feeling that our local government is already far too centralised, technocratic and remote, and that our politicians have become disconnected from the communities they are supposed to serve. In his book Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues, Stephen Maxell wrote:

After 10 years of devolution, decision-taking remains highly centralised with local authorities enjoying only marginally more spending discretion than in the rest of the UK…

He believed that there is a need to consider constitutional reinforcement to the rights of local government and of local communities in an independent Scotland.

I suspect most of us would want civic change to be led by an active citizenry rather than big capital and power elites.  But how do we mobilize that citizenry and build consensus for a positive programme of action?  How do we achieve an ongoing commitment to delivering that programme?  How do we ensure that the forces of cautious conservatism and negativity will not inevitably prevail?

On the positive side, there is abundant evidence of community spirit and a desire to be active in making our cities more socially and environmentally rewarding places.  We see that in the demand for allotments, the proliferation of community festivals, markets and orchards, phenomena such as urban and guerrilla gardening, and the growing interest in community ownership of a wide range of public assets.  Unfortunately, too often elected representatives see civic activism as a threat to their authority and officialdom finds it difficult to engage with it in a positive way.  We need to build a genuinely local and participative system of local government.  As Lesley Riddoch argues in her book, Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish:

“Capable, connected, powerful communities – based on the kind of dynamism demonstrated by development trusts – could generate electricity, supply district heating, find work for unemployed young people, tackle local flooding problems, fix derelict buildings, build and manage housing and keep an eye on old folk…”

There are also fundamental questions around who benefits from urban development.  As Edinburgh’s new tram line nears completion attention is turning to the development opportunities associated with it.  Campaigners like Andy Wightman argue that radical changes to land ownership and taxation are required to ensure that the benefits from the uplift in land values associated with development accrue to communities rather than rentiers.

As I indicated earlier, Scotland is remarkably diverse for a small country. Its cities are economic and cultural hubs for distinctive surrounding regions and it is important that we do not lose sight of the national and regional dimensions in our desire to give greater power to communities. While we should be guided by the dictum that small is beautiful, we must be realistic enough to recognise that Scotland does not have a Hobbit economy.  Like the Scandinavian neighbours we aspire to emulate, we need democratic structures capable of making big strategic decisions on infrastructure and other matters in the national or regional interest.

Conclusion

As we move towards Scotland’s date with destiny, there are a lot of positive things we can say about our cities.  We have a vibrant, diverse, outward-looking and increasingly confident urban culture and the independence debate has stimulated debate about possible futures. There has been a flowering of civic and community activism and we have a good understanding of the things which are socially and culturally enriching in urban life.  There is a broad commitment to making our cities more sustainable and liveable places and a recognition that they need to collaborate as well as compete.

However, if we are to get closer to the sort of urban renaissance that Patrick Geddes envisaged, we need to think radically about how best to empower communities and re-engage citizens with decision-making.  We need local government which is genuinely local.  We need to get a lot better at building popular consensus around programmes of urban renewal and seeing them through to delivery over the long term.  We need to pursue the changes in land ownership and taxation required to ensure that communities benefit from the uplift in land values resulting from development.  We need to nurture the role of our cities as the economic and cultural capitals of their respective regions.  We need to reflect Scotland’s strong regional dimension in our approach to decision-making in a way which is consistent with the return of power to communities.

This article was prepared as a paper for the Re-imagining Our Urban Future conference which the International Christian College had planned to host in Glasgow in 21 February 2014.

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13 replies

  1. A great article & very thought provoking. I always admired Geddes’ idea of Glasgow-Edinburgh forming a ‘Super-Region’ but I think we have to go beyond even this concept- we live in a nation small & rich enough to have tremendous connectivity amongst our major towns & cities. If we did go down the road of such a super region then we would no doubt the same mistakes of centralization that makes London such a drag on the wider UK economy. In terms of petty rivalry of party politics as an enabler of ‘cautious conservatism & negativity’ we’re witnessing a vicious tribalism between SNP-SLAB that threatens to destroy any possibility of consensus politics at Holyrood- who knows where this will lead to in event of a No referendum victory?
    As for saving our cities from the car: where do you begin? We ought to be developing from the urban core outward instead we do the reverse with suburban car dependent sprawl- we must overcome the present milieu of the British way of life- that won’t be easy. One of the worst aspects of the present system ( & there are so many) is the tyranny of short-termism at the very heart of social policy, cultural life & all our social activities ( imagine planning 40 years ahead like they do in Copenhagen for example- that would never happen here under the present benighted greed driven economy). As for Film- Media strangulation: Film is the primary & dominant Art form of 20/21st Century life & yet we have little or no presence where it matters- we either need a filmic genius of the stature of a Bergman or Godard or a modern master like Haneke as a catalytic to the industry in Scotland. In the unlikely event of that happening we desperately need to support Film & media in an independent country ( film as after all one of the most expensive art forms).
    In terms of encouraging political engagement at a local level we really need to create spaces for democracy- not only in the streets, parks etc of our communities but also in the work place- we need to actively encourage dissent & enthusiasm for the democratic process. Dissent & enthusiasm are only the beginning of democracy. They are its fuel, its spur, the driver that keeps the democratic vehicle moving & the subsequent movement of democracy reinvigorates the dissent-enthusiasm dynamic. The original impetus must be organized into direct social action; but we just need to make sure that our organization doesn’t become just another form of power structuring. Power is the force of resistant to the universal quickening of the democratic impulse- this is what Independence is all about: we are the dissenters opposing the pessimism, constriction & resistance of Power. All of us have to realize just how bad the alternative is to Independence in order to fuel our democratic impulse.

  2. The new Scotland needs radical innovation in every creative domain. Independence ought to introduce a torrent of fresh ideas to sweep away the centuries of cozy, conventional unionist tedium. Local democracy is fine, but were it found to be a haven of old order, conservative reaction radical-thinking “technocrats” at the centre would be needed to shock the system.

  3. Mass transport infrastructure in Scotland is pretty much in place, which is a positive, and only requires upgrades and maintainence to produce the greater frequency required car use is to be reduced.
    This may require legislation along the lines of the smoking ban (possibly City centre tolls) and may be seen as draconian at first but long term the benefits would be enormous. Leading to a much more physically and mentally active citizenry.
    It is not only transport the needs to be connected, people do too. Our society would lose much of the alienation built up during the past thirty years if an acceptance of less car use was normalised.
    The media in Scotland, I feel, is too often the preserve of the bourgeois middle classes and needs a clear out. Playing safe and dominated by a condescending “mafia”, concerned only with its own self preservation. There is an obvious subculture of talent which never gets further than niche or cult status and is seldom reflected in the mainstream. Hopefully this will change. If the opportunities existed locally then I’m sure it would.
    Petty rivalry in politics is something that will obviously never end, note the manoeuvring in cosla at the moment, but surely the release from the British based parties from the strictures of the warped orbit of London rule would concentrate minds and produce a more focused though still highly competitive scramble for power.

  4. An interesting article Graham.

    The problem with film and television is a very simple one. BBC Scotland does not have the autonomy to sign up the major talent you mention, nor to drive the industry forward here in any meaningful way. I cannot think of a single successful film industry in Europe which does not rely on a national, film friendly broadcaster to drive the industry. As it stands, London greenlights virtually everything, and there really was no devolution in film and television. Scottish film and television producers are hamstrung and have to go cap in hand to London to get anything made.

    And then there is Creative Scotland, which has 3,000,0000 pounds earmarked for film, which is an absolute joke: tokenism. By way of comparison, just before the Spanish debt crisis, Catalonia was spending more than 25,000,000 Euros a year on film, and they were shooting more English language pictures there than we were here. The example of Denmark is another one where long term investment in the industry has paid dividends.

    But, just as importantly, and by now it is a notorious case, we still don´t have a studio in Scotland, so we are losing international shoots to Northern Ireland and other locations, where they have the facilities. There have been countless reports, plans, and promises about the studio over the years, but none have come to fruition.

    It is hard to emphasise to people from other industries just how truly dire the situation is right now for a film or television professional in Scotland. With so little being shot, many have to leave to find work..which of course exacerbates the problem. There is Scottish film and television talent in abundance, and film and TV is one of the areas of greatest potential in an indie Scotland. We are an English language speaking country and the whole world is bending over backwards to shoot in English.

    I would advocate the introduction of the French subsidy system in the first independent Scottish parliament, which sees a small percentage of the order of 7% being added to the price of every cinema ticket and DVD sold, which goes directly to finance a national film fund.

    That would mean that those who like to go and see the inane drivel the Hollywood studios serve up are actually contributing to indigenous Scottish film making at the same time, and would allow for long term planning which is so crucial in film.

    In short, a country with no national, fully autonomous television station and no film studio, cannot be said to truly have a film industry. Still, there are a few miracle workers out there, and we should be grateful to them for getting anything Scottish on the screen in such adverse conditions.

  5. Many thanks for your comments, Douglas. They provide a very valuable insight into the challenges we face in relation to film and television.

    • Thanks to you, Graeme.

      There ought to have been a totally autonomous national broadcaster delivered with the parliament. That there wasn’t is a grievous mistake, though there must be a political explanation for it, I’m sure. TV3, the Catalan state broadcaster, is accused of being biased in favour of Catalan independence in Spain. Maybe that’s why all those Catalans get out on the street and march and we don’t tend to.

      There are hundreds of television stations out there, that Scotland doesn’t have one all of its own is beyond belief and is a never ending missed opportunity. The country of RLS, of Scott, of Hogg, unable to tell its own stories on screen without a nod form London? Truly incredible…

      As for the studio, the blame can be laid at the door of the various Scottish governments, Scottish Enterprise and Creative Scotland / Scottish Screen. They do nothing but commission reports and feasibility studies, and together they have let down the film and television community here in a big way. We have long since passed the point where the situation could be described as one of neglect and have moved into the terrain of sheer contempt for film and television professionals in Scotland. Not having a studio is like having a car which is missing a wheel.

      Pedro Almodóvar once said that being a film director in Spain was akin to being a bullfighter in Japan, and you could say that a film producer in Scotland these days is something akin to being a whisky manufacturer in Saudi Arabia….as I say above, the people who manage to get anything on screen deserve credit, which they never publicly receive by the way, in no small part due to the feeble and celebrity skewed coverage of film in the mainstream media…

      • Great analysis of the situation Douglas- unfortunately there is far too much emphasis & even an overt prejudice towards ‘Literature’, theatre & the other Arts at the expense of the great seventh Art. Even an upper class & some might say anachronistic art form as Opera, as well as Ballet, receive more support than film does in Scotland. I think there’s a deep seated snobbery among intellectual elites towards film; this is something I’ve certainly experienced first hand. What great literature is being produced today? Little that I can see. It’s few & far between. A film by Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Bresson, Ozu or a modern master like Abbas Kiarostami is as much high art as Mozart or Tolstoy- even more so in that the transcendental possibilities available to film are far beyond any other art form in human history. I really don’t understand the widespread attitude of neglect to film among the intelligentsia or from the political elites in Scotland. As I said other small proud independent European nations have guys like Michael Haneke ( Austria), Susan Bier/Per Fly (Denmark), Lukas Moodysen (Sweden) Pedro Costa (portugal) Bela Tarr in Hungary or the Dardenne Brothers in Belgium- the list is endless. It’s a sad & parlous state of affairs if you’re a film artist.

  6. Cities are one thing and need to be vibrant as well as towns across Scotland –
    Increasingly large corporates are another.
    How will an Independent Scotland, or for that matter the UK, fight off the Amazons’ and Googles’ of this world, not to mention Starbucks and Apple. And you could include the six ‘UK’ energy companies and the Banks ‘too big to fail’.

  7. Barakabe, thanks, and aye, I share your feeling that there is a lot of snobbery, some envy, and a great deal of misunderstanding about film in Scotland. When I see that Creative Scotland have 10 million pounds in their annual budget to make sure that every child in Scotland gets the chance to learn a musical instrument – of course, on the one hand, I applaud that – but only 3 million for the whole of the film and television industry, then I ask myself whether the underlying belief is that in Scotland we play the fiddle or learn the bagpipes whereas the French and the Americans make films….

    I don´t know if a Scottish pupil going right through the education system from the age of 5 right up to uni ever gets to see so much as one film by any of the fantastic directors you mention, or for that matter, the Bill Douglas trilogy, and it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the general perception is that film is really just a form of entertainment, and shouldn´t be considered an art form, which is exactly what the US studios want us to think of course: go to the cinema to forget, but please, not to think.

    As for the state of modern literature, well I don´t think we can know if there are great works being written in our time, that is something which will only be known decades down the line. I think there is a lot more going on in literature in translation than there is in English literature, I would certainly say that, though I am biased.

    What we desperately need is a government which sees the huge opportunity in film in an independent Scotland. As I´m sure you know, Toronto is often used as a cheaper location to shoot America over New York. With the right facilities and investment, Glasgow could be to London what Toronto is to New York, though that is impossible without a studio….and of we course we need a stand alone film agency. Creative Scotland – nice people, lots of good will – will never serve the film community in Scotland as well as a stand alone film agency…

  8. The only thing that I found as a glairing omission in this is mention the immense damage that has been done to all of Scotland’s cities since the war by a combination of philistine planning and bad architecture combined with commercial interests. I have lived in various English cites and none can rival Glasgow, or even Aberdeen, in the amount of destruction of urban fabric that took place under comprehensive redevelopment schemes which in Aberdeen flattened large swathes of the inner city and replaced it with ugly tower blocks. Combined with this was the creation all over Scotland of economically and architecturally impoverished schemes on the edge of Scottish cites, the two processes of clearance and peripheral ghettoization going hand in hand. Living in Aberdeen there is no evidence that lessons have been learned as the grotesque Union Terrace Gardens proposal demonstrated. Having lived in English cities I appreciate more that Aberdeen is a beautiful city built on a majestic scale, but one gets no sense that the planners or architects recognise the value of what they already have. Scotland as a whole does not respect its urban heritage and this lack of respect speaks of a national lack of confidence, not the opposite as is often assumed. if we were confident about ourselves and our culture we would value what we had more. talking about Geddes is ironic because there has been virtually none of Geddes’ spirit in the planning decisions of the last 50 years.

    • A blanket condemnation of the efforts of planners and architects in the period since the Second World War is not something I would wish to write, Alex. Sure, there have been some bad mistakes but, overall, Scotland’s towns and cities are much better places as a result of the work of planners and architects over the last 70 years. My preference is to focus on the positive and consider how we can make places better.

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