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Glasgow: Where Creativity Creates a Sense of Place

This post was originally published on progrss.comGlasgow: Where Creativity Creates a Sense of Place:

1297An hour away from the capital, Edinburgh, a swift train ride can take you to another Scottish gem that has placed itself on the creative map for some time now. The city, which could be easily described as a mixture of  old Scottish charm and modern cultural vibrancy, has successfully transformed itself from a rural settlement on the River Clyde to a developed city with Britain’s largest seaport and some of the UK’s largest manufacturing and technological centers. The third largest city in the UK, Glasgow has also become a hub for creative industries built on an artistic legacy.

The city is currently home to over 606,000 citizens and, according to Understanding Glasgow, a project developed by Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH), the number of households in Glasgow is expected to increase by 24% in the next 25 years. This growth is dominated by a demand for single adult households – a reflection of the growing attraction of the city for young professionals, which flood the city center. A mix of classical architecture, cool coffee shops and designer retailers, St. Enoch, Argyle Street and the surrounding downtown areas exude a cosmopolitan vibe on par with London or Paris. Although the city does not hold year-round festivals like Edinburgh does, Glaswegians have familiarity and appreciation for arts and culture – after all, this is the city that has turned out more Turner Prize winner than any other. The city center is then, unsurprisingly, also home to major theaters, galleries and museums ranging in focus and discipline from ancient architecture to performance arts.

But there is more to the city that its center. Just a subway station or two outside of downtown affords you a glimpse into Glasgow’s industrial past and resilient urban present. Whether you are walking in the Merchant City, the Financial District, the Barras or Govan, Glasgow’s long industrial history becomes clearly entwined with its creative future.

From Heavy Industry to Cultural Vibrancy

Govan Town Hall - Public Domain
Govan Town Hall

Glasgow’s road of development has been long and challenge-packed. In the 15th century, Glasgow was no different to much of rural Scotland. As it saw continuous expansion, the industrial revolution and establishment of the University of Glasgow, the city witnessed economic and political growth. Three centuries later, the city was a leader in chemicals, textiles and marine engineering and shipbuilding. By the early 19th century, the population reached over one million residents.

This increase in population called for the development of new towns. In the book “Imperial Cities Landscape, Display and Identity”, John MacKenzie argues that Glasgow was once one of the largest and richest cities in the UK, second only to London, thanks to its manufacturing industries.  The demand for ships in World War I prompted more labor to go into the industry and led the economy to flourish further. However, the city did not escape the Great Depression and its economy took a massive hit.

Unlike World War I, the Second World War did not reap any financial benefits to the city but left many homeless and led to the destruction of housing. Following the war, the city went through a wave of deindustrialization and regeneration. Banks and other financial services companies picked up the pace. Unlike Edinburgh, the manufacturing scene never fully halted, however, as the city still accounts for a large percentage of Scotland’s exports.

Recently, a creative entrepreneurial movement has been ignited by a new ethos of that was made to exist by a handful of success stories coming out of Glasgow. Rockstar, the game development company behind blockbuster video game series Grand Theft Auto, arguably set the scene for the Scottish city to be considered one of the world’s gaming hubs. Strong arts education has not only won Glaswegians plenty of accolades, but instilled an intrinsic appreciation for the arts among locals and a special sense of inspiration for newcomers. Today, creative and digital companies based in Glasgow turnover more than £1 billion annually, accounting for around 23% of revenue from creative industries in the whole of Scotland. Meanwhile, several co-working spaces filled with young artists and entrepreneurs – and often people who consider themselves both – have recently been building up the city’s creative credentials. The Whisky Bond, RookieOven, the Hidden Lane and Pidgin Perfect are amongst many local organizations who have been involved with bolstering the creative industries, and with that, a sense of place and ownership among Glaswegians.

Spaces and the City

RookieOven sought to become a tech hub.
RookieOven seeks to become the go-to tech hub in Glasgow.

Located on the former Fairfield Shipyard – historically Glasgow’s and indeed the UK’s foremost shipbuilding facility – RookieOven was first started by Michael Hayes as a blog in 2011, and he and a few readers would schedule a meeting every once in a while to discuss the city’s digital industries. An entrepreneur at heart, Hayes figured that his next move should be in developing the city’s digital movement by converting what was once a tech blog into a tech hub.

“This place [the Fairfield Shipyard in Govan] was restored and when we spoke to [the government] the space was empty. We pitched a vision of making a technology hub out of Glasgow,” Hayes says of the modern space. Nineteen freelancers, developers, designers, web specialists got together to work on realizing the RookieOven dream. Today, the co-working space is home to several digital and tech startups and handfuls of freelancers who are carrying the shipyard’s legacy of engineering into the modern age.

“What we have here in an asset to the city,” Hayes says when asked whether or not the digital movement is appreciated by locals. “I was so close to going to London after my masters but I decided to stay and invest in his city.” Despite the increased presence of affluent, young professionals in the Govan area, as well as the introduction of the subway there, the neighborhood is still visibly suffering from the economic drawbacks of deindustrialization. Empty warehouses line the quiet streets where only a handful of independent stores remain open.

Pidgin Perfect, an award winning multidisciplinary creative studio, was born from a different need. In 2010, then Masters’ students of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde, Dele Adeyemo and Marc Cairns ran a student project and part of the project was based the Barras, located in the east end of Glasgow. Formerly a vibrant market neighborhood, the district has fallen into blight after the advent of national and international retailers and the slowing down of local manufacturing. “We were encouraged to do work out in the real world,” Adeyemo says. “Part of our interest was to do a project that engaged with people… It was obvious to us that architecture and the way in which it is created was not effective or engaging anymore.”

“We ran a project about setting up pop up cinemas in the Barras where we invited artists to come and present work around the changing form of the city and the market place,” Adeyemo adds. “We were creating a broader perspective of who were the citizens of the city.” This deep sense of community engagement with the city  would go on to become a central theme in Pidgin Perfect’s work. One of their most recent projects in the Barras is the establishment of Many Studios – an artistic and affordable shared studio space for visual artists, which has already had noticeable impact on the urban environment surrounding it.

Aside from being a coworking space, Pidgin Perfect engages in local community projects.
As well as designing spaces, Pidgin Perfect engages in local community projects.

Artistic interventions may not necessarily be new to a city that has as long a heritage in arts as Glasgow, but what is increasingly apparent in the city is that those interventions are being designed with place, community and ownership in mind. The Sighthill neighborhood is another previously industrialized one which suffered economic losses after World War II, and was further hit when a motorway was built, isolating it from the city center. Despite years of deterioration, the neighborhood is seeing revitalization thanks to initiatives undertaken by the private sector, taking a locally-sensitive approach to urban development. Meanwhile, the neighboring Speirs Locks are being developed as a ‘cultural quarter’ in a private-public partnership between the city council and developers.

“A community center existed [in Sighthill] but they did not have any cups or plates,” says Adeyemo about a simple problem that nonetheless limited use of the shared space. “So we did a workshop on designing and making new plates and mugs with children in the area. One would say that this is a fun workshop [and wonder] what does that have to do with anything? But it helps to reinvigorate a space that was not very well used and create a sense of ownership.”

A space that is creating a lot of buzz in the north of Glasgow is the Whisky Bond.  In 2012, Glasgow Sculpture Studios, Taktal and ISIS Waterside Regeneration refurbished a six-floor former whiskey warehouse in Speirs Locks as part of the development of the cultural district. In the bottom half, the space has a metal, wood, ceramics and plastic manufacturing workshops, as well as 3D printing facilities. From the third floor upwards, the building has been retrofitted into a co-working space for creative and cultural businesses, ranging from fashion design to digital agencies.  Founder of Taktal – a Glaswegian company which describes itself as an agency that works to connect people with places – Rob Morrison explains that “[The City of] Glasgow is trying to support the creative ecosystem.” However, he concedes that there is an ongoing discussion on whether or not creative industries could result in large economic impact that can compete with the industrial sector and financial services.

According to RookieOven’s Hayes, Glasgow’s economy is still dominated by the likes of JP Morgan, Morgan and Stanley, Barclays, HSBC and other financial corporations. It seems, however, that a collaboration between the banking world and the creative world is not likely. “Recently, JP Morgan reached out to me to come to their offices and do some talks. They would love to have the talent working in this room [RookieOven] to work for them but they don’t want to lose the talent they have,” he continues, suggesting that there continues to be a disconnect between the corporate world and the creative, startup-driven one.

Can Creativity Cure?

understanding-glasgow
Only 78% of Glaswegians feel that they are coping or “getting on alright” financially.

The city is still facing major socioeconomic hurdles which include an unemployment rate higher than neighboring Scottish cities. Nevertheless, the unemployment figure decreased notably during the past few years, dropping from 11.9% in 2012 to 8.5% this year. However, the recovery in unemployment will be slow, with only 40% expected recovery until 2038.

Poverty also represents a social and economic hurdle with the annual income of almost 20% of the city residents estimated at less than £10,000. Only 78% of Glaswegians feel that they are coping or “getting on alright” financially, compared to the country’s 88% average.

“Almost half of Glasgow’s residents – 286,000 people – reside in the 20% of most deprived areas in Scotland. In contrast, just 20,600 people (3.5% of the population) live in the 10% of least deprived areas in Scotland (based on 2012 population estimates),” Understanding Glasgow’s website reads. Glasgow also has a higher reported crime and recorded incidents than other neighboring cities. Official figures illustrate that city experiences a level of violent crime that is 51% higher than the national average, and the city is infamous for its drug abuse rates. While Scotland as a whole saw a 15% increase in drug deaths in 2015, one third of those were concentrated in Glasgow. The number of drug-acquired HIV infections in Glasgow rose to 47 in 2015, from a normal annual average of 10 – and is expected to top 60 in 2016.

Willie Miller, founder of Willie Miller Urban Design, argues that inequality is one of the city’s major problems. Poor health, especially at the east end of Glasgow, has resulted in the average life expectancy being just 54 years for males in the most deprived areas. As for mobility, the bus services in the city are all privatized which means that ticket prices are higher than some other Scottish cities. An all-day ticket costs £4.50 – the same price as London’s much more expansive and far-reaching bus system, despite huge disparities in wealth between the two cities. As a response, more and more urban design projects in Glasgow are looking to placemaking and mixed-use developments that a do not require locals to travel far for work, leisure or shopping. Willie Miller’s  Byres Road Corners project, for example, sought to create engaging civic spaces for Glasgow’s West End. The urban design company highlights that the project did not only deliver animated spaces through retail and food and beverage outlets, but also increased business opportunities and living standards, while improving traffic-pedestrian interaction.

A Reeducation in Urban Environments

The Whisky Bond
Creative industries usually get priced out and are forced to leave the space they worked on developing -The Whisky Bond

While the creative industries are seeking to influence economic change, they remain challenged by property developers who take advantage of cheap real estate in order to create a profitable business models such a student accommodation. Miller states that the private sector and universities remain uninterested in the development of the creative spaces in the city. “Their philosophy is to knock down old buildings that go back to the 1960s to attract foreign students in modern housing,” he says. “The style and quality of building are trash.”

Morrison explains “this sort of development has become accepted,” stating that free and cheap places are used by creative industries, and after they become “attractive or cool,” developers come in and buy the building to build something commercial in the area. Creative industries usually get priced out and are forced to leave the spaces and neighborhoods they worked on developing. “Artists and creative industries are at the forefront of city development but they often become the victims of that process,” Morrison continues, adding that Taktal will work with Glasgow’s School of Art to develop post-graduate modules on forms of culturally-driven urban development and how to learn from different models.

The ease of knocking down old buildings might be encouraged by the fact that young people are not connected to architectural heritage and have not been accustomed to feeling ownership over their urban environments. “Young people are very digitally and virtually connected but not very much physically connected to their local environment.” John Pelan, the director of the Scottish Civic Trust, says. Nevertheless, the non-governmental organization is attempting to attract youth with innovative ideas related to the gaming industries. For example, in last year’s Doors Open Day (an annual initiative that encourages the public to visit heritage architecture across the country), the Trust relied on Minecraft to simulate how a site was burnt down then rebuilt. Another idea the Trust is seeking to implement in empty heritage spaces next year is the use of augmented reality to bring them back to life.

No city comes without shortcomings, especially in one with as interesting and ever-changing landscape as Glasgow’s. But despite all these hardships, productivity in Glasgow is the sixth highest in the country at £2,500 per capita above Scottish average. The city’s GVA currently stands at £19.25 billion with an expected annual growth of 2.5% until 2023. During the past two years, the business base increased by 2,000 companies – an indication that the city’s hard-working past lives on the present.


The #CreativeCitiesUK Editorial Project was made possible with the support of:

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