Host City Glasgow: how it set the standard for urban rebirth

Renewal personified: the Glasgow Merchant City festival. Brian Smith, CC BY-SA

Welcome to Host City Glasgow, a series of articles that will examine different aspects of the 2014 Commonwealth Games destination as part of our countdown to the main event. To begin, Adam Aitken looks at the city’s reputation for poverty and crime and its recent regeneration.

Glasgow is a city whose fortunes have turned more than many. Its great strength in shipbuilding and other heavy industries waned in the second half of the 20th century, leaving the city with a reputation for poverty, poor health, sectarianism, low life expectancy and crime.

The novel “No Mean City” might have been published in the 1930s, depicting life in the Gorbals slums south of the river Clyde, but the label became synonymous with a city that by the 1960s and 1970s had developed a reputation for violence, knife crime, gangsters, youth gangs and tough housing estates. Glasgow was equally renowned for nightlife, live music, football, newspapers and comedy; but its darker side became central to its wider reputation. The 1990s film “Small Faces” told you everything you once needed to know.

Many of the problems associated with Glasgow were closely interlinked with the increasing poverty and deprivation which followed economic decline. Unemployment, poor housing, social exclusion, lack of education and limited opportunities for young people created an environment conducive to certain types of crime and criminality. As the renowned American political scientist Edward Banfield once said: “Theories about the causes and cures of crime tend to be variations of ones about the causes and cures of hard-core poverty.”

To at least some extent, this crime problem has survived through to the modern day. As recently as April 2013 the UK peace index identified Glasgow as the “least peaceful major urban centre,” for example.

Yet this index rating, which is based upon homicide rates per 100,000 people, actually hides the fact that crime in the city is decreasing. In 2012 there were dramatic falls in violent crimes such as assaults, robberies and attempted murder. In 2013 knife attacks fell by more than a third in a year. And since Police Scotland took over as a single force for the country last year, anti-social behaviour in Glasgow has dropped 10%.

Glasgow remains the most deprived city in Scotland. Recent figures show that almost half of the residents – 285,000 people – reside in 20% of most deprived areas in Scotland. Yet the percentage of the total population who are income deprived has been gradually decreasing. Where in 2002, 28% were income deprived, it had dropped to 21% by 2011. The percentage who are employment deprived decreased from 23% to 19% in the same timeframe.

Old Glasgow/new Glasgow

These recent improvements are on the back of several decades of regeneration, which started gathering pace in the 1980s as the need to deal with industrial blight rose up the political agenda. This was reflected by the 1988 Garden Festival and the city being awarded 1990 European City of Culture.

Like many UK cities, much of the regeneration has been consumer and property-led, ranging from the new Forever 21 shopping precinct in the city centre; to the Pacific Quay media hub led by BBC Scotland that has replaced part of the former Govan dockyards; to games-related developments in the east end like the velodrome and the athletes’ village.

Leo Reynolds, CC BY-SA

Many of the old tower blocks have been pulled down, which nearly became a focus on the Commonwealth Games when the opening ceremony was going to include footage of the demolition of some of the famous Red Road flats. This plan was scrapped following public outcry that it was distasteful.

Glasgow the brand

Branding and marketing has naturally played an important role in these changes, helping to remove the negative stereotypes that were a barrier to inward investment in the past. This has partly been about the whole city, starting with the “Glasgow’s miles better” campaign, which kicked off as early as 1983. More recently we have had “Glasgow: the friendly city” (1997), “Glasgow: Scotland with style” (2004) and “People make Glasgow” (2013).

A more niche example has been the transformation of the city Trongate, where a dilapidated part of the centre has been refurbished, part-pedestrianised and rebranded as Merchant City since the 1980s. Now it is lined with cafes, restaurants, bars and hotels.

One obvious way of boosting regeneration has been through large cultural and sporting events. This year’s games may be the biggest such event to come here, but the city also housed the 2002 Champions League final, 2007 UEFA Cup final and 2009 MOBO awards. As part of the 2012 Olympics, it hosted eight football matches.

Linking policies

Although not often explicitly identified, urban regeneration and crime control measures are heavily interconnected. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that crime and fear of crime can negatively affect a city’s ability to attract investment and people.

Glasgow has used regeneration to “design out” many of the problems that traditional architectural buildings, shops, streets, and pathways were considered to facilitate. It has put heavy emphasis on installing CCTV, fitting alarms inside shops, improving street lighting and increasing security on flat entrances.

This has gone hand in hand with government strategies aimed at promoting order, such as increased police presence in high crime areas – even while police numbers and budgets have been cut across the board.

This has been backed up by Community Safety Glasgow, a police-council partnership which puts community enforcement officers on the streets. This is aimed at regulating not just criminal activities but also behaviours detrimental to the image such spaces are trying to convey. These officers don’t have police powers, but if you drink in public, spit on the ground or drop litter in Glasgow town centre, they can issue fixed penalty notices.

Other interventions have played their part too. According to one local politician, reducing the presence of youths from the streets in the past few years is partly thanks to grass-roots programmes aimed at helping them develop other interests.

Where did all the young ‘uns go? kfcatles, CC BY-SA

The relationship between urban regeneration and crime is complex, though. For example while the night-time economy has been key for Glasgow’s economic regeneration, encouraging more people out at night can increase violence, anti-social behaviour and drug misuse.

Crime rates have also been falling across Scotland, so it’s too easy to draw a straight link between Glasgow crime and regeneration. Urban regeneration’s biggest success in Glasgow has probably been on perceptions of crime rather than actual levels – though for investment and economy purposes that is still important, of course.

As for poverty, in May 2013 Glasgow City Council launched an anti-poverty strategy aimed at coming up with new ways of tackling the problem. It emphasised taking on board the opinions and experiences of those most closely impacted. As the city seeks to take previous gains to the next level, everyone is hoping it will succeed.