Dunedin of the North

Creative use of creatives is saving grim Glasgow

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Glasgow, the Scottish city, is famous for its kiss: a broken bottle thrust in the face. Och, aye. It’s working hard to be famous for something else: urban renewal through creative enterprise. I’m here in the bitterly cold northern city on a study tour with the British Council, a cultural promotion agency of the UK government to understand how the creative industries can lead to urban regeneration and economic revival.

Glasgow’s an important town. Its per capita income is third highest in the UK after London and Edinborough. Historically, its wealth came from ship building, textile mills, warehousing and trading as it exploited its advantage as Scotland’s only west coast port (think black slave trade to the USA). It became the second city of the UK, after London.

By the 1970s the huge Victorian offices and warehouse began to empty as trade and industry shifted to other parts of the globe, especially Southeast Asia. Combined with a hands-off government philosophy in the 1980s, the economic downturn meant this grim town spiralled into unemployment, crime, and an exodus of talent. It still has one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the EU.

But a sustained investment, starting in the 1980s, in the arts and the creative industries by local and central government, led by a passionate and patriotic bunch of individuals, is transforming the inner city into a vibrant centre for European arts and culture, attracting filmmakers, writers, painters, musicians and dancers. A high point was in 1990 when Glasow was named European City of Culture and it continues to host half a dozen international festivals.

It’s also now a story book in urban renewal.

The most dramatic change is in Merchant City, the old city centre turned to disrepair in the 1970s and 1980s—a bit like Auckland’s Britomart.  It was almost demolished for a proposed highway in the 1960s. Thankfully, sense prevailed and the city rather cleverly uses a deliberate strategy of tidying up the buildings and then letting them at low rates to artists, designers, architects and creative professionals as the pioneers of rehabitation. Once the buzz starts to happen and people and rents start to build, the council is able to refurbish and re-let at much higher rents. The artists and creatives may stay if their own businesses have grown, but many continue to follow the edge of town as it creeps along the derelict row.

We walked through the Merchant City, about four hectares of refurbished Victorian warehouses, and the revitalisation is impressive. Imagine old Dunedin totally made over and preserved and you’d be here. It’s host to the first Versace store in the UK and compares favourably to London’s Covent Garden for bars, theatres and opera houses.

I’ve yet to discover exactly how much has been spent in public funds (a lot has come from lottery grants). The regeneration is typically a mixture of private and public funding that we have yet to even try in NZ.

No one on the tour was able to point to the direct improvements in employment and health. Wikipedia quotes a report saying:

The gap between prosperous and deprived areas of the city is wide and appears to have been growing. In 2006, 47% of Glasgow’s population lived in the most deprived 15% of areas in Scotland, while 29.4% of the city’s working-age residents are defined as ‘economically inactive’. There are estimated to be over 170 gangs in Glasgow—a similar number to London, which is over six times bigger.

That said, the centre of town is gorgeous and buzzing with night shoppers and full shop windows. I need to get more facts but it seems that using creative industries for urban renewal works brilliantly in Glasgow.

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