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Paul Sweeney: Standing the test of time

Glasgow has a long been synonymous with the architectural beauty and grandeur of its buildings, which make it one the most handsome urban cityscapes in the world.

It is a testament to previous generations of enlightened Glaswegians that we remain blessed by the legacy of architectural geniuses like Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, James Miller, John James Burnet and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

They were able to flourish in our city due to a combination of inspired patrons who understood the enduring value of good design and design rules.

Those rules ensured Glasgow followed a rigorous plan driven by the City Improvement Trust giving rise to the dense grid of tenement-lined streets that are so fundamental to Glasgow’s identity.

As Glaswegians, we adore this architectural golden age, and we need to preserve and protect it.

That is where the work of organisations like the Glasgow City Heritage Trust is pivotal.

Established in 2007 the trust, of which I am proud to be a trustee, celebrated its 15th anniversary with a celebration event at the City Chambers last week where we unveiled a specially commissioned bird’s eye view of Glasgow drawn by talented local artist Will Knight.

The trust exists to champion Glasgow’s unique architecture and built heritage; and to promote and encourage the conservation of our historic built environment.

To do so, we distribute grants that assist in the repair, enhancement and conservation of our city’s historic architecture while supporting education projects and traditional skills training.

Notably, the trust has invested over £11m in repairing almost 600 of Glasgow’s historic buildings in the past 15 years and has spent over £500,000 on projects to help people understand and celebrate Glasgow’s heritage.

The importance of this work cannot be underestimated.

While the buildings we preserve are of historic or architectural significance, they are people’s homes, workplaces and community assets. Ensuring that remains the case is of as much importance to us as preserving the buildings themselves.

Because we know what happens when we fail to look after our built environment, Glasgow has seen it first hand.

Many people will remember the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s when over a third of our Victorian and Edwardian city was demolished. The ill-judged vandalism of modernist planning resulted in vibrant networks of community life being ripped apart, families displaced and our city’s built fabric being irreversibly damaged.

It was the culmination of decades of decline and overcrowding that blighted the city’s tenements and was borne out of a sense that vast swathes of this dilapidated built environment was beyond repair.

While the intent of urban planners after the Second World War may have been admirable in its utopian idealism, the often unintended consequences of depopulating our city centre are still being felt to this day.

That sense of dilapidation is as true today as it was then.

A walk through our city centre offers a disturbing insight into its decline with empty shops, derelict buildings and litter strewn streets more apparent than ever before.

These problems are not just cosmetic, they are structural.

Neglectful owners have left over 100 historically significant buildings in such poor health that they have ended up on Scotland’s Buildings at Risk Register, while a lack of maintenance of the city’s 70,000 pre-1919 sandstone tenement flats that are synonymous with Glasgow’s landscape means there is an estimated £3bn repair backlog.

It is a situation that is clearly unsustainable. Unless radical action is taken over the next 15 years, I believe our city’s fabric will face another wave of mass demolitions, and more of our iconic architecture will be lost forever.

And we cannot expect that action to come from homeowners or from tenants themselves, most of whom will simply be unable to afford it. Instead, it will require a co-ordinated response from central and local government, supplemented by organisations like Glasgow City Heritage Trust and others.

That response will have to take account of our city’s changing demographics and working practices. Glasgow is one of the only cities in the western world that has experienced a shrinking population.

We were once a city of over one million people, but the demolition of our city centre and the post-war desire to inhabit outdoor space meant hundreds of thousands of Glaswegians moved to suburbs outside the city’s boundaries.

The knock-on impact was vast, with the tax revenues of the city declining dramatically. New suburbs and neighbouring authorities like East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire expanded as those who once lived within the Glasgow City boundary commuted into the city for work, only to leave once the working day was done.

Covid exacerbated what was already a glaring problem. Those who once commuted found that they no longer needed to do so, and as office space became redundant, the sales of city centre cafes, restaurants and retailers began to dry up, often leading to closure.

It is a phenomenon that has exposed a long-term vulnerability of our city economy and makes the need to densify and repopulate the city centre with residents all the more urgent.

There is no shortage of space to do so, with the city centre having as much unused and unoccupied floor space as the Freedom Tower in New York.

The question is, do we have the political will and financial wherewithal to make it happen?

See this column on the Glasgow Times website here: Paul Sweeney: Standing the test of time | Glasgow Times


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