A square go – or just a battering?
06 February 2012
What we want in Scotland's city centres are world-class plazas; civic squares; places for civilised outdoor living – meeting, mingling, coffee-quaffing and being inspired and infuriated by public art; perhaps a giant Meccano-like or Lego-like contrivance of a spectacular and iconic nature to attract the footfall of visitors and prize the coins from their sticky fingers and into the tills of local business; and occasionally we may even be prepared to spare a few square yards of cityscape for old-fashioned grass and trees and flowers and seats for those non-trendies who want to sit and read their newspapers, smell the roses or indulge in a bit of canoodling (short of full penetration).
And what have we got in Scotland? We have got plans and developments (more often proposed developments and rejected developments and developments caught up in the labyrinthine and interminable maze of the planning and appeals system); and we’ve got disputes and splits in public opinion and misinformation and destruction of our heritage and the siting of grossly-inappropriate monstrosities, and we’ve got the disgrace that is Glasgow’s George Square.
Currently the public are being given a chance to vote on plans to replace Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens with an enormously-expensive and highly-controversial civic square, half financed by wealth from Britain’s oil (apologies to SNP supporters but it still is legally!). Plans have just been announced by Edinburgh Council, a much-loved and esteemed local authority, to plonk in the middle of Princes Street Gardens for the summer of 2012 a giant Ferris wheel higher than the Scott Monument but less stony, more expensive, and without the health benefits of walking up all those steps. In Perth, not yet officially a city but surely at least as deserving of the title as Inverness and more so than my home town of Stirling, the council have decided they want to demolish Perth City Hall, a fine – though disused – building in the city centre and replace it with, well of course, an exciting vibrant square where the local populace and visitors (many more of them come just to enjoy the square) will relax and spend money in a perpetual frenzy of outdoor eating and drinking and merrymaking in the rainless and balmy and almost-boringly sunny sub-Mediterranean climate of Tayside. In Stirling I can’t remember when plans were first mooted to create a civic square in front of the fine Scottish Baronial façade of Stirling Railway Station – I can’t remember because it was so many years, even decades, ago – and while plans have come and gone and the site still looks like it is waiting for redevelopment nothing has been done, although palm trees have been planted in the roundabout despite last winter’s mildness being such that many palm trees and other unsuitable warm-clime plants were killed all over the country, many council-planted and quite a few on roundabouts.
As for George Square, just look at the surfacing – cheap, shoddy, once even more-inappropriately redder than it is now – then look at the splendid architecture (and it’s more splendid inside!) of Glasgow’s Kremlin (aka the Muncipal Buildings), and then glance at some of the eyesore modern building that disfigure the Square – and weep (for they are not a sight for sore eyes!).
And what is the point of this article, you might be justifiably asking? It is that we, and I mean not just the councils and official bodies, but us – the public – are in a bit of a muddle about what we want from the public spaces in our cities and how we should meet those wants. In none of the cases that I have brought up can anyone claim that there is no controversy and difference of opinion. None of these developments, proposed developments or lack of developments are proceeding smoothly. So what is the solution? To what extent do we preserve green spaces in city centres, and to what extent do we allow on them temporary and seasonal enterprises, often commercial (Princes Street Gardens is not under threat of being concreted over but over the course of the year there’s quite a bit of non-park-and-garden activity takes place there)? Wouldn’t it be nice if George Square was a nice square with flower beds and seats and a nice surface and perhaps a glorious fountain and big mechanical clock and not a space whose main purpose seems to be to house a succession of trade fairs, and exhibitions, and suchlike with their aesthetically-insulting temporary structures? There’s no solution but there must be a better way of handling these matters than Scotland’s cities generally handle them.
You should be able to find information, and hopefully factual information, about the examples I have used, quite easily by Googling. The story about the Edinburgh Ferris wheel appeared on the Scotsman website today and was the stimulus for this article: Giant wheel plan for Princes Street. And I cannot resist quoting one of the online comments that have been posted below the Scotsman piece:
SHAME OF ‘DISGUSTING’, RAT-INFESTED NO-GO ZONE JUST A SHORT WALK FROM FROM GLASGOW’S STYLE MILE WATERFRONT DISGRACE
23 Feb 2012
NAILS are sticking out, rubbish is piling up and there is a rat infestation – just yards from Glasgow’s Style Mile.
The banks of the River Clyde behind the St Enoch Centre are described as “disgusting” .
The waterfront, just off Clyde Street, is used every day by hundreds of people who sit on the benches or cycle, jog or walk along the bank.
Several plans to regenerate the area – including a £200million proposal for floating restaurants, shops and luxury flats – fell through.
However, the council has now agreed to clean up the area this summer as part of £600,000 of public realm improvements
This is clearly an area in need of considerable attention I have received numerous complaints about the walkway and suspension bridge, where flooding and vandalism have been problems for several years
Its promise came as calls were made to find a long term solution.
One of the most obvious problems in the area is the lack of a proper drainage system, which means rain that hits there has nowhere to go. That lets water build up.
It is something Hector McDonald, a builder who works near the area and walks along it every day, claims is a “death trap”.
The 47-year-old, from Riddrie, said: “The rain means massive puddles – that’s a potential death trap if they freeze and someone slips. I have almost fallen a number of times.”
The seats for the old bandstand are also in a state of disrepair. Wood has dislodged from the concrete, resulting in jagged wood and nails sticking out.Broken bottles, discarded food and other debris are also strewn throughout the walkway.
Mr McDonald added: “It is disgusting and it should be shut on health and safety grounds. I walk down here most days and it is getting worse. It is rat infested because of the amount of rubbish lying around.
“I want to be proud of this city. This place needs to be cleaned up for the people of Glasgow – and because we have the Commonwealth Games coming soon.”
Susan Nicol, general manager of the nearby St Enoch Centre, said the waterfront needed a lot of work.
She said: “We have been in regular talks with Glasgow City Council about the vicinity directly behind the centre and would welcome and support any initiatives it has to change it for the better.
“At such a short distance from Glasgow’s highly regarded Style Mile, this is clearly an area in need of considerable attention.”
THE council owns the bulk of the land around this stretch of Clyde Street, but the area around the bandstand is in the hands of the Santander bank.
Australian tycoon Rodney Price’s multi- million plans to transform the waterfront were scrapped more than two years ago after the developer went bankrupt, with a further proposal also folding because of the recession.
With no private investment on the horizon, the council has agreed to spend £600,000 on basic repair work – including new surfacing, enhanced lighting, reducing the height of walls and the thinning of shrubs – in an attempt to make the space better for public use.
Councillor Craig Mackay, who represents City Centre And Anderston, said he would continue to push for further improvements.
He said: “I have received numerous complaints about the walkway and suspension bridge, where flooding and vandalism have been problems for several years.
“The condition of the walkway is unacceptable, particularly as visitors to the city are naturally drawn to the riverfront.”
MR MACKAY added: “While the area would be revamped as part of any large developments there, several schemes have been proposed and all have failed to materialise.
“Meantime, the area has continued to deteriorate while council departments bounce responsibility between each other.”
Local Labour councillor Philip Bratt said the council must look at “every viable proposal to regenerate this area as we have done along other parts of the riverfront”.
He added: “For any community to feel secure and proud of its living environment, cleanliness must be a priority.
“It is important the area is properly cleared of all refuse and I welcome the public realm improvements.
“However, a long-term solution to this problem will only result from a viable proposal to develop this stretch of the river.”
A council spokeswoman said it would welcome any “positive proposal” that could contribute to the regeneration of the waterfront.
She added: “In the meantime, the council will be investing £600,000 on public realm improvements in the area.”