Glasgow faces up to reality of a divided Commonwealth Games legacy
The Guardian argues that Glasgow’s east end hoped staging this summer’s event would mean regeneration, but it also meant a lot of destruction. Good to see the press are finally waking up to what’s going on.
‘Two police officers cycle past the Emirates Arena and Chris Hoy velodrome in Glasgow – one of the main venues for the Commonwealth Games. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
There was an unusually electric thrill in the air at a pensioners’ party in the east end of Glasgow, on a cold December evening in 2007. The elderly of Dalmarnock had gathered in a community centre to celebrate the news that their city had beaten off its rivals for the right to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games, a global jamboree to be played out on their very doorstep.
Little could they imagine that, six years later, this lowrise brick building at heart of the community would be reduced to rubble to make way for a coach park. “This place has had its heart ripped out,” says Robert Kennedy, a play worker, as he shovels woodchips around an outdoor play area, across the road from where steamrollers press fresh tarmac over the site of the old community centre.
“We used to have a cafe and a chemist, two newsagents and a chip shop, but all that’s been flattened. They took away our high street, leaving us without any amenities for the last three years, and what have we got to show for it? A ‘transport hub’.”
When Glasgow’s victory was announced, it was acclaimed as the long-awaited catalyst for the regeneration of the maligned east end of the city; an area that suffers from some of the highest levels of deprivation and unemployment in the UK, where life expectancy is five years below the Scottish average.
The district of Dalmarnock was once a thriving fulcrum of empire, employing tens of thousands in its dyeworks, wireworks and steel industries, forging parts that still grace bridges around the world. Yet the progressive decline of manufacturing, exacerbated by a misguided programme of demolition in the 70s, has seen the population battered down from over 50,000 in the 1950s, to less than 2,000 today.
Dogged by high crime rates, drug-related violence and poor health, the image of the east end has been massaged by the media, and thecrocodile tears of Westminster politicians, into a vicious wilderness; a place riddled with decay and ruled by jungle law. The Commonwealth Games, bringing with it sparkling stadiiums and an athletes’ village, would be the cleansing salve, promoting inward investment and curing the decades of social ills.
“We have been presented with the best chance in a generation, and possibly a lifetime, to improve the lives and raise the aspirations of every Glaswegian,” said Steven Purcell, the then-leader of Glasgow city council. For the country’s first minister, Alex Salmond, it was the dream ticket in his bid for independence – “an opportunity to raise our sights as a nation”, a televised chance for “the world to see a Scotland that is a modern, vibrant and culturally rich and diverse nation”, and for “young people to know about Scotland’s place in the world”. But, with five months to go before the spotlight is focused on the east end, does the heroic sporting precinct, and the infrastructure laid for its all-important legacy, look and feel like the work of an ambitious independent nation?
The athletes’ village for the Games. Photograph: Tom Ross/Rex
Coming from the city centre, travelling east along London Road, evidence of the imminent Games is certainly hard to miss. Squatting on the corner of a busy road junction like a car showroom on steroids, the Emirates Arena stands as a monolithic shed, presenting the street with a 200-metre long wall of grey. At its western end, the facade bulges out in a glassy curve, revealing the presence of the Sir Chris Hoy velodrome within, while the roof continues on oblivious, shooting its bulky frame out in a redundant 20-metre cantilever above a verge.
This £113m megastructure is the combined home of the athletics arena, velodrome and three full-size sports halls, as well as a gym and a luxury spa. It is topped with an oversized lid, says its architects 3DReid, in order to “unify the building and pull all its components together”. As he walks me through its echoing halls, councillor Archie Graham, executive member for the Commonwealth Games, reels off the “world-class” statistics of this mindboggling venue, explaining how it saves money by bringing everything together under one roof. And yet, how it sits in its surrounding landscape has been astonishingly ill-conceived.
The new arena stands across the road from Celtic Park football stadium, creating an opportunity, one might think, for relating these two great chunks of sporting infrastructure. Instead, it turns its back on the street, while across the road Celtic are in the process of demolishing a listed Victorian board school building, one of the few historic fragments left in the area, to replace it with a combined superstore, museum and ticket office, to be clad in the same grim, grey panelling. Why not align the venues’ entrances, make sense of the public realm – and even provide a pedestrian crossing? “We expect most people to come by car,” says Graham. “And that’s a busy main road, so it’s no place to cross.”
As we walk around the other side of the metallic hulk, the arena presents its main entrance to a great, grey carpet that rolls out as far as the eye can see, providing spaces for over 600 cars. Like the building, the car park is raised up on a defensive berm, surrounded by gabion walls and hedgerows, reinforcing the feeling that this alien spaceship is cut off from the surrounding streets. Graham insists the complex is conceived as a “leisure centre for the local community”, but neither its form, nor its price list, suggest this is actually the case.
“The membership is astronomical,” says David Stewart, a young resident and active member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, who runs youth events in the Dalmarnock Centre’s temporary home, just south of the arena. “It’s also really expensive to hire a space for our youth groups there, and most local people can’t afford the cafe either. It doesn’t feel like it’s been designed for Dalmarnock.”
Next door to the stadium, a purple hoarding marches around a sprawling overgrown plot, where a billboard optimistically trumpets “A Golden Opportunity, Coming Soon!” This was to be a £44m plan for a hotel, leisure and shopping complex, scheduled to bring 400 jobs to the area in time for the games, but has since been put on hold. “A hotel in the east end is unheard of,” says Graham, “but we’re sure it will happen, when the market picks up.”
Spurring the market on its way, this part of the east end, which spreads for 840 hectares around the eastern Cuningar Loop of the river Clyde, has been under the remit of Clyde Gateway () since 2009, a government-funded urban regeneration company set up when the Games was won, to deal with the bounty that is supposed to follow such sporting mega-events. It is charged with bringing 10,000 new homes, 21,000 new jobs and an extra 20,000 people to the area over its 20-year lifespan – as well as £1.5bn of private investment.
“It’s the greatest concentration of derelict industrial land in Scotland,” says Ian Manson, chief executive of Clyde Gateway and former head of planning at Glasgow city council, as we drive through the swaths of land whose future he will partly determine. “Our challenge is to change the idea of ‘that place is a dump’, to ‘wow, that’s a great new place where I want to live and work’.” We pass huge plots at various stages of remediation, armies of soil-washing machines cleansing decades of chromium contamination on one site, a line of gleaming new industrial sheds on another, a spanking new speculative office building on a third. We pass a majestic stone theatre at Bridgeton Cross, built in 1911 and long vacant, but now elegantly transformed into a new local library,boxing gym and offices. There are billboards fronting other empty sites, proclaiming the imminent arrival of a national business district and a low-carbon zone, illustrated with generic developer-friendly boxes dressed in glass and metallic cladding.
Aerial view of the athletes’ village in Glasgow. Photograph: Picasa
“We are derisking sites to make them more attractive to business,” says Manson. “Our primary role is land assembly, decontamination and providing essential infrastructure, giving people the confidence to invest here.” Clyde Gateway’s proudest achievement, which we drive down, is the bluntly-named East End Regeneration Route, a six-lane A-road that now ploughs through the centre of Dalmarnock, past the arena, to connect two of the city’s motorways. “It puts the place on the map and gives businesses a simple, clear address,” says Manson. “It opens up the area in terms of perception, as well as physically.” As a pedestrian, it feels like it does the exact opposite, severing the urban grain either side of a great infrastructural barrier, driving a violent wedge between Dalmarnock and its local primary school. We come to a junction where the road intersects with a similarly scaled artery, next to the newly-upgraded station: £11m spent on what local residents call a “flashy architectural roof”.
“This part of Glasgow is made up of these tightly-knit market crosses,” says Manson, “so we’re trying to strengthen that character.” It is a sound spatial principle, but the reality of this motorway junction, to which fragments of industry cling on next to freshly-cleared development sites, couldn’t be further from the human-scaled crosses that characterise historic market centres elsewhere. It feels as if the entire area has been conceived within a series of separate developable boundaries, alongside large pieces of strategic infrastructure, with little thought for how these hefty jigsaw pieces actually join together, and what it is like to experience at street level.
Sadly, this broad-brush approach follows a long tradition of crass planning, continuing Glasgow’s irrepressible hunger for roadbuilding. In 1945, the radical Bruce report proposed a system of arterial motorways, converging to form an inner ringroad that would bulldoze through much of the city’s historic fabric. It advocated the wholesale demolition a great deal of the centre – including the cherished Central Station, Mackintosh School of Art and Kelvingrove Gallery – in pursuit of a “healthy and beautiful city”, drugged by the megalomania of postwar planning. Presenting the road as an ordering device, a highway plan of 1965declared that: “The very nature of this motorway will define the city into understandable units, each with its own identity … from this it will be possible for the citizen to experience what the city means, how it functions and what it symbolises.” The residents whose communities it has sliced through know all too well what such infrastructure symbolises – that their neighbourhoods can be sacrificed for the good of growth. Nor has it helped more recent attempts at icon-building: further west, the variously contorted metallic visitor attractions by Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster lie marooned in a sea of asphalt, severed from the city by the roaring Clydeside Expressway.
Public protest meant only the northern and western flanks of the ringroad were ever built, yet the plan has lingered on like an undead council officer, a malevolent spirit who still drives the direction of infrastructure. The southern flank was finally completed in 2011 as the controversial M74 extension, carving through some of the city’s poorest estates, and now the east end Regeneration Route almost completes the choking embrace. While other developed cities tear down or bury their urban motorways, Glasgow presses on regardless as though the 1950s never ended – in a city that has some of the lowest levels of car ownership in the UK.
Walking around the forlorn landscape of fences, sheds and roaring roads that has been inflicted on Dalmarnock, it comes as a surprise to turn a corner and find something of a model housing development, standing opposite the new arena’s blank cliff-face. Driven by a consortium of volume housebuilders, and designed by the ill-fated architecture practice RMJM – recently forced into receivership before being rescued by an investment company – the athletes’ village did not bode particularly well on paper. Yet with its gently curving streets of brick and timber clad terraces, views of the river framed by projecting gable ends and striking cubic townhouses, it has the generously-planned feel of a modern Dutch suburb.
Working with the housebuilders’ standard semi-detached plan types, the architects reconfigured the units to form terraced lengths. A handsome pair of strippedback brick apartment buildings will frame a forthcoming bridge across the river, leading to a woodland park beyond. “Looking at London and Manchester to Delhi and Vancouver, the majority of athletes villages favour big apartment blocks,” says Ed Monaghan, chief executive of the City Legacy consortium that built the village. “But in 2009, that market had completely disappeared.”
Here the financial crisis had beneficial effects, sparing this riverside site from the kind of eastern bloc concrete behemoths that now loom across Stratford’s Olympic site in east London. Instead, the 700 homes – 400 will be available at affordable rent – are arranged as home zone streets and waterside “steadings”, with on-plot parking and neighbourly back gardens, while floodable landscaping means the place is threaded with little canals and attenuation ponds.
It promises to be a mixed community, with a new 120-bed care home given pride of place on the corner, and has that rare quality for a games dormitory of feeling like a place you might actually want to live. Indeed, on the first day of sales, 80% of the first batch of units were sold, at prices ranging from £75,000 for a one-bed to £200,000 for a four-bed.
Sir Chris Hoy at the velodrome named after him, in Glasgow. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA
The place is still lacking any meaningful connection with the existing neighbourhood of 1970s and 80s semis (not helped by the brutal imposition of that Commonwealth shed), but a second, post-games phase promises to bring back the shops along the main street – and the much-mourned community centre, thanks to an energetic local campaign.
“I wanted to get away from the negativity surrounding the Games,” says Yvonne Kucuk, a community organiser and Labour councillor for the area, who set up the People’s Development Trust to ensure maximum local benefit from the regeneration machine. “Instead I thought, ‘what can we squeeze out of it?'” After what she describes as a seven-year battle, Kucuk secured £3m for the new centre, which has been designed by local architect William Gunn to house a community hall, cafe, GP surgery, chemist and children’s nursery. As well as 60 new jobs, it will provide a welcome screen from the looming arena.
“The regeneration agencies are obsessed with the economic legacy, building these huge roads that split our communities,” she says. “But you’ve got to take the people with you. The Dalmarnock Centre will be the only social legacy of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Once the confetti’s blown away, we’ll go in and grab it.”