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A chance to reclaim George Square

The red tarmac has to go for a start.

That and the cars that constantly cut it off from its surroundings. As for the statues, they can always be found another home elsewhere. When it comes to Glasgow's George Square it's time for a big change. And not before time.

The fact is, Scotland is rubbish at public spaces. Parks apart, both Glasgow and Edinburgh suffer from an excess of cars and retail. The only minor upside of the tram fiasco in the capital has been the fact that Princes Street has been largely free of traffic for years now. Meanwhile, Glasgow's most notable public spaces are Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall Street, both cluttered with ugly street furniture and dedicated almost solely to shopping.

These things have their place of course. Retail and transport links are essential to any urban economy. But they are not the only economic motors. And economics is not the only measurement of success. Yet Glasgow in particular does seem heavily in thrall to the consumer dollar. Hardly encouraging then that £10 million of the proposed £15m revamp of George Square will be, the council says, "retail led".

But let's refrain from moaning just yet. The fact is the council has at least recognised that it has a problem with George Square. The historic heart of the city has felt a sclerotic, traffic-choked place in recent years. It's only when it is occupied by ice rinks or a fairground, or on those rare days the sun is out, that it feels properly alive. Hopefully that will begin to change by 2014.

Certainly the calibre of the firms shortlisted to submit designs for the square is encouraging. There is Scottish interest in the shape of JM Architects and John McAslan and Partners, the latter a London office headed by a man originally from Dunoon. McAslan's practice has been responsible for really interesting public work in places as far apart as Haiti and Russia and is currently working on King's Cross station and the surrounding area in London. The council has looked abroad and both France's Agence Ter and American firm James Corner Field Operations have been asked to submit designs. Hopefully this speaks to the council's ambition. After all, the latter firm was behind the High Line project, the hugely celebrated elevated greenway running along Manhattan's West Side.

In a way that project is indicative of what's possible with urban design. New York's decaying and decrepit elevated railway has been transformed into a vibrant and much-loved garden walkway, breathing new life into the city as a result.

You can't overstate the importance of ideas like this. They reorientate cities, turn them into different places; more liveable, more user-friendly. When done well, such projects reclaim the cities for their inhabitants. They not only transform the physical landscape, they redesign the mental landscape.

Last month I was in Derry-Londonderry for a couple of days. The troubled history of the place is writ large in the duality of its name. But it has been working very hard ahead of becoming UK City of Culture next year to transform itself. As a result, a huge army barracks on the Waterside, across the River Foyle from the city centre, has been transformed into a massive public space surrounded by buildings that will be transformed into cultural destinations – museums, art galleries and the like. The result has remade the city. Before it had turned its back on the river. Now the river is increasingly central to the city's story, helped by the building of a peace bridge.

A similar opportunity is ahead of Glasgow if it is willing to seize it. With a bit of imagination and a bit of willpower the city can give itself a heart transplant, transforming George Square from a glorified traffic island into a public space where anyone would want to linger whatever the weather. That might include shops. And certainly you'd imagine a cafe might be part of it. But in the end these should really just be add-ons. What George Square needs is to be reinvented. Giving it back to the city's people would be a start.

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