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Square roots

WE are who we were.

Genetically, culturally, socially, our character is conditioned by our parents, grandparents and more distant family.

We are rooted in the wider community which shaped them and also, crucially, in the place in which they lived. People and place are connected umbilically; we are influenced by the place in which we live as much as we shape our environment.

In the TV series Who Do You Think You Are? this link between people and place is analysed, albeit through the looking glass of celebrity, untangling the double helix which is our defining DNA and providing tantalising glimpses into the long-gone towns and villagers where our ancestors lived and died.

This connection between people and place is felt keenly in our hearts every time we return home after being away. That warm attachment to home never wavers. In fact, our relationships with each other are conditioned by our relationships with the places in which we live.

They help to make us who we are, so our personalities draw upon any historical connection, and we suffer from a deficit where none exists. This symbiotic relationship describes, nurtures and develops our character as individuals and as a people. It also determines the character and identity of the villages, towns and cities in which we live.

Why is it then that Scotland, alone in a world peppered with wonderful city squares, just can't seem to get these places right? What is it about the politics of our cities that means we have failed miserably to design these civic spaces as places which reflect the character of our communities?

Consider the battles that have raged in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Perth over plans to create great civic spaces. And then there is Glasgow's decades-long ruination of George Square.

This litany of civic failure stands testimony to our nation's inability to create great civic spaces, which should reflect the communities they seek to serve. Our work at the Centre for Scottish Public Policy on the importance of place allows me the privilege of travelling to international cities to examine how they function. And in all the countries I have visited, I have yet to find another example of civic neglect to rival our own.

At their best, public squares are the beating heart of the city: a magnet for overseas visitors, a place where local people gather informally from day to day, or at those critical, historic times which define a city, or even a country.

From Tahrir in Cairo to Tiananmen in Beijing, and even London's Trafalgar, the great city squares are places towards which people naturally gravitate when they need to express their collective will, to demonstrate, to demand. City squares are the focal points for democracy, often the place in which it is born. They symbolise society, providing a platform for expression.

In Venice's Piazza San Marco (St Mark's), a classic mix of cultural activity tells the story of this city and its people. From the Doge's Palace on its east flank to the open-air cafe which lights up the southern side with chamber music at lunchtime, St Mark's lives and breathes the life of Venice. All around, arteries course outwards, carrying the visitor through the streets and along the canals of this mesmerising place.

The square has, literally, a central place in the life of Venice. It is the focal point for the millions of tourists who come to taste the culture, to spend time soaking up the atmosphere, and perhaps carry away a little treasure. Whether it's a glistening piece of hand-crafted locally blown Murano glass or a black-and-white striped figurine to remind them of a trip on a gondola, these cultural connectors are all available in or around the square. St Mark's is also a place where people gather for concerts, theatre and, of course, for the magnificent masked ball.

Barcelona's Plaza St Jaume has borne witness to some of the most important events in recent Catalan history, and today, both city and state government buildings are located here: a symbol of power-sharing at the heart of the city.

Then there is Times Square in New York: bright, bold, perhaps even brash, it announces loudly and proudly to the world that this is the city that never sleeps. The flashing neon lights, the blaring horns of yellow cabs and the general buzz create an atmosphere which accurately describes the character of this great city. Appropriately, the square is an advert for The Big Apple, a bite-sized taster of the city.

Times Square is much more than a convenient through-route. It is a place where people want to linger, meet and chat. It tells us as much about New York as the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Like Moscow's Red Square, Amsterdam's Dam Square and many other great city squares, it connects with its people, and plays a prominent role in their lives.

In Scotland, such places tend to be one-dimensional. Many of our cities don't even have public squares, and those that exist often give the appearance of just happening to be there, rather than having been designed as the social, cultural and political heart of the metropolis.

Why, then, have we failed so dismally to design the bold and beautiful civic spaces that characterise the world's greatest cities? The reasons are myriad, but in Glasgow, the attempt to create a public square fit for the 21st century ended before it had begun.

As we approach the Commonwealth Games, George Square should surely be a window to the world, describing the city, its people and their story. This is where the red-hot rhetoric of Clydeside once rang out; it's where, in 1919, tanks rumbled in to quell a potential workers' revolution. Today, only the roar of traffic can be heard here.

RECENTLY, the importance of George Square as a civic centre has once again been recognised, but attempts to redesign it as a place of civic pride appeared to flounder at the first hurdle. After an international competition resulted in an architectural blueprint being selected by a team of judges, Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson now says only a facelift, rather than a major redesign, will be carried out. (John McAslan, the Glasgow-born architect of the "winning" design, is, however, poised to present his reworked plans to the public at an event next Monday, February 18.)

As other cities continue to nurture, renew and regenerate their great civic spaces, or even create splendid new ones, Scotland once again stumbles, staggers and slumps into another embarrassing demonstration of how not to do it. At least George Square is representative of its people, or so our city fathers would have it: painted red, not as a symbol of the city's lively night-life, but as a poor political tribute to the dominance of the party in power, then and now. Red Square it is not though, and it should surely be refashioned in a way that better reflects the Dear Green Place in all its glory. The people's party should let the people party in their square.

George Square, currently dominated by traffic, is a crossing point rather than a gathering place. In the evenings, it doesn't function as other city squares do. As the neighbouring Queen Street railway station prepares for a right royal makeover, which will hopefully see the demolition of those concrete carbuncles on its square face, what an opportunity to reclaim the streets around it for people.

Why not extend the very popular glass frontage of the Millennium Hotel, or pull the restaurants on the opposite side of the square out onto the street, or soften the entrance to the municipal magnificence of the City Chambers? Create a place where people can linger comfortably and safely, meet and greet, eat and relax, ponder and chill. Make the square fit for its rightful role as a modern, vibrant centre-point for cultural, social and economic interactions.

This is not a problem specific to Glasgow, but to Scotland. Elsewhere, we've seen the embarrassment of riches being waved around Aberdeen unable to find a home as putative parents, the public and private sectors in a civic partnership, couldn't commit in Union, at Terrace Gardens or yet elsewhere.

In the newly empowered city of Perth we are forced to watch from the pavement as the granite slabs which formed the foundations of a bold plan for a public piazza are pulled from under the city council's feet by remote, external forces apparently acting in the national interest – to save a town hall that no-one can find a use for.

Dundee City Square is at least occasionally functional, used for graduations and conferences. However, major investment in the surrounding buildings is urgently needed. The Caird Hall, once used as a replica of the Kremlin, dominates a space into which the visitor is welcomed by a statue of Desperate Dan – this is a place with a serious crisis of identity, needing to rediscover its sense of place as the exciting waterfront development becomes the main attraction.

In Edinburgh, now that the final pane has been placed on Waverley station's replacement roof, the transparent lack of vision is clear. We can only now imagine how concrete instead of glass could have transformed the centre of our capital, majestically linking the Old and New Towns, creating perhaps the world's most attractive civic square. It could have been a public space befitting its magnificent setting; an amphitheatre for Edinburgh's festivals, a focus for the capital's Hogmanay celebrations, and even a parade ground for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. We blew it.

City squares the world over are the beating hearts of their communities. They are the places where people gather in times of celebration and at points of crisis too. Who can forget the displays of Soviet military might goose-stepping through Red Square? Remember the iconic image of the lone, flag-waving protester facing down the tanks of the Chinese Army in Tiananmen Square? More recently, Cairo's Tahrir Square, as the focal point of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, has helped define the early days of democracy in that troubled place.

City squares are where history is made. They shape who we are, but they must also reflect who we want to be. Why is it that Scotland can't get four-square behind these symbols of civic pride? Certainly elected mayors may help, but until we join the rest of the civilised world in that area, we need a different way to reconnect people and place. Anyone for a square go?

Civic squares are a defining characteristic of the world's great cities. Why can't Scotland get them right? By Ross Martin

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