That's the perfect example of how not to do it. The George Square debacle has not, let's face it, been Glasgow City Council's finest hour. Launch a competition without much discussion. Give the competitors very little time to come up with something. Choose a winner. Almost immediately realise there's a fair bit of opposition among your voters because you've not really bothered to sell the need for change. Then cancel the whole thing, so wasting architects' time and money as well as your own. Not clever.
The fallout from the city council's decision not to go ahead with John McAslan's winning design for George Square has left us all facing serious questions about the future of urban renewal in Scotland. For a start, what is the point of launching competitions if you're not going to abide by the result? In any future design competition can Glasgow seriously expect architectural and design practices to be busting a gut to get their entries in given that they now know it might not be worth the effort? As Mr McAslan told The Herald yesterday, potential bidders may well "ask why they should go through all that". Why indeed?
More seriously, how are local authorities going to engage with citizens to ensure a repeat of this fiasco doesn't happen again? You can go down the Aberdeen route where you have a plebiscite of course, as the granite city did over the hugely controversial plans to redevelop Union Terrace. But that is clearly no guarantee, given the narrow vote in favour was then overturned by the incoming administration. Still, Aberdeen at least had a debate.
There was no shortage of criticisms of the George Square redesign ideas (and I can't say any of them really thrilled me), but that doesn't mean Glaswegians are happy with the square as it stands. You just need to read The Herald's letters pages to know that. All of which leads to the biggest question of all: what is George Square for exactly?
The scaled-down plans the council has announced are mostly cosmetic and seem to amount to little more than the removal of the red tarmac (hurrah, let's be thankful for small mercies). Presumably we will bumble along as we've been doing for years, giving the space ad hoc tweaks for the odd funfair or gig. But that doesn't really address the problem that Glasgow's pre-eminent civic space is kind of, well, pointless, fit only for eating your lunchtime sandwiches in when the sun's out.
It deserves to be much more than that. And it's time for a proper debate as to what that should be. A green space? An open space? A pedestrian-only place? Whatever the answer, surely it should be more than a shortcut to Queen Street Station. Goodness knows I've banged on often enough over the years at how the city has done little to properly embrace the possibilities of its public spaces. In other cities the river is a central destination for tourists and locals alike. Not here, I'm afraid. And from the beginning the George Square plan always felt like a rather quick-fix solution. Remember, of the £15 million budgeted for it, £10m was to be "retail led", ie borrowed against future business rates.
But while it's important to recognise major infrastructure initiatives are financially challenging given the austerity economy we are all operating in, the fact this week we've seen the sinking of both HMV and Blockbuster does make you wonder how sensible it is to hitch the development of your prime public space to a retail economy that is itself in something of a tailspin these days.
Urban renewal is not easy. If anyone should know that it's people in Scotland. How long now has the capital been blighted by the interminable upheaval over trams? (Too long is the right answer, I think you'll find). But it does matter. George Square should be a statement of civic pride, an advert, if you like, of the city's ambition and abilities. At the moment it is none of these things. It is a glorified traffic island. Is that really what the city wants?
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