From the steps of the Royal Concert Hall there are clear views along Sauchiehall Street and down Buchanan Street, with a glimpse of Argyle Street in the distance. Stand here and at first nothing seems out of kilter, but it doesn’t take long to start spotting empty storefronts, a lack of office workers and fewer numbers of shoppers on the pavements. Even the city’s once-lively street theatre has been reduced to a whisper.

Glasgow, like every town and city in Scotland, is undergoing profound change. A pandemic, the internet, runaway inflation and changes to both working patterns and shopping habits have chipped the gilding from the once-glittering Style Mile and it is uncertain how it will regain its lustre.

But work is afoot. Glasgow City Council has set up a task force to review the future of the city centre, while the owners of Buchanan Galleries have floated a vision of a mixed-used development to replace the current temple to retail.

As a founding partner of HarrisonStevens Landscape Architects and a member of the Scottish Government’s High Streets Task Force, I spend a lot of time working on ways to breathe fresh life into our city centres. In Kincardine I am part of a team that is improving accessibility and transport links; in Edinburgh our practice has worked on the transformation of King’s Stables Road into a vibrant link between the Old and New Towns and in Glasgow we are part of the Meet Our Waterfront project that is reinvigorating Custom House Quay.

These projects may be varied, but all of them share a common purpose of finding ways of fulfilling the needs of the people who use them. Because the fact is, the reason why our high streets are failing is because they no longer seem relevant and all those identical facades of international chains and corporations that have robbed them of their history and identity now seem out of step with the prevailing mood.

So how do you go about putting heart back into these communities? Well, you do it by creating places where people want to linger, and while that’s not about banishing cars, it does involve managing them better.

In Edinburgh there are ambitious plans to remove vehicles from large parts of the city centre, but Glasgow is already leading the way on adopting a city-wide strategy for active travel, with defined routes for pedestrians and cyclists that are making a significant positive impact on health and wellbeing.

This sort of People First approach, where we prioritise pedestrians and cyclists, makes our streetscapes attractive and more secure and it also supports health and wellbeing for everyone.

There’s also a huge demand for outdoor space, especially in the most built-up areas, as studies have shown that contact with grass and trees reduces stress levels, improves mood and enhances attention and concentration.

But rather than just imposing well-meaning plans on people we need to ask them for their opinions. We should be taking the People Make Glasgow logo as an imperative, and actually discussing changes with the pedestrians, shoppers, road users, office workers and the people who live around the city centre. And at the same time our planning officers need to think flexibly and remove barriers to redeveloping difficult and vacant sites.

The Scottish Government's 20-minute neighbourhoods policy, which advocates having work, exercise, shops, libraries, public services, health, education, and housing, all within a 20-minute active travel radius, gives us a template from which to start these conversations.

It is exciting to imagine our town centres filled with people cycling under beautiful trees; with micro-parks where they can linger; homes in the surrounding buildings, shops that are well-frequented and with places of work and entertainment that are just a short stroll away.

It’s time to take the bold steps that will make our high htreets relevant again.


Mike Harrison is a founding director of HarrisonStevens Landscape Architects and Urban Designers.


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