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Gordon Murray Assesses impact of Glasgow ring road

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24 Jun 2008

<strong>As the contractors begin work on the M74 extension, Gordon Murray argues that Glasgow&Otilde;s City Fathers demonstrated a real sense of vision when they commissioned the 1965 Highway Plan for Glasgow. The policy was the last major transport infrastructure project aimed at ensuring the economic growth and development of the city</strong>

As the contractors begin work on the M74 extension, Gordon Murray argues that GlasgowÕs City Fathers demonstrated a real sense of vision when they commissioned the 1965 Highway Plan for Glasgow. The policy was the last major transport infrastructure project aimed at ensuring the economic growth and development of the city

This essay was stimulated by two seminars I attended last month. The first, an Urban Renaissance Conference on the Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool and Edinburgh held in University of Glasgow at which the hosts were generally being rounded on as the only European city currently building an urban motorway, or planning to. The second, the unashamedly nostalgic re-run of the birth of ASSIST and the housing association movement, on its 40th anniversary, given at the University of Strathclyde by Raymond Young and Jim Johnstone. Raymond was careful to position ASSIST as an alternative to C.D.A.'s, indeed the first ASSIST project in Govan was seen as a responsive temporary measure. 30 years later it remains. He illustrated this talk with a slide from the 1965 A Highway Plan for Glasgow.

Most remarkable about the birth of ASSIST was that it occurred at all, more so in stark contrast to a particular vision for the city that I found breathtaking in its clarity and boldness. Bold enough to look far into the future but pragmatic enough to recognise the failings of the earlier Bruce and Abercrombie plans for the city; whilst acknowledging that protection of the city core and the importance of pedestrian over car was paramount. I would argue these are but later manifestations of the unique history of this visionary city. It is not a singular but a collective vision and which like all grand visions doesn't get it all right, just enough to allow other things to follow in its wake. Yet for me one of the most visionary documents produced by the city is that 1965 study. In the accompanying letter the consultants insist;

"We believe the present conflict between the interest of pedestrians and road traffic is already such as to seriously depress the environment of the city."

If any part of this plan has been less than a success, then I would argue this is due to a failure of nerve in some quarters to see the plan through (in a manner similar to Cumbernauld New Town's loss of nerve over building a second phase of Copcutt's vision) - a plan which had no illusions about it's scope and timescale, approximately 25 years. All the issues ensuing from the colossal underestimation of the traffic crossing the river may have been mitigated had other elements of the plan been completed at that time. However, the M8 Inner Ring has been central to Glasgow's prosperity over the last quarter of a century in the same way that construction of the great docks and the deepening of the river had been at the end of the 19th Century or the Forth and Clyde Canal at the end of the 18th.

Indeed, the current dramas being played out by the two cities at either end of the M8 - competing fiercely whilst commendably suggesting both must work together, is a replay of the 1760s and the vision of linking the Rivers Forth and Clyde, not as some inland waterway but as a means of connecting the Baltic and Atlantic. Patrician partnernalism masking enlightened self-interest as those city-fathers were also the city's greatest entrepreneurs-a very effective development mechanism. In Glasgow this vision recognised the impending War of Independence in the Americas would change trade with Virginia. Half the workforce on Forth and Clyde Canal left to join the fight against America in the war. Therefore larger vessels were built for foraging further to the Great Lakes and the Baltic, they required deeper water and a link to the North Sea. Glasgow seeking to ensure it did not lose out to Edinburgh committed to the Bill and the £70K expenditure in 1767. By 1791 the Port of Dundas was busier than the Port of Glasgow. A clarity of vision essential for the city's survival.

Glasgow's prosperity has always been linked to great vision in great works of engineering - the Forth and Clyde Canal followed by John Colbourne's deepening of the river in 1770's. By 1851 Glasgow had 51 acres of deep-water harbour and over two miles of quayside. The great Princes and Queen Docks completed by 1890Õs when trade with the Great Lakes, South America and South Africa was at its peak. All took 30+ years to realise. The M8/Inner Ring Road of 1965 is part of this.

The same vision, and the economic basis for it, is encapsulated in the opening letter to the Town Clerk of June 1965 :-

"These revenues are not derived from nor do they justify the roads proposals, nor are we attempting to propound the theory that taxation on road transport should be an exclusive fund for road construction. We do think that the estimated revenues show that the cost of the proposed roads, although high, is not out of scale. Secondly, that if we have proven the need for the roads programme there is a growing source of revenue from which it could be financed."

Again the belief in the essential maintenance of the prosperity of the city and its citizens as lifeblood of its future is central to these proposals.

It is ironic that the Monkland Canal, which provided so much of the material for Glasgow's growth was also the route of least impact. One can argue that the greatest loss, that of Charing Cross and the western edge of the city centre, was a high price to pay. I would like to think today we might have been more enlightened, but it would have been financed by PFI, ruling out any concept of enlightenment.

Yet, looking at other cities on rivers Ð Paris, Rome or New York - the unavoidable retrofitting of faster and wider links along the river's edge has separated the river from the city. Where the river edge is almost a no go area by day and a race track at night - hail (not in the manner of Caesar) a Rome taxi driver at Circus Maximus and ask to be dropped at the Olympic Stadium - the ultimate white-knuckle ride. Boston's Big Dig, also twenty years in the making, did not provide an alternative to the urban freeway but buried it to release valuable land for development. Although producing revenues miniscule in comparison to the level of federal investment.

Since the completion of the M8 north-east and south-west elements in the mid 1980's, the south M77 link has been added. Yet for the last fifteen years the south-east of the city has been blighted by planning indecision, ground CPO'd, and often cleared, 'left in limbo' awaiting the fabled M74 connection. Oatlands, Tradeston, Lauriston and Rutherglen have suffered too long in this respect awaiting renewal. Maybe the grand plan is now nearing an end.

All of this is in the nature of how great dynamic cities work. Playing the percentages. Vision or pragmatism, we need to be bold enough in the big idea to allow other things to happen in its wake. This vision needs to be maintained into the 22nd Century. In reality, only four big projects away.

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