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(Urban) Renaissance Man

19 Sep 2005

Stuart Gulliver’s career coincides with the emergence of the city as a political hot potato, first as a site of crisis and more recently as home to a so-called urban renaissance.

“I don’t regard myself as a regeneration person,” says Stuart Gulliver. “Regeneration is about taking a piece of run-down land and making it bijou. I am about all of the things that are involved in economic development, the people, the place, the businesses. My work is about how these things are all choreographed or orchestrated.” Nevertheless, he is one of the veterans of the burgeoning reg1eneration industry.

Gulliver grew up in Sheffield and went to LSE to study economics. After a period as an academic economist he went on to work on the New Towns, first Milton Keynes and then Warrington. He describes his time in the New Towns as a “privilege” and recalls how the new centres tended to attract urban pioneers. After Warrington he joined the Scottish Development Agency and by the 1990s he was chief executive of the Glasgow Development Agency (GDA). Under his watch, Glasgow saw the regeneration of Crown Street – a project that has since been heralded as one of the best pieces of social regeneration in the UK – the creation of the Glasgow Science Centre, the anchor development at Pacific Quay and the creation of the city’s financial district at the Broomielaw. Gulliver’s reign as the head of Glasgow’s enterprise agency coincided with the decade in which the city strove to re-invent itself, starting with 1990 City of Culture and ending with City of Architecture 1999.

It is now five years since Gulliver left the GDA and took up a post at Glasgow University as Professor of City Development. His time is currently split between the university research and his hometown of Sheffield, where he is the interim chief executive for Creative Sheffield. Other recent work includes Central Salford’s vision with Massimiliano Fuksas and a master plan for Stockton and Middlesborough.
Gulliver’s career path coincides with a period in which the city has moved up the political agenda, initially as the site of a crisis and more recently as the location of a so-called ‘urban renaissance’. He recalls giving lectures as recently as the mid-Nineties lamenting the fact that no-one wanted to live in cities, and is clearly gratified that the mood has shifted. “Now cities are the centre of the western universe. The city is the engine of society and the city region is the form of governance,” he says. “The battle for good design has been won, at least at the rhetorical level. There was a crusade, we have arrived and now we’ve got to pay for it. It is probably not true that good design does not cost more money.”

How does he make sense of the change in attitudes to urban life among politicians? “A cynic might say that the government has seen devolved government go down the tube in the North East referendum and then said we will have devolved government, through city government. I wouldn’t argue that,” he adds. It’s not clear if he is being mischievous or genuine. Gulliver subscribes to the thesis put forward by Richard Florida and Charles Landry that the key to the development of the post-industrial city is the promotion of culture and creativity. “In post-industrial society, city centres are about spectacle, consumption and entertainment, they are pre-industrial in character. People want to live in cities, it’s fashionable, it’s proximate to work and there is a partner market.”
But have our rebranded cities become ghettos for yuppies? “Its not a general housing market, there is not a lot for kids, but it is not a static situation. Whether that is stable living or not, I don’t know, but it seems to fit with people’s commitment. Today people have multiple jobs, multiple partners and they live in more than one place,” says Gulliver.
“Competitiveness is about assets,” he says. “An awful lot of places in the UK have got a university, but the question is, how good are they? And there are lots of airports, but are they terrific airports? Waterfronts are ubiquitous, but the question is, are they good quality? Will they last the test of time? Knowledge workers travel all over the world; they are very sophisticated consumers of place. It’s about international connectivity and I don’t know yet if Scotland has realised how important that is.”

Although Gulliver insists that Glasgow can never return to building commercial ships anymore than Sheffield can become a major steel producer again, he finds the trend to abandon manufacturing disturbing. “I have just found out that Manchester has 1 per cent of its jobs in manufacturing this year. That kind of activity is frighteningly low, you have got to have a bit of this and that.”

In his work at Sheffield he is acutely sensitive to the complexities involved in the transformation of the post-industrial city. “Sheffield is in the rain-shadow of city regions like Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham, and that is a problem. Places like Sheffield are asking, what are we here for? Where is our competitive edge? Before the mid-Sixties they would never have had to ask questions like that.”

Gulliver is not, he says, an ‘economic determinist’ but he still believes that economic progress is the force behind urban vitality. “It is difficult to get discussion about cities and big places without focusing on issues such as social inclusion, poverty and welfare. This is an important part of the debate but the economy is at the centre, improvement must be underpinned by economic development.”

He also believes that there are limits to what a city can do to transform its economic prospects. “Eighty per cent of Scotland’s future performance is not amenable to change, it’s outside of our control,” he says. “We pull small levers. We should focus on the five or six things that we can influence; airports and connectivity, higher education and making Edinburgh and Glasgow really beautiful.”

He is also convinced that agencies other than local government need to transform cities. “I don’t think that you can revitalise and rebrand places without taking risks – calculated informed risks but they are still risks. Local authorities are not set up to manage and take risks; they are part of the regulatory school concerned with public services.”
What does he see in store for Scotland’s cities? Gulliver avoids the politically correct response that demands he talk about all of Scotland’s six major centres. “There are really only two big places in Scotland. In any country you need someplace in the heavyweight division – that is Glasgow. It’s a city region and it has a large catchments area. When you have that, certain things happen. Edinburgh is not heavyweight but it has terrific footwork,” he adds. What Scotland lacks, he argues, is a political champion of places. “Places are public goods, but they need political championing and institutional champions too.”

In England, Gulliver finds the backing of John Prescott for the regeneration agenda encouraging but he seems less enthusiastic about the Northern Way. “The city is a nice unit of account for harnessing the energy of the country. There is not a lot of regional consciousness knocking around; in a city you get a kind of emotional resonance.
“No doubt if you look at the league tables of performance there is a problem in the North. Maybe some specific initiatives to try and do something are worthwhile. I am a pragmatist – I’ll wait and see.”

Reading between the lines you can detect a definite lack of enthusiasm for the pan-Northern initiative. “Being a Northerner I resent the idea that we are letting the side down. The implication is that there is a type of person in the North that is less productive, lazier, not as bright and not as efficient or effective. The irony is that there was a time when all of the wealth creation was in the North of Britain and a disproportionate amount was accumulated in London and the South East. May be I’m too sensitive.

“If you want the North to perform better then you need to put in place the pre-conditions that help create wealth. Economic big ideas are difficult to come by. The merger of UMIST and Manchester University is a big idea. It was a bold thing to do, to create one terrific research university. Manchester had the courage and the confidence to do that; it is starting to take big steps.”

Stuart Gulliver is talking at the Scottish Design Show
on Thursday 6 October

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