Can Glasgow city centre achieve a 20-minute neighbourhood?

This year has marked 25 years in business for Space Solutions. To celebrate, we held a series of roundtables, gathering the best minds in business around Scotland to discuss the hot topics affecting work and workspaces.

The series was rounded off last month at the Corinthian in Glasgow. The iconic building was originally a bank in 1842, before being repurposed as Glasgow’s High Court in 1929. Now, the Corinthian is known for its elegant bars, restaurants, and event spaces. Residents and visitors in Glasgow can even enjoy a drink in the old High Court cells, which are now a chic basement bar. An apt setting for our discussion about 20-minute neighbourhoods, and how Glasgow’s iconic architecture can be reused and repurposed to create a walkable village in our own city centre.

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  • Date 1 December 2022
  • Author Vicki Walker

What is a “20-minute neighbourhood”?

A 20-minute neighbourhood refers to an area where a diverse range of residents can meet all of their daily needs – GP surgeries, schools, shopping, work, leisure – within 20 minutes by foot, by bicycle, or by public transport. This isn’t a new concept, but one gaining more and more attention as we strive for sustainability and healthy lifestyles in our communities. It relies on those amenities being available, and then the infrastructure of safe paths, cycleways, and public transport to connect them. Attendees touted Manchester’s quarters as a great example in the UK; while Melbourne, Australia was so successful in creating boroughs around the city that they have been thriving for a decade or more. Now that we’ve all spent the beginning of the roaring 2020s at home, local communities have had the opportunity to thrive.

Glasgow’s 20-minute neighbourhoods

Much of the conversation centred around our very own “Dear Green Place”: does Glasgow have 20-minute neighbourhoods? And if not, why not? Glasgow city centre was the first stop on our tour of the city, and it was generally agreed that some essential elements were lacking, such as schools, GPs, and family friendly residences. Some of the 73,000 students in the city might enjoy the thrill of a single-glazed tenement flat among the ruckus of Sauchiehall Street; but what about young professionals, growing families, and empty-nesters? The centre of Glasgow is dedicated to business and commerce, not schools and health centres. And, despite the popular moniker, there aren’t actually that many parks or green spaces right in the city centre. Of course, we are looking at a city on the back foot. Retail, once the very essence of Glasgow’s buzz, has suffered post-pandemic. The Golden Z – Sauchiehall Street, Buchanan Street, and Argyle Street – is pockmarked with empty units and “To Let” signs.

These are the very spaces, though, that promise opportunity. The upcoming pedestrianisation of George Street in Edinburgh was referenced, along with the recent St James Quarter development – examples of how Edinburgh is creating that all important “buzz” that attracts visitors and residents to the capital city. Where has Glasgow’s buzz gone? Some argued that it’s dispersed to the likes of Dennistoun and Shawlands, where traditional tenement flats and town houses are nestled among shops, schools, and local services – true examples of 20-minute neighbourhoods on our doorstep. Dennistoun in particular is well linked to the city centre by way of public transport, or a stroll through Glasgow Green. Shawlands, on the other hand, is adjacent to the South City way: a huge project to introduce cycle lanes connecting the south of the city with the city centre. Although this isn’t perfect – bus users have to be cautious crossing the cycleway as they alight from the bus – it’s strides forwards compared to cycle connections in the city centre itself. In fact, a common theme of the discussion was how the city centre has a way to go to measure up to its peers and suburbs.

The role of the office in 20-minute neighbourhoods

A key focus of any 20-minute neighbourhood is reducing cars and commute times with great public transport and active commute options. Of course, commuting is a practice in flux; we haven’t quite settled into a new normal since the work-from-home boom of the pandemic. Staff shortages in Glasgow are driving demands of better facilities, higher salaries, and a healthier work-life balance. But the idea of better facilities is not to be confused with extravagant features such as rooftop running tracks and cycle ramps directly into the building. In fact, one attendee recalled widespread confusion at the introduction of hexagonal desks in their workspace. No, workers seek the simple familiarity of a standard desk, a fast network connection, and comfortable surroundings. Offices are now competing with workers’ own homes, where the commute is non-existent and the heating is set for their own personal comfort. And with the introduction of hybrid working comes another hurdle to surmount: predicting office occupancy.

Even before the pandemic, offices were never full to 100% capacity. We’ve always had meetings to attend and holidays to take. However, throw in the opportunity to work from home a few days a week and all of a sudden, the office can be deserted one day and leave you fighting for your favourite desk the next. Offices are not simply a place for presenteeism and micro-management; offices provide a social vehicle to build company culture and community. But how do we create this if people are unwilling to come into the office? One attendee was surprised to hear from their younger workforce that they want to be in the office; in fact, young people at their company are miffed that their seniors aren’t present more often. Young workers look to their experienced colleagues to model success and leadership. Isolation can feed feelings of detachment from our colleagues, or from society at large. There is a balance to be struck – one where we can all achieve that elusive work-life balance, while building strong teams and progressing in our careers.

Half-empty offices create issues with sustainability, sure; but how can a fledgling start-up thrive when they can’t access office space in the city? Space in serviced offices isn’t cheap, but the collaboration of teams working together from a single space – even for just a couple of days a week – was considered imperative to business success for our attendees. One solution suggested was office-sharing: offering unused space within offices to start-ups or individuals at a reduced rate. An attendee even suggested that this could be an option for public sector buildings such as Glasgow’s City Chambers. The benefits would be two-fold; bringing in extra income for space that would otherwise be unused, and increasing the environmental sustainability of the city by reducing the energy consumption per capita. Of course, this is most suitable for buildings with comprehensive facilities management in place!

Out with the old, in with the new

Another attendee pointed to the increasing presence of “vertical communities”; buildings with commercial space on the ground floor and residences on the upper floors. One such example is Templeton on the Green, formerly the Templeton Carpet Factory. This mixed-use space provides offices, apartments, and a brewery complete with bar and restaurant. And it was all created by re-purposing a building that was no longer needed for its original intended purpose, much like the Corinthian and so many other venues in Glasgow. Repurposing historic architecture comes with its own challenges, though. Glasgow is full of beautiful, listed buildings that lie empty for lack of planning consent. Or worse still, lying empty with absentee landlords. Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) are a contentious issue when it comes to tearing down family homes; but when it comes to our beloved Glasgow architecture sitting unloved, unused, and uncared for, our panellists suggested a “use it or lose it” approach might be fitting. This would allow empty spaces in the city centre to be reclaimed and repurposed, which could in turn bring back that elusive “buzz” mentioned earlier. We risk losing the talent of those thousands of students to more exciting and accessible cities. Creating 20-minute neighbourhood in the city centre by repurposing unused, unloved properties into homes and amenities.

At present, residential rent freezes and property prices make this a financially unviable solution; but as the economy recovers from the global pandemic over the coming years, this may change. Quality city centre residences are in high demand. A recent development, Buchanan Gardens, received thousands of notes of interest for a mere 41 apartments. This interest was predominantly from local residents – empty-nesters seeking to downsize into a more convenient location. Creating a 20-minute neighbourhood is a challenging and time-consuming process, but it was encouraging to know that the demand for thriving communities in the city centre exists.

Bringing 20-minute neighbourhoods to Glasgow

So how do we progress with 20-minute neighbourhoods? The reality is that businesses and property developers have to make moves into the unknown or else risk stunting the evolution of the most populous city in Scotland. A key phrase that arose from our discussion was “test and learn”; that is, to progress, sometimes we have to risk getting it wrong and pledge to learn from our mistakes. We can look to other cities like Manchester or Melbourne for inspiration. We need public and private sector collaboration to circumvent the issues and red-tape preventing growth in the city centre. But the attendees of our roundtable all agreed on one thing: the people of Glasgow are bold and unafraid to demand more, and that will drive growth and change in the city.

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