How the Gorbals can inspire Scotland’s town centres of the future


For many years it was known for its dreadful living conditions, slum tenements and families crammed into tiny spaces.

Densely populated, roamed by razor gangs and gripped by appalling poverty, the Gorbals became synonymous with everything that was wrong with Scottish housing while its hard done by residents were admired for their strong community bonds, spirit and compassion.

Now, in a remarkable turnaround that would no doubt have tenants of the past reeling, the Gorbals is being held up as a prime example of the neighbourhood of the future.

According to Craig McLaren, Director of Scotland, Ireland and English Regions at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), the area’s regeneration has created the kind of “20-minute neighbourhood” – where almost all of what’s required by its residents can be reached within a short walk or cycle – that could become a blueprint for the post-Covid-19 landscape.

 High-rise in Glasgow’s Gorbals to be demolished on Sunday

The organisation is now calling for Scottish Government funding to help communities across Scotland lay down plans for their own neighbourhoods of the future.

“The Gorbals has high quality housing, quite high density and a lot of it built on ideas of the past,” he says.

“There is a library, a community centre, supermarket and a range of other shops and it has green space. It’s well designed. There are links to public transport so people who need to go outside the area for other services can get to the city centre easily, by walking or by bus.

“Regeneration was reusing land that had been used before, not digging up greenfield sites.

“It was developed through a masterplan put in place that set out how to develop it over a long period, so it was phased and with the public and private sectors working together.”

Last September the First Minister’s Programme for Government pledged £500m investment over five years to support active travel and £275m to support investment in communities including ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’.

Originally developed in Portland, Oregon, and intended to boost prosperity, health, equality and educational outcomes, 20-minute neighbourhoods are carefully planned to give residents with almost everything they need for day to day living on their doorstep, undoing the need for a car.

The idea has been adopted in Paris, where authorities are championing a ’15-minute city’, and Melbourne in Australia where it is embedded in the city’s long-term planning strategy.

Momentum here has grown in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, which have left city centres deserted and highlighted the benefits of communities with services alongside homes, where residents can access public green space, walk or cycle instead of using cars, and with good digital connectivity to enable working from home or at local digital hubs.

The idea harks back to generations past before key services such as libraries, GP surgeries, Post Offices and shops were centralised in sometimes hard to reach locations, retail parks and out of town developments.

Supporters say a knock-on impact of 20-minute neighbourhoods would be less congestion in city centres, with urban office space potentially converted into affordable housing and an expansion of leisure facilities.

The high-rise flats were destroyed in 2016

The RTPI Scotland is now calling on the Scottish Government to release funds so communities can work with the public and private sector to develop their own Local Place Plans and 20-minute neighbourhoods.

It is also highlighting the need for a greater role for professional planners, including investment in planning jobs and a return to days when town planners were highly influential with influence on local authorities’ asset management and spending.

According to Mr McLaren, carefully planned 20-minute neighbourhoods could bring a wide range of benefits.

“In terms of trying to reach zero carbon targets, people will not need to travel as much,” he says. “There’d be health benefits for people because people can access green spaces. Covid-19 has shown how people have valued having local amenities and green spaces around them.”

 A walking tour of Glasgow’s transformed Laurieston district

Redesigning neighbourhoods around the 20-minute model could help address inequality in how services, amenities and work can be accessed by the third of Scottish households who do not own a car, a figure which increases to half in deprived areas.

It would also align with active travel and public transport strategies, helping to lower car use and boost demand for buses while bringing health benefits of more walking and cycling.

Reduced need for roads and car parking would then open up green areas for play, community use and growing food.

An important element of creating 20-minute neighbourhoods is ensuring local communities are empowered to design the places in which they live, adds Mr McLaren.

“The way people engage with planning tends to be through objections to a planning application. We want to flip that so people tell us what they want rather than what they don’t want.”

RITP Scotland has called for investment in planning departments, which have faced the largest cuts in local government expenditure since 2009/10 and seen 26% staffing cuts.

“We currently have a fairly opportunist and short-term uncoordinated approach to how we plan things. Planning is not used to full effect,” he adds.

“We do need to change the way we live our lives and the way our places feel and look. We need to start thinking to longer term and move away from very opportunistic ways of developing our towns and cities.”

Stuart Hay, Director, Living Streets Scotland says the disruption to work and travel brought by Covid-19 is a “once in a generation opportunity to tackle a host of transport-based societal problems, including carbon emissions, air pollution, inactivity-related diseases, traffic accidents and weak community connections”.

He adds: “We need to get more people walking their short everyday journeys if we’re to tackle the climate emergency, boost our local economies and become healthier. This means getting the basics right and improving infrastructure.

“By creating ’20-minute neighbourhoods’, which build facilities close to where people live and work, we can make walking a more pleasant and convenient option for many more people.

“If you plan for cars – you get traffic and emissions. But if you plan for people and places – you get more walking and great places to live.”

Sustainable transport charity Sustrans also supports the idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods.

Daisy Narayanan, Director of Urbanism, says: “Cities and towns should be places that connect us to each other and the things we need, and should be places where everyone can thrive without being locked into car dependency.

“The best way to do this is to ensure that it is easy for people to meet most of their everyday needs in their local area.

“Neighbourhoods are defined by the communities who live there, and each will have unique expectations of the services and facilities they need.

“However, the coronavirus pandemic, and the subsequent lockdowns that have been put in place across the country, highlight how vital it is for people to be able to live locally, and to be able to access shops, health centres and schools by using safe and physically distanced modes of transport such as walking and cycling.

“Too many neighbourhoods have been planned around car travel at the expense of providing the local jobs and services that a community needs to thrive. It is important that we learn from what we are experiencing now to shape our towns and cities of the future.”


Leave A Reply