Professor Rebecca Madgin
Rebecca is the Programme Director for the Arts and Humanities Research Council Place-Based Research Programme. We spoke to Rebecca about her perspectives on The DNA of Glasgow.
Photo credit: Artur Kraft via Unsplash.
So thanks, Rebecca. I'm going to start with the first question, then, which is to ask your perspectives on the DNA of Glasgow. So what is the DNA of Glasgow?
I suppose the DNA of Glasgow, for me, is more of an input into a process than perhaps an output. And I suppose when I first started thinking about this question, I would probably have said to you it's the Clyde or it's the industrial city or it's the post-industrial city or now, the knowledge city. And I think what I kind of realised as I started with that question was, actually, the thing that really underpins what Glasgow is, is that it has this desire to continually reinvent, so it has this real embrace of the new. There isn't a fear, really, of change, and I think that's very clear in its rhetoric and in its reality. So in the context of its rhetoric, I think - I've kind of lost count, really - of the number of marketing and place branding slogans that Glasgow's had over the last wee while. And there were some brilliant ones in there: Glasgow's Miles Better and Scotland With Style and now, of course, People Make Glasgow. And I think what that shows, really, in rhetoric is a desire to kind of continually reinvent what the city is and how that image of the city can be externally projected in new and fresh ways. And I think that's a really exciting aspect of the DNA of the city.
It's also seen, I think, in reality as well, in terms of the kind of structures that underpin a city, so not just what we say about it, but what the city is itself. And I think, for me, Glasgow is so obviously not a museum piece. It's got a collection of historic buildings; it's got buildings from lots of different periods. And it's very clear about when the time comes that we change that built form, whether that's from external shocks like de-industrialisation, for example, or whether that's something that's kind of proactively inside the city of Glasgow - I don't know the answer to that. There is a very kind of clear sense that the city is able to change its built form. It's also able to change, with some struggles, its employment structures, and that is something that is much more rigid in terms of being able to change those overnight. And I think, as well, some of that kind of desire to reinvent and to embrace the new has worked really well. As I said, Glasgow is not a museum piece.
It's exciting in the way that it sees the future and embraces the future, but I think it's also left some issues about the pace and scale of change as well, both in terms of employment structures but the everyday lives of the people who visit, live, work, play within the city. And so I think the DNA, really, of Glasgow is the fact that it is about continual reinvention and not fearing change in the way that perhaps some other cities might fear change.
And so, from your perspective, what is it that makes Glasgow Glasgow? Where does this desire to reinvent come from?
It's a really good question. I'm not sure if it's something that was externally produced as kind of more of a response or reaction to things that are happening both in Britain, Europe and the wider world, or whether it is something that is just kind of in the DNA of the city, this desire to be proactive and to think about the next phase of its development. Lots of British cities did the same, particularly in different periods of our history - we could think about the post-Second World War period where there was a lot of desire to break with the past and embrace the new - so there could be a kind of cultural aspect to this as well, and Glasgow is part of that. But I think really what makes Glasgow Glasgow is a contradiction on that reinvention. For me, it's the things that endure; it's the constant. And there are several things: the topography, the green and the blue spaces, the street pattern is, roughly in the city centre, at least kind of maintained, its architectural integrity. And also, in terms of the kind of people side of Glasgow, there is still a strong sense of the collective.
We live communally in tenements, and there's a real desire all the way back to the kind of working-class roots of the city about that collective sense of self. So there are some real constants, but I think what makes Glasgow Glasgow for me, and this is where the tricky aspect comes in, is that within that pace and scale of change and desire for the new, there's also a kind of almost constant renegotiation of the relationships that people have with each other in the city and with different parts of the city. I think that's most explicit in the kind of comprehensive redevelopment process in the '60s and '70s where familiar landmarks would go, your next-door neighbours would no longer be your next-door neighbours - they were moving out to peripheral areas - and your kind of everyday rhythms and routines were massively disrupted. And so I think the DNA of the city, if it is about continual reinvention, has worked well in some ways. But I think there's a cautionary note to it as well, in that when you have that desire to embrace the new, you have to think about what the meanings and memories and attachments are of the people who are on that journey with you but perhaps at different stages and for different reasons.
And actually, that process of the new can be exciting, but it can also be incredibly disruptive. And I think that one of the things that we need to be careful about when we think about the role of the DNA in guiding decision-making within cities is to really acknowledge that there are constants, and change can be difficult. And if we think a little bit more about what those meanings and memories of place are, as we go through that journey of reinvention, we might get more place-sensitive developments and nurture place in ways that perhaps we haven't always done in the city, particularly in the mid to late 20th century.
Fantastic. Thank you so much, Rebecca. Ricky Burdett spoke to us a lot about the spatial DNA of cities and how the grid patterns and infrastructure stay the same for a very long time. But what's really interesting is how they change. As new people come in, new industries form but the streets stay the same. And the point you're making about the memories that people have and the place attachments that people have-- because there's a theme that's come up in this work about the way that we shape cities and how cities also shape us. They're in our DNA. And so much of what you said just links to that.
I'll come on to the final question, which is, what does the future hold for Glasgow from your perspective?
Yes, I should caveat this by saying I'm a historian, so future thinking is not something I do as much as I think about where we've come from and where we're going. But I think one of the things I've seen, both in Glasgow but I think more generally across kind of placemaking circles, if you like, is to think about that balance of continuity and change in a much more sensitive way. And if we hold constant that what makes Glasgow Glasgow is its many different personalities and that there are many infinite different versions of Glasgow from day to night, from day to day, between people, between the different parts of the city, then I think what we're trying to say, then, is that we can't reduce the future of Glasgow to a particular marketing brand in the way that we might have done in the past. Although, I think People Make Glasgow actually works brilliantly in terms of its fluidity and flexibility. I've seen People Make Glasgow Home or People Make Glasgow Creative, so I think there is that inbuilt fluidity and flexibility in there, and I really like that slogan. And so, for me, I think the future of Glasgow, in terms of how its DNA will shape it, I hope it will continue to have that embrace of the new, to really think about the blend of the old and the new and to think about the ways in which we can move on that journey.
But I think what it could do in ways that perhaps we haven't done, as I said before in the late 20th century, is to think about that in a much more sensitive way. So I was really pleased to see the latest Place Commission Report, which tried to define what a place is, in a sense, tried to think about Glasgow's DNA and did so through the lens of place attachment. And for me, this is really at the core of the future of cities because if the DNA is about understanding people's relationships to place as it changes, then we need to be able to access that material, to incorporate that material and to really use that material as part of our decision-making processes. And so the future is not just about recognising that in terms of a mindset, but it's also about shifting how we understand and collect that information. And so I think as part of that, it's about saying, people speak in the mediums that they feel most comfortable in. That might not be in a consultation room, for example. I've seen it work beautifully in Glasgow through creativity and artistic outputs, through story, for example, and allow people to express what their felt experiences and emotional attachments to places are, and then be able to do something with that in a way that is respectful and that can nurture what the future Glasgow could look like.
So it's not a case of bringing people with you, but it's embedding people at the heart of what makes the future of Glasgow, I think. And I really have a hope that that's not just something that we're seeing in Glasgow, but it's something that we're shifting towards within the broader place-making circles that I work within.
Just brilliant, Rebecca. Is there anything else that you'd like to add that you might not have already said before we move onto the broader picture?
Yeah, maybe the only thing really is to say that within those felt experiences, we won't always agree, and I think we need to have an understanding that the loss of spaces can be emotionally difficult for people, but also the existing spaces can also be emotionally difficult for people as well. And we need to think about not just the history of the city, but our everyday felt experiences within that context. And I think we need to be comfortable in decision-making processes, with holding those difficult feelings and doing something with them which is respectful and nurtures place and nurtures people's relationships to place, I think. So it is about a much more inclusive understanding of all of the different layers of Glasgow's history and its present and its imagined future and being able to understand those and sensitively nurture them as part of the future of the city. I think that, maybe, is the only thing to add there.
Thank you, Rebecca. And so coming on to the kind of bigger picture question about The DNA Cities and how this idea can be used. Maybe the way of getting into this conversation is just to ask you initially about what The DNA of Cities means to you?
Yeah, I think The DNA of Cities, to me, has shifted in my thinking over time. And I think when I first started thinking about this, it was almost like trying to find the essence of place in the singular, and I think that was very much influenced by the kind of place marketing campaigns that we see. I Love New York was fantastically successful for lots of reasons, but it was very simple and reductionist in what that message was saying. Although, of course, our responses to that could be very different from our different positions. And so I think I started to complicate DNA not as something that was reductionist, but something that could be incredibly inclusive and quite complex. And so I think to kind of cut through all that, I think I stopped thinking about DNA as the product of a city, and I started thinking about DNA as the processes that go into the multiple different products of cities. And as soon as I started thinking about process, then, of course, you think about the fundamentals, the economy, the transport system, education, health, poverty, wellbeing, and you think about all of these things that go into the everyday city in ways that you can kind of delve into.
But I think really what I started to realise as part of all of that was that a city doesn't have DNA if people don't have relationships to that city. So actually, the production of the DNA of the city, or the product or the output, whatever that might be, is a product of everyday, cumulative, lived and felt experiences in the city. That, to me, is what the DNA of the city is. So the DNA might have all of the same components as every other city, but the way that each of us individually respond to that city and collectively make it our own, I think gives different cities a different sense of place, to use a kind of synonym or a comparative term there. So for me, in order to understand DNA, you have to understand emotions, feelings, relationships, connections and interactions on an everyday level and to sit with that complexity and to see that as a positive thing rather than to sort of try and find a final answer and a product from that, but to see the plural as a positive.
So from your perspective, if people are conscious of their city having DNA, how might the concept of The DNA of Cities be used? What are its applications or utilities?
I think to follow on from the belief in the lived and felt and cumulative experiences, I think the lens of the DNA really can be used to better locate and situate everyday local knowledge. So rather than, perhaps, maybe use it as an external projection of a place, perhaps put the lens back internally and say what is your Glasgow to lots of different people and let them tell you what their Glasgow is free of preconceptions and free of an interview questionnaire or a set of survey responses, pre-determined survey responses, and really use that lens of the DNA as a way to understand how people think and feel about the city. And I think once we understand that, we start to understand the everyday rhythms and routines, we start to understand why place matters to people in particular ways, we understand what the durable elements of that are, we understand what bits we're quite happy to change, and we understand the kinds of possible futures in the plural that can exist if we have a much more inclusive and sensitive approach to development. So I guess, in a sense, it's a broadening of expertise and for me, lived and felt expertise needs to sit alongside some of the more professional understandings of the city that we have traditionally relied on when we think about the future of place.