Streetalking – Mask Off: The Changing Face of Cities

Why do you live in a city? Over half the world’s population now live in urban centres and that number is relentlessly multiplying. Reasons for city dwelling range from the universal and obvious to the obscure and deeply personal, from convenience and opportunity to family history and self-identity. Countless authors have explored the ‘why’ of cities, a question so deceptively simple, citizens often never ask. Yet this past year has seen our cities rapidly and unpredictably mutate. The global pandemic has challenged the raison d’etre of our cities and damaged much of the quality of life we take for granted. Months of lockdown life in Glasgow and Edinburgh has led me to reflect on the nature of my two homes and what Covid-19 has meant for cities and their citizens.

Perhaps Shakespeare was first to say, ‘People Make Glasgow’, when he asked: ‘What is the city but the people?’. Glasgow has successfully reinvented itself around its citizens, transforming the same people who made it ‘murder capital of Europe’ into rugged local characters and promoting a thriving cultural and nightlife scene. Beyond the kitschy slogan, Glaswegian hospitality, friendliness, and openness define Glasgow. There are few places where strangers are so willing to spark a conversation or politely intrude on each other’s business. It is no surprise that the Glasgow music and clubbing scenes are also world famous, with the near ritual going out extending well into the work week.

However, the pandemic has exposed the fragility of the Glasgow ecosystem. Justified paranoia has turned strangers into Covid collaborationists, smiles are shrouded by elastic and polypropylene and we all dance the indecisive jig when choosing to risk a handshake or even a hug with beloved friends. Without its people, Glasgow seems desolate and colder. Sauchiehall and Buchanan are eerie tundras without the drunken yowls, clamouring chatter, and musical interludes. Glasgow is nothing without the people who make it. Is it a sad reality that we need a weekly bacchanal to enjoy the place?

Given its slogan, Glasgow is ironically poorly suited to its citizens. A tour guide friend once diagnosed Glasgow’s ailment: it is near impossible to walk 20 minutes in any one direction without encountering wasteland, dilapidated housing estates or thundering motorways. Glasgow has many architectural masterpieces, but they are peaks in the mist. Serene quiet is even rarer. The M8 scythes through Glasgow’s heart, a gaping, violent chasm of sensory overload between West End and centre. It roars past the cathedral and races the Clyde to ensure it terrorises all beauty spots. George Square is a constant game of chicken and the Merchant City is long overdue pedestrianisation. With Covid, the overreliance on a limited and poorly ventilated Subway system becomes a risk factor. The gung-ho urban planning of the last century trails behind Glasgow’s new life as people-centric cultural centre: people make Glasgow despite, and not because of, the city. The message of the 60’s is clear: Glasgow is a service station, a city you drive through.

By contrast, Edinburgh lost far less to the pandemic. It is forever a slow and quiet city. People Ruin Edinburgh; if it weren’t for its snooty pretentions, I maybe would never have left. The capital was a joy in Lockdown, the lack of tourists offered freedom to reflect and inhale its beauty and appreciate why they chose to visit. You could walk undisturbed down the middle of the road, surrounded by elegant buildings and verdant parks. I returned to my hometown, that once felt stifling and dull feeling I’d reconnected with a friend, left on bad terms, or perhaps met a new friend altogether. Glasgow is attractive for its atmosphere, yet Edinburgh is attractive despite it.

This year we have had to re-evaluate and notice the things we take for granted. The importance of Public and Green space has been a universal realisation. Even in normal times, there are few places to relax or socialise without spending money, and with museums and galleries closed there are even fewer. I almost understand the GOMA Goths after the latest glacial road to Lockdown. As our options slowly narrowed to Tesco trips for leisure, parks have become a refuge and walking has replaced coffee dates as our solitary pleasure. Unfortunately, newfound popularity has made public spaces more threatening, Busy pavements seem hostile when anyone could carry the virus. Glasgow has fewer green spaces than Edinburgh and they are inequitably located. The desperate need for more parks has become strikingly apparent. Kelvingrove and the Botanics are overwhelmed and those in less privileged areas have no outlet for lockdown cabin fever.

These are uniquely urban concerns. Infection rates are far lower and thus measures have been looser in rural areas. The same exciting chance to meet lots of different people exposes urbanites to greater Covid risk and is meaningless when restrictions are respectively tighter. The cosmopolitan liberal dream of the city, with unlimited opportunities, where you can be whoever you want competes with another form of freedom; rural life, where isolation is appealing rather than daunting and normality has survived longer. Being in a city has become worse for job opportunities: the decimation of the hospitality and music industries and resulting mass redundancies have shown how fickle job security is in urban areas. Conversely, tourism in the Highlands suffered less than expected, with Scots desperate for a holiday filling the international tourist gap. Rural areas have still suffered in this pandemic, but our cities have been hit the hardest.

Is this a chance to rethink cities? Many of the blessings of city life have been the cause of pandemic suffering.  We still have no idea of the long-term effects. With the move to online shopping to maintain the accustomed instant gratification, what happens to our high streets? Dare we ask whether the ‘new normal’ is just a sickening, temporary buzzword? Regardless, we certainly have no shortage of time to mull over questions nowadays. Perhaps it’s time to ask yourself ‘why cities?’ and ‘where do we go from here?’.

[Ruaraidh Campbell – he/him]

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