How has Glasgow’s city centre changed over time?

25 September 2019
St. Mungo's Cathedral, Glasgow, 1890-1905
Travel writer and Glasgow resident Chris Smith explores how the city has changed from the medieval era through to the present day.

Travel writer and Glasgow resident Chris Smith explores how the city has changed from the medieval era through to the present day.

Glasgow's city centre comprises of many businesses, shops, theatres, educational and government buildings. Yet, this landscape is now vastly different from its state in the early 12th century. This is partly due to an ever expanding and diverse population.

Between the 1880s and 1950s, Glasgow was one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Immigrants flocked here from across the globe, and now Glasgow flourishes as the largest city in Scotland. It has grown from being a small rural settlement to earning the title of ‘the Second City of the Empire’ during the 20th century, thanks to the ship-building industry and harbours dealing in transatlantic trade. The city centre is now a vibrant retail and theatre hub, and boasts a globally recognised financial district and the historic, rejuvenated Merchant City.

Medieval Glasgow

By the medieval era, central Glasgow was already well established. In 1136, King David I consecrated the first stone building of Glasgow Cathedral. It is one of Scotland’s few medieval churches that remained after the Reformation. Early Glasgow developed around the River Clyde with settlements towards Glasgow Cross and Saltmarket, from the High Street, linking from the Cathedral. Bishop’s Castle, the Auld Pedagogy and the Old College also made up the medieval landscape. One of the oldest Glasgow streets, High Street, allowed a main route down to the Clyde from what is now the city centre.

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The Industrial Revolution

As the centuries passed, Glasgow City continued to develop alongside the Clyde. The river itself cuts the central and south areas, and runs from East to West. The Industrial Revolution boosted Glasgow’s economy and status in international trading, helped by the Clyde trading port which faced towrds the Americas.

Factory industries helped improve the city’s economy and population. These included textiles, ship building, chemical manufacture and whisky distilleries. Success materialized in steam powered production, metal working trades and marine engineering.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde

The Clyde has been a centre for ship building since the 15th century. A little south-west of the bustling retail and financial districts is the Upper Clyde. Here, Fairfield yard workers built luxury ocean liners, naval ships and steamers. With worldwide buyers, pre-war shipbuilding boosted Glasgow's economy and population; at one point, it was estimated that a fifth of the world’s shipping was built on the Clyde. Unfortunately, in the post-war era, shipbuilding declined due to fraught political and economic obstacles. The city has had to reinvent its economy over recent years in the shadow of the once vital heavy industries.

Industrial Revolution Glasgow was a European success, deemed a rich and fine city. Yet this power was a strain on the city and its inhabitants. Incredibly poor living conditions and high pollution marred the area. The population increased by around 400,000 in the space of 60 years. Low-quality housing was built quickly to meet the needs. There were around 1,000 people per acre of the city centre during this time.

Modern-day Glasgow

Fast forward to a more contemporary Glasgow. Regeneration and reconstruction occurred to improve standards of living by the 1970s, schemes were in place for a slum-clearance programme. The 1935 Housing (Scotland) Act acknowledged that 29% of the city's houses were overcrowded, compared to only 3% in England. Rather than going with the overriding desire to re-build everything, tenements in good condition were salvaged and many are still lived in today.

The last Glasgow city tower block was constructed in 1978 and around this time, investment focused on restoring the Victorian and Edwardian buildings of the city centre.

The award-winning ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign of 1983 onwards helped push perceptions of Glasgow as a tourist destination. Over the 1980s and 90s investment was directed towards new shopping areas Prices Square, St Enoch Centre and Buchanan Galleries. This helped change negative stereotypes of the modern city.

Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, Buchanan Street and Argyle Street together make up around 2.5 miles of shopping and Glasgow’s retail district continues to strengthen and change over the years.

The city centre is now commonly divided into four segments: Central, Blythswood, Broomielaw and St. Enoch, each of which is further split into districts. Recent regeneration of the city centre started in 2015 and is set to run for a 10-year programme. The £115 million city centre investment hopes to build a better area for people to live, work, study, invest in and visit. Glasgow City centre is now known word-wide for its fantastic shopping, tourism, academic reputation and nightlife. It certainly has transformed into the Dear Green Place we know and love.

Visit Chris Smith’s website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Further reading

Glasgow: A History by Michael Meighan

Glasgow: Mapping the City by John Moore



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