Supporter's Column: Gerry O'Brien

How the past can inform the present in the Scottish town of Paisley?

Paisley Pattern - Opportunity in Adversity


Jan Gehl famously mooted that, “An endless number of green buildings does not make a sustainable city.” As the response to the climate emergency grows in energy and becomes waves of action, we would do well to remember this; the problem is complex and a narrowly focussed response may prove costly for our societies.


In “Absolute Zero” a report produced by UK FIRES on behalf of the government, the stark realities of what we collectively must do to achieve the legal commitments of net zero by 2050 are laid bare. The report’s conclusions are clear; whilst technology will ultimately assist the response, it will be impossible to meaningfully implement at scale within the short timescale that is available. For many from our younger generations the route mapped must seem almost unimaginable; how can we exist in a world with no air travel, no shipping, reduced personal energy consumption and still have a fulfilling existence on our one and only time slot on this blue planet?


In our past efforts to generate a built environment that sustained life at a more comfortable level, promoted health and continuously increased life expectancy within communities, architects and engineers embodied the most edifying of human traits; ingenuity, curiosity, creativity and perseverance. But whilst simultaneously pushing our human world ever forwards, their narrow focus ultimately created the unintended consequences we now face. However, I still believe that these same traits will see us through the pressing challenges of the coming decades. We now have thousands, perhaps millions of minds focussing on solutions and sharing knowledge as at no point in history, and the technology will provide answers in the fullness of time.


I fear however that the immediate prognosis of “Absolute Zero” may be correct and that we cannot rely in the short term on this technology.  But in the words of Churchill we must, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. For the UK and some of its marginalised towns and communities this crisis brings clear opportunities. Born in the late ‘60s the experiences of my childhood will have many similarities with a future world where air travel is no longer an option and where shipping restriction places a new imperative on local produce and seasonal foodstuffs. I was 21 years old before I left this country and 23 before I set foot on a plane. Holidays happened generally within a radius of 50 miles, as cars were incredibly expensive, uncommon and public transport limited; but as a kid I looked forwards no less to the summer break. Our seaside towns are already beginning to rumble with some form of renaissance, and this for me is very exciting. Over a 30 year career I have worked on may regeneration projects that failed because after the fanfare of Phase 1 excitement faded, investment dwindled and the whole thing quietly fizzled out; now I feel there is real momentum.


In the afterglow of the industrial revolution Paisley, my hometown, blossomed with wealth built on the thread making and weaving industries reflected in the grandeur of the Coats Memorial Church, the Town Hall, Paisley Museum and Library gifted to the community by the industrial philanthropists of the town. The community was literate, talented and proud. Paisley like so many historically prominent towns has fallen victim to the attractive power of the larger metropolises and has been in serious decline for decades; suffering from an erosion of identity, reflected in the collapse of the High Street from the provision of any real function within the community.


The apparent travails of retail are shining a light on a related but parallel issue in the demise of our high streets. In the heyday of our high streets it was never simply about shopping, it was as much a social bonding session as it was about buying goods. My mother would talk to one person after another as we moved from shop to shop, apparently known by everyone; my father, with his threadbare patience finally ruptured, would retire to the town square and sit with the other dads on the steps and walls surrounding the cenotaph. Economic hardship bit deep during the Thatcher years but it was the arrival of Braehead Shopping Centre that put the final nail in the coffin. Like so many edge of town shopping complexes offering cheap, one-stop-shop destinations, its convenience sounded a death knell for retailers, cinemas and restaurants who had coexisted in a pleasant diverse symbiosis for generations. For Paisley, the return to a lifestyle familiar to generation X children offers a lifeline. The Council is investing in the town, spending £42 million to re-imagine its historic museum in the hands of Amanda Levette and its Town Hall becoming a landmark entertainment venue and outdoor spaces refocusing the misplaced community spirit. In past decades these commitments may well have failed to stop the rot, but when considered alongside communities responding positively to climate change imperatives it feels destined to succeed.


Gerry O'Brien is a director at AKT II.