Glasgow buzzes and crackles with excitement about the new business 2014 seems set to bring, Dundee licks its wounds as Hull scoops the City of Culture title, Edinburgh glows at the top of yet another quality of life listing.

UK cities are in the news. And so they should be; we are an urban species. In Scotland – a land of eye-wateringly beautiful wild places – more than two thirds of us live in the built-up central belt, so it makes sense to care about the kind of lives we are making for ourselves among glass, stone and concrete.

But what makes a city good to live in?

Street Poem, The City is Wilder than you Think

Street poem by artist Robert Montgomery, from Morning News.


This blogpost was written in 2014. Some things have changed a great deal in six years. Others remain (both depressingly and cheeringly) very much the same. City life depends on what we make it. 

Artists and poets ask that question a lot, poking and challenging us with murals and graffiti.  Answers vary depending on where you look. It is interesting to see the Top Ten ‘good growth’ cities in the 2013 list compiled by PwC and Demos.  At the top is Reading not London, with  Aberdeen and Edinburgh in second and third places. Glasgow, despite the visible lift in confidence that has come with preparations for the Commonwealth Games (MTV and all that) is not there at all.

Perhaps that’s not surprising when you look at the Good Growth check list: jobs, health, income and housing are among essentials for the good life. Glasgow and other great post-industrial cities like Liverpool and Newcastle score badly on jobs, income and health, but it’s London’s absence from the top ten that rubs in the point: economic success does not always bring quality of life.

And quality of life is a slippery substance.

“It is possible for a neighbourhood to become victim of its own success,”  FT’s Undercover Economist Tim Harford puts it succinctly in his analysis of London’s property boom. “Low rents attract artists, new businesses, experimenters and risk takers. The neighbourhood becomes cool; rents rise. Eventually only middle-age, middle-class squares live there”.

Mural showing needles and girl on a motor bike

Street art in San Francisco’s Clarion Alley

True grit gives cities an appeal you can’t easily measure on a quality-of-life grid.  Does comfortable wealth come at the price of suffocating the creative spark? What gave Berlin its cool aura was not the glittering new glass palaces on the west side but the graffiti-covered buildings of the newly liberated east. Hull, voted the ‘crappiest town in Britain’  in 2003, is City of Culture 2017. It’s Leith rather than Edinburgh that nurtures innovative community schemes for street murals and pop up gigs and galleries. And Glasgow’s ‘scruffy’ side is what New York Times travel writer Adam Graham wanted to explore when he contacted us about Glasgow Music Tour. We took that as a compliment, Walking Heads sets out to explore what creates a true sense of place.

Heading off the beaten track takes you away from the glitz and glamour of the city centre – away from the parts the brochures naturally want you to see. Finding a true sense of place can mean telling uncomfortable truths.  Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Berlin since the wall came down is the way it confronts the past.  Belfast (ninth on the Top Ten Good Growth list) is beginning to do this too in some of the most interesting and optimistic new spaces of the city. That is another kind of true grit and Glasgow (unlike Liverpool) has been disappointingly slow to acknowledge how much it owes to slavery. But the Commonwealth Games have brought a surprising new opportunity  – look for the courageous programme tackling the city’s links with the slave trade in the  Empire Café in the Merchant City next July.  The city is wilder and kinder than you think.

The City is Wilder and Kinder Than You Think, by Robert Montgomery is one of the poems in The City, the latest anthology of new writing published by Black and Blue. 


Street grid, the cover of Black and Blue's new anthology