Blog post

COP26: Glasgow's history of ambitious municipal environmental intervention

By Professor Paul Elliott - 28 October 2021

As representatives from governments, environmental organisations, academics and campaigning groups gather in Scotland for the COP26 conference, which has been called one of the final opportunities to manage the impending climate disaster, Paul Elliott, Professor of Modern History at the University of Derby maintains that we can be inspired by the host city of Glasgow and particularly its history of ambitious municipal environmental intervention.

Municipal Ambition

Linked by the River Clyde to the wider world and bolstered by a swelling population to support its burgeoning shipping, iron, steel and railway industries, and major territorial expansions, late Victorian and Edwardian Glasgow staked a strong claim to be a world city.

One of the world’s great manufacturing centres and the largest Scottish city, Glasgow faced the devastating impact of large-scale industrial pollution and acid rain. It  was so bad that it turned many buildings and trees black, destroyed animals and plants and blighted the lives of its population. In response, Glasgow’s government and citizens strove to improve public health and utilities and forge a civic culture, clearing slums, improving public transport and constructing major public buildings, such as art galleries, museums and libraries.

Going beyond many Victorian cities, the Glasgow Corporation devised an ambitious programme of responses to environmental and social problems, taking over civic reconstruction and transforming public utilities, such as water, gas and electricity supply, and much of the public health provision like hospitals, laundries, markets, veterinary and bacteriological services. It regulated construction and housing, improved public transport, formed parks and gardens and planted numerous trees.

Public health measures included supervision of milk supplies and regulation of smoke produced by industrial (but not domestic) chimneys, fires and furnaces, all of which helped achieve a major reduction in annual mortality rates from some 29 per 1,000 in 1861 to 18 in per 1,000 in 1911, despite the city’s population more than trebling from 329,097 in 1851 to 1,032,228 in 1913.

Urban Farms and Agriculture

As was the case in other large Victorian cities, the need to provide basic utilities such as water, food and sanitary services for a swollen population encouraged the Glasgow Corporation into environmental and countryside management.

Loch Katrine was used to provide a water supply from 1859 and its banks were afforested because this was believed to help maintain water purity. The sewage system which served Glasgow and a wide surrounding region, produced cakes of sludge sold to farmers as manure after passing through patent Corporation dryers, dealing with some 96 million gallons daily (by 1914), and was the largest in the world outside of London.

Once non-organic refuse from streets and houses was separated and taken for sale and re-usage or cremated (if it could not be sold or re-used), organic refuse was sold to farmers or taken to corporation farms on estates acquired between 1879 and 1902 to replenish the soils.

The farms grew food crops such as hay and grain stored in corporation granaries for feeding humans and animals (like the corporation horses), oats and turnips, thus transforming waste and bog into ‘valuable agricultural’ land, ensuring processes were self-sufficient and operated without additional costs to ratepayers.

Corporation Farm circa 1910
Corporation Farm c1910

Urban Parks, Gardens and Forestry

Green-space provision and tree planting played a major part in the civic re-development of Glasgow as part of a deliberate strategy to transform the lives of its citizens, and demonstrated another manifestation of its global aspirations.

Between 1840 and 1914 the city went from having just one historic public park (Glasgow Green) to having nineteen public parks covering some 1,561 acres plus many playgrounds, golf courses, bowling greens, cemeteries and other green spaces. The larger parks included the grand 85-acre Kelvingrove Park with its sweeping ‘sylvan beauty’ and landscaping, the 146-acre Queen’s Park laid out to designs by Sir Joseph Paxton and the 104-acre Alexandra Park with its large open-air swimming pond and golf courses all of which were maintained by the Corporation parks department with its numerous gardeners, urban foresters, labourers and apprentices.

Glasgow’s parks department assumed responsibility for street trees from commercial developers, private landlords and various public bodies and with assistance of Scottish plant collectors, explorers, nurserymen and botanists, trees from home and abroad were imported and planted across the city and beyond.

Planting measures and (what we would call environmental management schemes) were informed by Scottish and British experience and practices abroad, and the parks Superintendent James Whitton travelled around Europe observing green spaces, tree planting and other aspects of urban government procedures. The devastating impact of pollution forced the city’s parks department to build resilience into design and planting schemes, selecting trees that coped better with poor soils and smoke pollution for example.

The parks department also supplied window boxes for a small charge and in a city where working-class and much middle-class housing was dominated by tenements, provided gardens and allotments let to householders at ‘popular rates’.

Additionally, urban afforestation and park improvement schemes were often used to provide unemployed workers with useful employment, particularly during periods of depression in key industries such as ship building. A labour colony was also created at Palacerigg, Cumbernauld for unemployed workers to gain skills in agriculture and horticulture and engage in afforestation schemes.

Motivated by the city’s sylvan beauties and the threats they faced, the Garden Cities movement and organisations like the Roads Beautifying Association (1928), the Glasgow Tree Lover’s Society (founded in 1933) campaigned for tree preservation and planted many urban trees, encouraging the corporation to do likewise and taking photographs of examples across the city, which were presented in exhibitions.

Oak tree from Glasgow coat of arms in the City's Botanic Gardens
Oak tree from Glasgow coat of arms in the City's Botanic Gardens

Country Parks and Regional Environmental Interventions

A major opportunity for the Corporation to realise environmental plans at a regional scale came when the (Ardkinglas) Ardgoil estate was presented to the city in 1906 as a ‘place of resort’ and ‘wild natural beauty’ for the ‘citizens’. When no British national parks existed and organisations like the Commons Preservation Society (1865) and footpaths preservation societies were campaigning for public access rights to the countryside, acquisition of the Ardgoil estate enabled the corporation to showcase the benefits of municipal-government led countryside afforestation, preservation and public access schemes.

At 14,650 acres and including the 3318-foot-tall Ben Ime and five hills over 2000 feet tall, the Ardgoil estate was massive compared to an urban park and Corbett stipulated that all the income it generated was to be invested in improvements and enhancing public accessibility, which the corporation did by constructing roads, bridges, and piers for steam ferries to operate as with the parks, using unemployed labour where possible.

Whitton, the parks superintendent managed the landscaping and planting schemes and revelled in the opportunities to enhance and open up this ‘grand sweep of Highland scenery’ and ‘glorious panorama’ to the Glasgow population.

As the landscaping, tree planting and footpath creation plans were implemented, people from across Glasgow and beyond, including children and families came for ‘holiday recreation’ picnics, holiday camps, walking and mountaineering using the special steamboats provided.

The improvement and public popularity of Ardgoil was celebrated in newspapers and guidebooks and praised by professional foresters and the corporation supported even more ambitious plans for a park around Loch Lomond to ensure public access ‘for all time’ and preserve the ‘magnificent mountain scenery’.

Augustine Henry, Professor of Forestry at the Royal College of Science, Dublin, praised Glasgow for enhancing its ‘municipal enterprise’ by becoming ‘the first city to acquire a forest area for the recreation of its inhabitants’, although subsequently the estate was passed to the Forestry Commission.

While Glasgow remained a divided city with extremes of poverty and wealth and lingering sectarian tensions, its municipal government’s environmental measures (even if not then labelled as such) to mitigate the impact of pollution, social deprivation and modern urban living were some of the most ambitious in British urban governmental history.

Although sometimes described as municipal socialism, they enjoyed general local cross-political support encouraged by the imperative to combine environmental concerns with greater economic efficiency.

Understood in period context, the innovative environmental measures made possible by Glasgow’s strong municipal leadership can inspire and inform our own efforts to build resilience and foster community support for radical change today in the face of the current climate emergency.

For more information, read Professor Paul Elliott’s, British Urban Trees: A Social and Cultural History, 1800-1914 

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About the author

Paul Elliott

Professor Paul Elliott
Professor of Modern History

Paul is a Professor of Modern History and Research Lead for the Humanities.

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