27 October 2019
The Sunday Times (p.5)

An artist once accused of taking a “poverty safari” after confining herself to a low-carbon lifestyle in Glasgow for a year for a project is calling for a six-lane section of motorway to be closed to let the city “breathe again”.

Ellie Harrison’s 2016 project, the Glasgow Effect — a term relating to poor health in parts of the city — was an attempt to explore sustainability by travelling less and focusing more on local opportunities.

However, she was widely attacked on social media, where some suggested that the artist, originally from London, was an arrogant southerner setting out to make poor Scots feel stupid and patronised. Scottish rapper Darren McGarvey called the project a “poverty safari” — though he now says Harrison is “not an enemy but an ally”.

Harrison, who received £15,000 for the project from arts agency Creative Scotland, reflects on the furore in a new book out next month, called The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of Class, Capitalism and Carbon Footprint.

“It was only during my ‘extreme lifestyle experiment’ in 2016 — where I refused to leave Glasgow’s city limits, or use any vehicles except my bike — that I truly began to appreciate the significance of Glasgow’s car-centric infrastructure for all our mental, physical and financial health,” she writes.

She discovered that, despite Glasgow giving far more of its space over to roads than neighbouring Edinburgh — 25% compared with 12% — it has one of the lowest levels of car ownership in Britain, with a majority of people without access to cars.

Highlighting Glasgow city council research, which indicates that Glaswegians who do not own a car and so contribute least to air pollution are those that suffer from it most, she calls for “car-free days” — as held in Paris and which Edinburgh has emulated in a limited way with car-free Sundays in parts of Old Town.

Harrison says the “elephant in the room” is the M8, which cuts through the heart of Glasgow. In 2016, the council invited Dutch architecture firm MVRDV to plan the regeneration of the Broomielaw area, which the motorway cuts through. A draft version of MVRDV’s report said the M8 was a “highway scar” and that by diverting traffic using the new M74 extension, the city centre section of the M8 could be closed down.

Harrison says Glasgow should learn from Seoul in South Korea, which once had an 11km stretch of motorway carrying vast amounts of traffic, “polluting the air and creating a hostile environment for all their citizens”.

In 2005, the city removed the motorway and restored the river that once ran below it. In its place is a riverside park “creating a green lung for the city, enabling it to breathe again”. Harrison suggests similar action, restoring the canal on which a section of the M8 from Easterhouse to Townhead was built. This would be accompanied by free public transport within Glasgow’s travel-to-work area to help those on the periphery, shift people onto more sustainable forms of transport, and cut air pollution.

Transport Scotland, the agency responsible for trunk roads, said the Scottish government is committed to “a sustainable, healthier, fairer and more accessible transport system” and “will continue to take forward actions to help address the global climate emergency”.

It said the government must balance the “extensive changes required to meet a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions with our duty to ensure Scotland has high quality infrastructure to meet the needs of all our residents, businesses and visitors”.

Anna Richardson, Glasgow city council convener for sustainability and carbon reduction, said: “We are developing a new transport strategy that will be fully focused on sustainability, such as public transport, cycling and walking. Decarbonising transport will be an essential part of Glasgow’s effort to become carbon neutral by 2030.”

The Glasgow Effect, published by Luath, is out on November 4.

Jason Allardyce