Willie Miller Urban Designer: Glasgow West End Characters
Willie Miller is an Urban Designer, who lives in Glasgow’s West End. He is part of the design team commissioned by Glasgow City Council to deliver the major redesign and redevelopment of Byres Road, arguably Glasgow West End’s main street. Working in partnership with landscape architects Benton Scott-Simmons, Nick Wright Planning and Icecream Architecture, the aim is to give Byres Road a major facelift. This involves consulting with local people and businesses to address the ‘balance of uses’ for the street.
I met Willie when I went along to one of the consultation events, where the views of local business people were sought. Of course, I don’t have a business on Byres Road but as I have been promoting the West End on my website since 1999, I thought I might be considered ‘a stakeholder’.
The event was well attended and I was pleased to spot Nancy Smillie and Basia Palka – we put our heads together to come up with some ideas. My main input was to provide attractive and conspicuous signage on Byres Road pointing to the lanes. I’m pretty sure many tourists who find their way to Byres Road never manage to sample the joys of the Nancy Smillie Shop in Cresswell Lane.
Already some progress has been made with improvements at the corners of Chancellor Street and Vinicombe Street. I’ve taken advantage of the seating area at Vinicombe Street and enjoyed sitting in the sunshine with my cappuccino. It’s great to see the corner being used for community events.
I was interested to find out more about the plans and about Willie Miller’s work so I arranged to meet him for a chat and we caught up in Eusebi on his return from a trip to Rotterdam – he was very thoughtful in suggesting that we meet at a ‘favourite place’ of mine.
WMUD – Urban Design
Willie’s experience in Urban Design is vast and his interest long standing, having studied at Glasgow School of Art then at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture in Aberdeen. After some years in local authorities, he has been running his own design practice, Willie Miller Urban Design (WMUD), since 1996, undertaking work in ‘planning, regeneration, landscape and community engagement, as well as our core disciplines of urban design and masterplanning’. His involvement can be at various stages of projects from concept to strategy and development. Some are small community planning projects and others involve major urban design. Some aim to promote tourism and heritage as well as the enhancement of environments. The work is diverse in scale, focus and location – from city regions, sub-regions, cities, towns and neighbourhoods to countryside and villages.
The variety is immense and he has worked in projects across the UK, in Ireland and throughout Scotland from Kirkcudbright to Stromness and studied work in other countries including: San Pedro in the Costa del Sol, eco towns in Germany, trams in Helsinki and Bordeaux as well as work in Estonia. Willie’s approach to his work could be described as inclusive, imaginative and outward looking – to my mind reflecting traits that often characterise the Scottish psyche.
As we chatted, his enthusiasm for his work and his attitude became apparent:
‘For me the most important thing is the synthesis of ideas from other people into something new and worthwhile.’
However, he explained that engagement processes can be complex, as for example with Byres Road where priorities are very diverse including improvements regarding: pavements, parking, buses and bike lanes. He went on to point out that for many people Byres Road is a place to come to shop and for entertainment, however, the fact that it is also a residential street has to be taken account of. Albeit the complexities, his commitment to this process is clear.
We had a blether about the Glasgow School of Art and the importance of communities and street life. I asked Willie what else he was working on at the moment and he spoke about the Three Towns Charrette at Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenson. Charrette was a new word for me but it sounds like a brilliant idea – allowing people to come together in workshops over a set number of days to discuss their environment, address problems, find solutions and make plans for their communities. In the case of The Three Towns the focus is on revitalising town centres and making the best use of the amazing coastline.
He is also enjoying working on a Design Futures Festival for the Design and Craft Council of Ireland and Fáilte Ireland focused on Kilkenny in Southern Ireland. He was previously involved in something called ‘Mapping the Craft Sectors in Southern Ireland’. This involved examining ‘the environmental, economic and infrastructural conditions that have led to the development of craft clusters in specific regions; the point being made that ‘the value of this group of industries lies not so much in the contribution of individual enterprises but in their collective effects.’ It kind of struck me that there are significant artistic and craft clusters in and around Glasgow and the West End that could probably benefit from some of the ideas being applied around Kilkenny.
The Role of the Expert
On talking to Willie and reading about his work it stuck me that it is one thing for communities to identify problems and come up with ideas but the role of the expert is absolutely vital. Personally I don’t feel I have the vision or the knowledge to identify much that would benefit, or be possible, regarding the design of Byres Road. I remarked to Willie that the area of Byres Road I liked best is the corner where it meets University Avenue. I wondered what could be done to change its use from a car park to something people could enjoy. But where would the cars go? Willie remarked that in many cities the solution for parking is to go underground – for example in Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux, areas similar to the Byres Road, University Avenue and Ashton Road corner might have three storeys of underground parking with high quality landscaping at street level. Of course car parks attract cars and there is an argument that says it would be better to improve public transport than spend money on more car infrastructure. Now that sounds like another excellent idea.
The time could not be more fortuitous for the redesign of Byres Road as this fits in so well with Glasgow University’s plans for the Western Infirmary site and their aspiration for a world changing campus ‘the single largest
estates project in [the University’s] history since the move from the city centre in the 1870s’. (University of Glasgow – Plans for a world changing campus) Further complementing positive changes in the area is the recent revamp of the iconic Kelvin Hall, contributing to the concept of a new museum district for Glasgow.
What’s happening elsewhere: Helsinki
The potential is immense, however, Willie made the point that its not uncommon to encounter sceptics who hold the view that ‘It could never happen here’ or that nothing should change. However, on reading Willie Miller’s blogs I was fascinated to learn about the wonderful things that happen elsewhere: Willie was passionate about Helsinki: A city that mirrors Edinburgh in many ways but where ‘trams are just a fraction of its transport aspirations’
‘Imagine a country with around the same population as Scotland that builds Metro lines and high speed rail links, that has the ambition to build a 50 mile undersea tunnel link to another country and is built around an extensive welfare state.
Imagine the same country regularly topping international comparisons of national performance in health, education and quality of life, as well as being the seventh most competitive country in the world.
Imagine its capital city, with a similar population to Edinburgh, with an extensive district heating system, the foresight to introduce a vacuum powered district waste disposal scheme that eliminates bin collections and which is extending its tram based public transport system with six major new lines over the next few years.’
It certainly sounds impressive.
Be sure to come along to future consultation processes for Byres Road which will take place throughout the rest of 2017 and the first half of 2018.
Pat Byrne, September, 2017
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