Here is Glasgow’s very own Duke of Wellington.
That is a traffic cone on his head, yes. I’m told there is always a traffic cone on his head. Not necessarily the same one, of course, but however often Glasgow City Council removes it, another one appears in its place. The council considered all sorts of measures to stop this outrageous behaviour – including making the plinth higher – before finally surrendering to the will of the people and leaving it alone. And so there it is. It’s even become an unofficial symbol for the city.
I’ve just spent the weekend in Glasgow helping out at an event called We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote, a training day for people campaigning for active travel. This is my sister’s latest project, the sister that has been leading me astray over the last few years into all sorts of subversive activity from play streets to cycle campaigning (although I haven’t yet gone as far as knitting for a bollard or chicane, but that might be because I can’t knit).
It was a fun, thought-provoking, challenging, and slightly depressing event. Depressing because speaker after speaker presented the latest evidence on how damaging the effects are of letting cars rule our cities, and how little governments are willing to spend on alternatives. The Royal College of Physicians, for instance, has just released a report saying that air pollution kills 40,000 of us a year in the UK. Governments make all the right noises about enabling more walking and cycling, but won’t fund it. And my cheery task was to talk about what’s happening in Enfield, where government has provided funding to the tune of £30 million, but hundreds of misled people are saying ‘Give it back to the mayor.’
I’m probably being too gloomy. The training day did provide dozens of ideas and encouragements and strategies to turn things around. Not all of them require knitting. And I’m reading about the mayor of Bogotá (in Happy City by Charles Montgomery), who said, ‘You can have a city that is friendly to cars or a city that is friendly to people. But you can’t have both,’ and ‘Can you imagine if we designed the entire city for children?’ He went on to transform Bogotá by curbing car journeys and redesigning it for walking and cycling. Which, by many accounts, has given residents their freedom back and made them happier.
I am heartened by the Duke of Wellington. * The people of Glasgow realised how much better their quality of life would be if the Duke had a cone on his head – repurposing the urban space, if you like – and despite the council’s best efforts, they’ve taken matters into their own hands and got their way. So now the Duke towers over the traffic on his own (sustainable) form of transport, magnificently proving that the last century’s conventional wisdom about urban design may not be the best wisdom after all.
So I say: Long live the Duke!
*My sister told me a similar story about a bus stop in Dumfries and a statue of a rhino, but it’s way too involved to go into here.