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Cumbernauld Town Centre

Updated Monday, 26th November 2001

The town which forms a backdrop to Gregory's Girl was intended to be a utopia.

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The City on the Hill

Cumbernauld is one of the New Towns built in Britain after World War Two, intended as a solution to the country's chronic housing problem. Situated around a hilltop ridge thirteen miles east of Glasgow, it is Britain's most concrete example of a modernist utopian town.

In 1945, the newly-elected Labour government set up The New Towns Committee, which was tasked with planning a solution to urban congestion and squalid inner-city housing conditions. Each of the New Towns was to be an independent community with the population drawn from the overcrowded and unhealthy cities.

In the Committee's first report to the Government, the scale of their vision for the future is clear; "It is not enough in our handiwork to avoid the mistakes and omissions of the past. Our responsibility, as we see it, is rather to conduct an essay on civilisation, by seizing an opportunity to design, evolve and carry into execution for the benefit of coming generations the means for a happy and gracious way of life."

The New Town of Cumbernauld was designated on December 9th 1955. The original plan called for the creation of a town capable of accommodating 50,000- 80,000 people, the majority of whom would come from Glasgow. It was one of the last New Towns designated in Britain, and the one in which modernist theories of town-planning are most obvious.

The site for Cumbernauld was relatively small, meaning that population density would be higher than in other New Towns. The town's planners were keen to give their creation a more 'urban' feel than its predecessors, so this was not considered a hindrance.

A Planned Utopia

The first Chief Architect Hugh Wilson assembled a team of planners and designers from all corners of the world. They considered themselves to be part of a pioneering experiment in urban planning, and for years their fellow architects and planners travelled to Cumbernauld to study this bold utopia on a windy hilltop in central Scotland.

The original Plan for Cumbernauld envisaged a single multi-purpose town centre surrounded by high-density neighbourhoods. The neighbourhoods would not have their own retail centres (as in other New Towns), but would instead be connected to the main centre by pedestrian footpaths.

Residents would be able to walk safely to and from the centre without ever coming across a car: a giant motorway system catered for those who wanted to drive through the town or to the centre. This revolutionary concept was designed with the safety of pedestrians and children in mind, and required the construction of a giant road system the like of which had never been seen in Britain.

But Cumbernauld was not anti-car: on the contrary, the huge, wide roads made driving easy, and the town's residential areas were planned with 100% car ownership in mind: garages were everywhere.

But it is the town centre which is the most remarkable feature of Cumbernauld. Conceived as a giant megastructure which would accommodate all the retail, municipal, and leisure needs of a town of 50,000 people, and topped off by penthouse 'executive' apartments, the multi-layered centre straddled the main dual carriageway below, dominating its surroundings.

With the completion of the first phase in 1967, the town centre's architect, Geoffrey Copcutt, had given Cumbernauld Britain's first indoor shopping mall.

A Utopia Too Far

But, despite the heroic vision, Cumbernauld was not without its problems. The centre's brutal concrete exterior was grim, and was eventually painted white to brighten it up; its malls and pedestrian walkways became wind tunnels; major retailers stayed away, and financial problems meant that the original Plan was never completely fulfilled.

The penthouses emptied as residents moved to more traditional executive accommodation on the outskirts of the town.

Today, the town struggles against its image of a soulless concrete carbuncle surrounded by roundabouts, a strange tribute to a moment when it was thought that old cities, with their narrow streets, haphazard layout, and confused, illogical centres were a thing of the past.

Despite this, much of Cumbernauld's housing remains a success: its landscaping is considered a triumph, and its population hovers around the 50,000 mark. Visitors still come from around the world to see this grand experiment in modern living. But today Cumbernauld is as much a cautionary tale of the dangers of trying to plan every element of urban life, as it is a successful realisation of a Modernist utopia.

The clock in Cumbernauld shopping centre


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