How a smart canal and a sponge city could regenerate North Glasgow

by Scott Faulds

In the late 18th century, following years of delays and complications, the Forth and Clyde Canal was finally completed and opened for use. In the pre-industrial era, the canal was an essential transport corridor, which allowed goods to be moved from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde and even allowed passengers to travel from Falkirk to Edinburgh in just under four hours!

However, advancements in technology and the expansion of rail travel led to a movement away from canals and by 1962 the Forth and Clyde Canal had become derelict. The closure of canal networks across the UK was devastating to the communities that served them, such as North Glasgow, as they were vital to ensuring continued economic and social prosperity.

250 years on from the opening of the Forth and Clyde Canal – thanks to capital funding from the Glasgow City Region City Deal, the European Regional Development Fund via the Green Infrastructure Fund and Scotland’s 8th City: the Smart City –  the canal is about receive a 21st century ‘smart’ upgrade that supports the regeneration of North Glasgow.

How does it work?

The smart canal is one component of a project known as the North Glasgow Integrated Water Management System (NGIWMS); the other element is the implementation of what is known as a ‘sponge city’ approach.

According to the World Future Council, a sponge city is one where rainwater is able to be absorbed into the ground and managed as opposed to the usual impermeable systems utilised in cities today. As a result, sponge cities are abundant in open green space, green roofs, sustainable urban drainage ponds and any other measure which facilitates the passive absorption of water.

The smart canal utilises a variety of sensors which measure water levels, quality, flow and temperature. All the data produced by the smart canal is then processed and helps experts at Scottish Canals and Scottish Water decide what actions are needed to mitigate flooding. For example, if the sensors detect that canal water levels are high and heavy rain is expected soon, water can be proactively transferred from the canal into nearby watercourses, in advance of the rainfall, to create space to absorb the rainfall.

Scottish Canals state that the NGIWMS will allow for the equivalent of 22 Olympic swimming pools (55,000m³) worth of additional water storage capacity and that this capacity will be created at a substantially lower cost than traditional methods of onsite drainage.  Therefore, the smart canal and sponge city work in tandem to defend the local community from the threats faced by climate change and flooding, giving North Glasgow a modern water management system.

How can this regenerate North Glasgow?

The Centre of Expertise for Waters states that the smart canal will provide a variety of regenerative benefits to North Glasgow, from economic growth to environmental improvement. You may be asking yourself, how can a 250-year-old canal and a concept likened to a sponge facilitate such large-scale regeneration? Well, simply put, the current drainage system in North Glasgow is not fit for purpose and has rendered substantial amounts of land unusable.  The smart canal and sponge city approach will provide North Glasgow with a fully functioning drainage system which is able to dynamically respond to an ever-changing climate, thus, freeing up previously unusable land to developers.

Glasgow City Council estimates that 110 hectares – that’s enough land to cover Glasgow Green twice – will be unlocked for investment, development and regeneration. Areas around the smart canal, such as Sighthill, are already seeing regeneration of their community, through the building of over 150 affordable homes, new schools, new community centres and installation of new green space. Additionally, the building of new office space is expected to bring new jobs to North Glasgow, which is both important for local people and to attract new residents. Glasgow City Council are determined that the canal and urban drainage ponds will become go-to destinations, in the image of the regenerated canals of Birmingham, surrounded by pubs, restaurants and other leisure developments. Attracting tourists and locals to the area will provide a big boost to the local economy and help spur on further regeneration efforts. In short, the provision of a modern and effective drainage system will allow North Glasgow to experience a great deal of urban regeneration.

Final thoughts

The regeneration of North Glasgow, through the smart canal and sponge city concept, is a remarkable example of how to redevelop a specific area without gentrifying an entire community. In recent years, various regeneration projects have been criticised for bulldozing over local communities and triggering a soar in property prices, rendering the area unlivable for existing residents. The use of North Glasgow’s existing infrastructure, the Forth and Clyde Canal, as a pillar of regeneration efforts pays homage to the community’s past and spreads the benefits of its 21st century upgrade across the community.

Ensuring that the regeneration of North Glasgow benefits residents is vital, as is ensuring that all new developments are sustainable and ready to face the challenges of the future. The creation of an effective and dynamic water drainage system will ensure that North Glasgow is prepared for future challenges raised by climate change. The installation of large swathes of green space to help realise the sponge city, will also capture carbon, and help Glasgow reach its target to be the first carbon neutral city in the UK.

The smart canal is the first of its kind and, if successful, could see North Glasgow lead the way in sustainable regeneration which could be deployed worldwide. In short, a sponge city and a smart canal can lead to a great deal of good for North Glasgow and beyond.


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Future City Glasgow: successes, challenges and legacy

By Steven McGinty

In 2013, Glasgow City Council won £24 million worth of funding from Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) that would see the city become a ‘living lab’ for smart city projects.

Although Glasgow has been more synonymous with low life expectancies (the so called ‘Glasgow Effect’) and urban deprivation, the funding was intended to transform Glasgow into a world leading smart city, with the technologies piloted by Glasgow eventually being used in other cities.

The projects proposed by Glasgow City Council were designed to explore innovative ways to use technology and data to make the city ‘safer, smarter and more sustainable’.

However, three years on, with the majority of the work complete, has the programme been a success?

Managing a future city

From the beginning, Future City Glasgow set out an ambitious programme for change. However, it wasn’t just the experimental nature of the technologies or implementing them in such a short space of time which caused challenges. The programme also had an important role to play in the security of the 2014 Commonwealth Games – a major international event for the city.

Just under half of the programme’s funding was spent on a new state-of-the-art Operations Centre,  integrating traffic and public safety management systems, and bringing together public space CCTV, security for the city council’s museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence.

Although this has required significant investment, the centre has enabled Glasgow to take a ‘proactive’ approach to traffic management and public safety. Video analytics tools, for example, provide operation centre operators with better information to help respond to emerging events. And traffic operators have control over the city’s signalling, allowing them to prioritise late-running public transport. CCTV cameras have also been upgraded to full HD, providing better images for operators and an important source of evidence for Police Scotland.

Demonstrator projects

A major part of Future City Glasgow’s work has been introducing a number of demonstrator projects. According to Gary Walker, programme director at Future City Glasgow, these focus on four main themes: energy; active travel (encouraging people to walk and cycle); public safety; and transport. Some of the most notable projects, include:

  • Intelligent street lighting – the Riverside Walkway has lighting which switches on when people walk by, and Gordon Street has lighting which provides real time data on noise levels, footfall, and air pollution.
  • Sensor technology in retrofitting – low cost sensors (the BuildAx and the Eltek GC-05) have been deployed in buildings throughout Glasgow to evaluate the impact of insulation projects.
  • The Glasgow Cycling App – an easy to use platform has been created to encourage cyclists to share their experiences of cycling and to generate data that could help citizens plan journeys or highlight areas the council should target for improvement.

The challenge of data

Much of Future City Glasgow has been underpinned by data sharing – including traffic data gathered by the Operations Centre and citizen-generated data from the Glasgow Cycling App.

However, ‘freeing’ this data proved challenging, as sharing data went against the traditional working culture of local government. As Gary Walker explained to the Guardian newspaper:

“Change can be challenging – especially when you are driving something that appears to contradict everything you’ve had drummed into you for years. Initially, organisations were nervous when we asked them to release their data because people know they must protect it. But once they realised that we were not asking for sensitive or personal data they began to relax a little and appreciate the value in creating a data hub.”

After some awareness raising and reassurance, the Glasgow Data Launchpad, a publicly available repository for the city’s data, now has over 400 datasets from 60 organisations, including Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Life (which delivers cultural, sporting and learning activities on behalf of Glasgow City Council), and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Looking to the future

As Gary Walker noted at a recent Smart Cities event, Future City Glasgow has received a lot of international interest. The programme has also won a number of awards, including:

  • Winner – Geospatial World Excellence Awards 2015
  • Winner – NextGen Digital Challenge (Digital Innovation) 2015
  • Winner – Holyrood Connect ICT (Innovation) 2015

However, it’s important that the city doesn’t become complacent and continues to progress with smart city initiatives. Alan Robertson, in an article for Holyrood magazine, suggests that financial pressures facing local councils may put initiatives in jeopardy. For instance, he highlights that Glasgow City Council leader Frank McAveety has warned that the city faces “impossible budget cuts”.

There are, however, some positive signs that work will continue. Last year, the Scottish Government introduced Smart Cities Scotland, a new programme which aims to make Scotland’s cities more efficient and greener, and more attractive to potential investors. The programme received £10 million in European funding and will involve a collaboration between Scotland’s seven cities and the Scottish Government.

Final thoughts

Future City Glasgow has had many successes since it was launched three years ago. Although Smart Cities Scotland promises less funding, Future Cities Glasgow has provided the smart city infrastructure capable of supporting new projects.

In terms of driving growth, it will also be interesting to see how Glasgow City Council responds to new forces within future cities, including disruptive business models and technologies, such as controversial tech companies Uber and Airbnb.


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