- Published: 26 June 2016 26 June 2016
In 2010 Jim Johnson co-authored (with Lou Rosenburg) Renewing Old Edinburgh: the enduring legacy of Patrick Geddes chronicling the history of redevelopment of the city’s medieval quarter from the 1860’s to the present day. The book ended on a cautiously optimistic note, believing that redevelopment plans in Edinburgh, post-2008 economic collapse, were moving from the smash-it-down-and-start-again approach towards the more gradual, evolutionary approach advocated by Geddes.
The authors were wrong. Since then every major planning decision relating to the Old Town has promoted schemes which will lead to the death of the area as we know it and the decimation of what remains of the oldest community in the city. If a new edition of the book ever gets published, the title will have to be Killing off Old Edinburgh.
Here he explains why.
Edinburgh has had a rough time over the last 20 years holding on to its reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The huge public opposition to the original Caltongate proposals in 2005 resulted in a UNESCO delegation delivering a slap on its corporate wrist. Unfortunately the successor scheme for the site (now known as New Waverley) is turning out to be even worse. The proposals to turn the old Royal High school into a six star hotel, together with an equally contentious planning approval for a spiral hotel design in St Andrews Sq. resulted in another visit from international heritage watch dog ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites).
Alongside the genuine concern about World Heritage status, with every passing day there is the growing concern of city centre residents that there is no future for them in the Old Town. The economic development lobby led by the cash-strapped City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the tourist industry continues to push ahead with no reference to planning guidelines, the advice of heritage groups or the cries of its citizens.
Edinburgh has a confused conception of itself
With no guiding vision, Edinburgh has a confused conception of itself. Is the city to be the cultural icon that some aspire to, its architectural beauty and historic associations reinforced by the reputation of its International and other festivals? In which case what of the total disregard for the fate of the Carnegie endowed Central Library at the cultural heart of the city? Planning approval has been given for a 250 bed hotel linking India Buildings in Victoria St. to the Cowgate, with a 9 storey bedroom block obscuring the light and views from the library, and the hotel occupying a site earmarked for many years for library expansion.
Or should Edinburgh be primarily a working city; the seat of government, the national centre for law and religion, together with financial services and local administration? In which case it needs a clearer and more efficient transport system, not medieval roads clogged by service traffic and slow moving tourist buses – and a retail and service sector to support such functions not a plethora of tourist shops.
Or is the city to be a down-market tourist catch-all, supplied with budget hotels, tacky Christmas and Hogmanay events, and extremely lax licensing regulations? This is a known pitfall for some other European historic cities such as Prague where historic and cultural attractions are threatened by fly-in stag and hen parties and a kind of day-tripper atmosphere. Certainly Edinburgh falls into that category not only during its ever growing number of festivals: the drift down market is well established and will be difficult to reverse.
At the moment Edinburgh tries to be all three, which accounts for much of the mistrust and ill-feeling between the City authorities and the local citizenry. All three functions overlap and add to the general congestion on the roads and pavements and the tatty and run down appearance of the principal streets, dotted with commercial refuse bins, advertising boards and tartan shops.
No leadership from the Council
There is no leadership from the City Council - no indication that it has any idea of creating a vision for the city's future which it could share with its citizens to build a proper partnership. The city seems to lurch from one ad-hoc initiative to another, mostly to do with money-raising from tourism; one Council speciality is handing over public roads and open spaces to private profit making concerns. Without consultation it shuts major traffic routes for a cycle race, obliterates public open space, like the Meadows or St. Andrews Square, for a funfair or dubious "continental markets". There seem to be ever more desperate attempts to bolster the city revenues.
I would argue that at a time of financial restraint imposed by both Westminster and Holyrood it is very important to have clear objectives, but I see no sign of this. A few years ago vague aspirations to be "the most sustainable city in Northern Europe" were never supported by coherent policies to achieve such aims (improbable as they were compared a Scandinavian city like Malmo). Such initiatives are soon forgotten to focus on some new shot-term fix.
Why is a city still thought by many outsiders to be an enviable place to live, so unsure of itself? Why is it so fearful of competition from other new festival cities such as Manchester? Why does it feel driven to compete on retail terms with Glasgow, producing mad ideas like creating a shopping mall under Princes Street? Edinburgh seems to oscillate between nervous anxiety and smug complacency.
Towards a shared vision
The first step to reaching a shared vision is to take a sober look at the city as it is. It is a small city on the fringe of Europe. It has a rich history because for over 500 years it was the capital of a sovereign nation, and briefly in the 18th century had a leading role in the European enlightenment. Starting as a place where people lived and traded under the lee of the castle, it developed and gradually acquired the institutions of government, law, religion and culture.
Through all these changes the one constant was that people lived in the medieval heart of the city. In the 18th century when the affluent moved to the New Town they were replaced by workers in the new industries like brewing and printing. Some 25,000 people still lived in the Old Town but there was over-crowding and squalor, and the old mixed community became a very poor one. Into this situation at the end of the 19th century came Patrick Geddes. Moving into the Lawnmarket with his family he set about building the first student hostels mixed with well-designed flats for workers, and created cultural and educational institutions.
Geddes's ideals were carried forward by the City, which, from the 1920s to the 80s, rebuilt much of the dilapidated Canongate and renovated many other areas. When the industries moved away there was another determined effort by local and national government to rebuild a residential population in the Old Town. Between 1981 and 2001 the population of the Old Town grew from barely 3,000 to around 7500. 10 years ago the Old Town had a mixed and relatively stable group of residents, some elderly, many living in social housing, others choosing to live in this lively and central area of the city.
Since then development pressures have increased and threatened this community. Investors decided there was more money to be made from providing student housing and hotels. The Council's current policies encourage hotel developments in the Old Town for short-term economic benefits and jobs, but such developments are hollowing out the settled residential population, and turning the Old Town into a museum-like tourist attraction rather than being part of a living city with a sustainable future.
'Not suitable for day-to-day living'
In 2011 ICOMOS warned us in its Valetta Declaration:
The loss or substitution of traditional uses and functions,….can have major negative impacts on historic towns and urban areas. …..It can result in the transformation of historic towns and urban areas into areas with a single function devoted to tourism and leisure and not suitable for day-to-day living.
There could be no better description of what is currently happening in the Old Town.
How can this depressing situation be turned around? Firstly the city authorities must take seriously their stewardship of the Old Town and their responsibility to its residents, as its predecessors did. Since 1900 the city has accepted responsibility for the housing of its citizens, especially those excluded from ownership. Unlike tourists, residents use shops and services all year round, pay council tax and keep the local economy ticking over. In the Old Town their presence is threatened.
Secondly, the Council needs to cure itself of its addiction to tourism as the only engine of economic growth. This is distorting the life and long-term economy of central Edinburgh. Tourism is an extractive industry with a limited life span and a perilous economic base – another global financial crisis (even perhaps brexit) and tourism will collapse leaving Edinburgh with a centre dominated by empty hotels. Some legacy for our present Council.
Jim Johnson is an advisor to the board of Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust and former director of the Edinburgh Old Town Renewal Trust (incorporated into Edinburgh World Heritage Trust in 1999)