The Last Public Event in Grassmarket Nursery

The Lives of Old Town Buildings – Symposium November 21st 2013


Grassmarket Nursery in the Vennel, which closed in June of this year, was the venue chosen for an inspiring discussion about ‘buildings in transition’ in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Part of the Word Bank Autumn Season, the symposium brought together three experts - Edward Hollis (Edinburgh College of Art), Bob Morris (University of Edinburgh) and Jim Johnson (Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust) - to explore the factors which determine the survival and changing functions of buildings over time.

To set the scene, local resident and researcher, Elspeth Wills, provided a potted history of the building which began life as Grassmarket Child Garden in 1930, a memorial by the parents of James Hamilton Maxwell, killed in the trenches in 1915. Their son had enjoyed 'freedom and fresh air' and his parents felt that it would have been his wish for the deprived children of the Grassmarket. In 1945 this endowment passed to Edinburgh Corporation.

Such clarity of purpose, plan and function characterises how most buildings start life but, according to Ed Hollis, ‘a building should outlive everyone, including its function’. The story of every building changes over time and it’s a matter for us, in the present, ‘how we decide to tell the story now’.

Discussing the differing fate of such buildings as John Knox House and Holy Trinity Church, Bob Morris spoke of the ‘meaning that attaches itself to buildings’, meaning not always reflecting historical truth. Put simply, ‘the story is re-told, the meaning changes’. Discussing the pioneering work of Daniel Wilson and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Bob described Edinburgh as being ‘remade for the people who live there as well as visitors’.

Who is remaking what and for whom? was the subject of Jim Johnson’s contribution to the symposium. Revisiting his work as head of Edinburgh Old Town Renewal Trust in the 1980s, Jim wondered how places can be improved without producing the negative effects of ‘gentrification’. Well-meaning efforts to preserve the unique character of a place can be detrimental to stable communities, driving up property values and increasing consumerism aimed at visitors rather than residents.

The venue for the evening had its own point to make according to the chair, Sean Bradley (Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust). He asserted that the purpose and values underlying Grassmarket Child Garden and Grassmarket Nursery have not changed over time. Early years education and the value of ‘freedom and fresh air’ are still a priority for the city and its people - and it is important that these values are reflected in the building’s future use.

The symposium concluded that there’s no avoiding the changing story of the places we live in. But what needs to be recognised is the central role that residents have in retelling that story.

This event was made possible by the unstinting support of Graham Walker (Community Use of Premises) and his colleagues in City of Edinburgh Council – and greatly enhanced by an exhibition of drawings of Grassmarket Nursery and the surrounding area by Sylvia MacKiewicz, Facilities Assistant with the Council.

 ed hollis


Edward Hollis, Reader in Design at Edinburgh College of Art writes about buildings, and the strange and secret lives they lead both inside and out.



bob morris



Bob Morris is Emeritus Prof of History at University of Edinburgh, and an expert on the history – notably the nineteenth century history, of the Royal Mile.





Jim Johnson of the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust has lived and worked around Edinburgh Old town for decades, and has also played a leading role in helping householders and tenants find new ways to deal with the repair, and improvement of their living conditions.

GPAmongst the usual dross of fliers and free sheets to be found in the libraries, shops, and cafes of Edinburgh (mostly its Old Town and South Side) your eye might have been caught recently by an unusual and unusually interesting publication. It’s a full colour tabloid-size newspaper, but instead of a screaming headline and sensationalist story the cover is taken up by a photograph of a nattily dressed old man standing beside a litter bin.

Inside we find out that this is George Pitcher, Community Activist: his portrait is part of ‘Southsiders: portrait of a community’, a project commissioned from photographer Peter Dibdin by the Causey Development Trust.

The project involved capturing the portraits and stories of 32 people who live, work or have a specific connection to Edinburgh’s Southside. Each page of the newspaper is devoted to one person- ranging from Kevin Gill, Gravedigger, to Rosie Cunningham, Flamenco Dancer.

The portraits are framed by short essays and poems about the Southside. The publication and associated website where the stories can also be listened to, although only revealing the barest skeleton of the community, gives that community life, and exposes the nature of a community, when you begin to see it in terms of individual lives and the web of living and working that, in an ideal community, should connect us all.

Find out more about ‘Southsiders: portrait of a community’, see the people and listen to their stories here. Find out more about the Causey Development Trust here. Or go hunting round your community for your own copy of this enriching publication, meeting more Southsiders as you go.

The EOTDT has just published its Spring/Summer 2013 newsletter. This features a preview of the Trust's Development Plan, including its Vision for the Old Town, news about the Patrick Geddes Gardening Club and the new project to create an Evergreen magazine for the 21st century. There are previews of events happening in June, including the first of a series about greening the Old Town, and comments on Caltongate and the Royal Mile Action Plan.

The newsletter also has the first of a series of features on prominent organisations who contribute to the life and well-being of the Old Town: the first of these features the newly re-opened Grassmarket Community Project. Download a pdf of the newsletter below.

The Trust has been talking with people from different backgrounds and with different skills about their views on how the Old Town should develop, and in particular about its ideas for the Word Bank in the disused Canongate Venture building on East Market Street. One of these conversations was with Diarmaid Lawlor, Head of Urbanism at Architecture+Design Scotland, based in the Canongate. In particular we wanted to understand some of the language that specialists use about building or re-building places - essentially the jargon of ‘placemaking’. This was his response.

It takes a long time to write the fewest words that mean the most to people. This is because we often use a lot of words to cover the fact that we are not clear what we mean. The language we use to talk to one another is important.

Language ‘becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easy for us to have foolish thoughts’ [George Orwell, 1946]. Is it a foolish thought to think we can make places? What does placemaking mean?

Like sustainability, resilience, competitiveness, and other modern words, placemaking is used a lot these days. Lots of words and phrases lose meaning because we fail to stop and argue what we really mean. So what do we mean by placemaking?

Place is a word that is used to describe something about the environment we inhabit. For some, place is a local geography, it is the immediate set of spaces around your home or work. You can say you are in this place or that place, and it means a different ‘local area’. For others, place is about meaning. It is less about breaking down a town into local chunks or neighbourhoods, and more about bits that mean a lot: places your family came from, places your community values, places you had your first kiss, places where battles happened, graveyards, views. This is more about emotions than simple geography. Maybe a simple way of saying all this is that place is a way of looking at the world. It helps us locate where we are, what’s important to us and how things connect. In this sense, placemaking is about building meaning.

If we accept this way of thinking, then it is easy to see that every place has its own story. The people there are there for some reason, and they are doing what they are doing there because that place matters to them in some way. How they do what they do, and what they create in these places creates more stories, rumours, legend. They become the histories we all create, the stories you access when you are ‘in the know’.

If places are about people in a location doing things, then making places is about making stories that people believe in. Unless you see yourself in a particular location doing something that matters to you, you probably won’t go there. It doesn’t speak to you. You go somewhere else. This is the key thing about place making; it is not about buildings and spaces. It is about the things people do that require buildings and spaces. It is about how people lead their lives. Once we have that clear, the next level of placemaking is about how we build the buildings and spaces, the quality of those ‘interventions’. How we build anew, and manage what we already have, says a lot about what we value, what we think is important. It also says a lot about what we don’t think is important. Buildings are nothing except physical expressions of values. Values are about cultures. Cultures are about people. If places are about people, they are about cultures. You have to start there.

Understanding any culture requires two things. The first is the humility to listen. People are the experts in their own lives. Children are experts on childhood, neighbours on neighbourhoods, teachers on teaching and so on. Listening to what matters to peoples lives is the key to understanding what people value, what they desire. Listening is an essential part of good conversations. Conversations carry stories. Stories pass from person to person when there is listening, when there is interest. The second ingredient is local data, information which explain the pattern of where and how people do what they do. Bring both things together and you have a good foundation for any action designed to make an impact on peoples lives.

If places are about people, and impacts, then there are four elements that we need to think about to make places that people want to be in:

The first is the story: how do people live their lives here, and what attracts people here? A simple question, often not asked, and if asked, unfortunately, the answers not adequately listened to.

The second relates to services. If we are clear on the story of the lives people want to live, then what are the best services that can support people in achieving this? This not just a question of the services of the state. It is about the civic and community interactions we create to support ourselves, the quality of business services, the freedoms and responsibilities we create to make life easy or hard to live.

The third is about assets. If we know what lives people want to live, and we are clear on the services needed to support them, then the next question is what spaces do we need to contain these services, hopes and dreams? Can we share spaces, connect with other, or do we need new buildings? How do people use these spaces, what works best for this place?

Finally, we need to look at how all these things connect. How do buildings, streets and spaces, activities, lives and stories all connect up to give as many people the best chance to connect with the most opportunities in the easiest way most of the time? This is about the public realm, the common weal, our responsibility to each other.

The order of things is important. Lives first. Build the story up, bit by bit, then connect everything together. Show impact at each stage of the journey. Be accountable.

There is a famous book on design in countries that have been hit by natural and man-made disasters. In these places, there is often a significant amount of volunteer effort, philanthropy, and assistance, sometimes misguided. The book is called Design like you give a damn. Its starting point is that the purpose of everyone involved in rebuilding these places is to give the people in these places the best chance to live their lives, their way. The book urges people to get that purpose straight. The purpose is not to preach, cajole, ridicule, insist, inhibit or get in the way of people. The purpose is to create the conditions for lives to flourish. If this can be achieved, then the collective actions of everybody involved results in a good place to be.

Maybe then, placemaking is about caring enough about the public space, of how we live and who we are to give a damn about how all the parts to support people’s lives come together.

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