A RADICAL overhaul of Edinburgh city centre is set to be given the green light - after international design experts delivered a damning "health check" on the heart of Scotland's capital.
Council leaders in Edinburgh have vowed to press ahead with a blueprint for change which is set to see buses diverted off Princes Street, parking spaces reduced in George Street, more space given to pedestrians, and special events held in normally traffic-clogged thoroughfares.
Shopping hours would be extended, new pavement cafe areas encouraged, festival performance areas created, lighting features installed and works of art commissioned to bring new life to Princes Street, George Street and Rose Street.
Railings would be removed from Princes Street to help improve access, while Charlotte Square Garden would be opened to the public outwith the Book Festival.
A four-year timetable has been mapped out by the council two months after acclaimed Danish practice Gehl Architects completed an audit of the "underperforming and disappointing" city centre for the local authority.
Council leader Jenny Dawe said there was a "consensus" within the council that parts of the city centre were letting Edinburgh down. She insisted she was "determined" that Gehl's action plan was implemented as soon as possible.
Planning experts believe many of the changes are "long overdue", while heritage chiefs in the capital insisted most of the proposals were realistic and feasible if there is a "political will" behind them.
Gehl - which has helped create pedestrian-friendly areas in Copenhagen, Beijing, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Cape Town, Stockholm and Oslo - was called in last year to help revive the fortunes of the city centre, which has struggled to compete with out-of-town shopping centres and has suffered major disruption from work on the city's troubled tram project,
Gehl's experts have warned the council that Edinburgh has become the fifth most congested city centre in Europe.
Princes Street was branded "monofunctional", due to the lack of cafes and restaurants and amount of unused space above shops, while George Street was described as "a big car park".
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Among the "quick-fix" projects the council has agreed to back over the next few months are resequencing traffic lights to give pedestrians more priority, start removing all "clutter" from major thoroughfares, introduce new continental-style kiosks in Castle Street, and extend pavement space on the north side of George Street to encourage more al fresco cafe areas.
Key projects which the council hopes to deliver within the next two years include creating a pedestrian-friendly zone in George Street, holding special events in Rose Street, and closing off Princes Street on a trial basis during festival times.
Within the next four years, bus services face being relocated away from Princes Street and George Street. It is hoped parts of the West End, the Mound and the East End will be given over to pedestrians permanently, and a new network of city centre cycle routes is expected to be in place.
Councillor Dawe said: "Edinburgh is a world-class city and a magnet for visitors but, equally, there is a consensus that the quality of public space in some parts lets us down.
"I am determined that this action plan be implemented. The starting point is the delivery of temporary short-term projects, which can be done quickly and cheaply to bring much-needed changes to the city centre.
"Gehl's findings reinforce the clear correlation between good public places and good economic performance, as already demonstrated by the success of the redevelopments of St Andrew Square and the Grassmarket."
Gordon Mackenzie, transport and environment leader at the city council, added: "I think everything is possible in the longer term and we are definitely up for pressing ahead with these ideas.
"You only have to look at what has been achieved in the somewhere like New York to see what could be done here."
Mark Robertson, a director at the planning agency Ryden, said: "These proposals are certainly do-able and many of them are actually long overdue. Some of them were being discussed as far back as the 1980s and are the kind of thing Glasgow has managed to achieve on Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall Street."Adam Wilkinson, director of the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, said: "I think these proposals are as feasible and realistic as people want them to be."
However, former council leader Donald Anderson, now a PR consultant, said: "The big issue is that around 98 per cent of Edinburgh's buses use Princes Street. Any changes to traffic management have to be thought about very carefully as they could do a lot of damage to businesses."