EDINBURGH – and especially its centre – is a compact, civilised three-dimensional dynamo of a city, a peerless urban forum whose history of social and intellectual interaction is manifest in an urban environment that is, in itself, an extraordinary drama.
I love it, from the heights of its crags and monuments, down through its parks and public spaces and into its dark closes and warm bars.
Its heart exemplifies what we might call the "City of Wellbeing": walkable, liveable, a mix of bustle, calm and chance meetings, a place where we can live happy, creative and economically effective lives with less of the social dislocation, car miles and concreting of the countryside that suburbs and new towns offer us. We develop most sustainably when we renew our existing communities, following Patrick Geddes' concept of "Conservative Surgery" by repairing good old buildings and clearing bad ones, and building anew around the social and environmental issues that concern us.
If Edinburgh is an exemplar of the integrative, sustainable city, it is also an environment where discussion of "heritage" and development should be inseparable. This is a working place built for commerce as much as for pomp, and the "wealth" of our city is bound up with how carefully and vigorously we have built in the past. It's a brilliant place to live in, but also to visit as a tourist and to run a business from, precisely because of Edinburgh's history, beauty and liveability.
Given, then, that the renewal of Edinburgh is the essence of "sustainable development", and that Scotland's economy is hugely dependent on the robust health of the city, the current impasse disgraces us. Huge sites and buildings, that developers would love to invest in, lie vacant, sometimes because of the reckless policies of our banks and sometimes because of the madness of government taxation that burdens repair and reuse with VAT, against zero for demolition and newbuild.
But often it is the pyrrhic slug-out between elements of the heritage and development lobbies that brings with it dereliction. The worst of the heritage zealots welcome new proposals with phrases like "… let's look forward to a long and bloody battle", while some of the development lobby seem to think that the built-wealth of Edinburgh has been saved from post-war despoliation, simply to be offered up to them for their efficient consumption.
"Long and bloody" battles soak up the energy that should be going into designing the project, diverting fees away from architects who should be beautifully crafting the buildings, and into the pockets of public-relations companies and lawyers. At the same time the toxic atmosphere encourages people wanting to invest in Edinburgh to follow the path of least resistance, to either produce schemes of timidity and aridity in an attempt to avoid getting anyone cross, or to be as arrogant as they dare, in order to steamroller proposals through the system. Neither benefits the city.
I have been appointed, jointly by Edinburgh University and the Art College's new, combined Architecture Department, as their "Geddes Honorary Professorial Fellow". Trained as a biologist, and a friend of Charles Darwin, Edinburgh's Patrick Geddes is regarded as the father of town planning, and understood that cities had to evolve, not stagnate. He's a hero, and I am proud to receive this honour.
I am keen to use the position to help the city debate the issues around how it should evolve. I discussed my concerns last week with an enthusiastic and engaged audience of 200, in the new University Informatics building on Bristo Square (itself an excellent example of confidence and modernity), and put forward ten Proposals for the City to consider. Here are six of them:
1. The Haymarket Hotel: given that the overwhelming majority of Edinburgh people would welcome an ambitious, contemporary building by a significant local architect like Richard Murphy – but that is not so toweringly-dominant – we need to talk about how to achieve this. I understand that part of the site, for offices, is not developable, given the economic downturn. The solution, then, looks achievable: cancel the offices and push the hotel down and into that part of the site, with a thorough redesign achieving a lower building and a better square.
2. Caltongate and community advocacy: when Mountgrange – my clients and the developer of the Caltongate site – went belly-up, I approached the "Save Our Old Town" community group, that have so lambasted the proposals, to suggest that, with legal and organisational advice from "Local People Leading" and finance from the Nordic Enterprise Trust (a Norwegian Oil Trust, looking to invest in social projects), they could step forward to lead. They told me that they would prefer to stay in their bunker and wait to lambast the next developer. Edinburgh needs communities who will take more responsibility than simply insulting those that wish to invest, and I asked they reconsider their refusal.
3. Leith Wynd: part of our proposal for Caltongate was to recover and rebuild the historic Leith Wynd, that Victorian demolition had wiped out. We have extended this proposal to recover and reopen the bridge link from Jeffrey Street through Waverley Station to Calton Road. It hugely increases connectivity in the city, while providing new, commercial opportunities for the Strategic Rail Authority (the owner of Waverley Station). I hope that the Council will persuade (demand!) that the SRA take this forward.
4. Argyle House: 1960s architecture is as unpopular, today, as Victorian architecture was 40 years ago. I fear that, in 40 years time, we will bemoan the loss of so many good 1960s buildings, just as we do Victorian buildings today. Argyle House, between West Port and Lady Lawson Street, is a good, simple 1960s building, but is slated for demolition. Aside from stylistic arguments, such replacement is inherently un-sustainable – it's very solid, and has hundreds of years left in it if properly looked after. I would like the university's students to look at re-use schemes, for the city.
5. Infrastructure: Trams. A tram system is the best way to extend the compact walkability of the Edinburgh centre, out to its margins. We should welcome the council, and its tram company, being upfront about the additional costs and timescale inherited from predecessors. They should also look urgently at improvements – such as ensuring Princes Street is served by two tram stops and not a just one – that pressure-groups have demanded.
6. Infrastructure: the Third Forth Bridge. Investment in much-needed infrastructure is great; another bridge, with its tsunami of traffic, is not. Drop it, please.
• Malcolm Fraser is the founder of Malcolm Fraser Architects and Geddes Honorary Professorial Fellow of Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture