Euan McColm: open Edinburgh’s private gardens to the public

Queen Street Gardens. Picture: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL
Queen Street Gardens. Picture: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL
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Capital has plenty of open space in the city centre, but all too often it’s only for those who can afford it, writes Euan McColm.

In common with most Glaswegians, I have the deeply irritating habit of believing the city of my birth is somehow more special than other places. 
Sometimes, it’s the people: they’re so much warmer and friendlier than folk from elsewhere, I’ll say, even though I haven’t the slightest bit of evidence to prove this assertion (what’s more, I’ve met people from Birmingham and they seemed much lovelier than my old neighbours in Shawlands who used to leave nappy bags in the close).

If I’m not making lazy, unprovable claims about the people of Glasgow, I can be heard boasting of the city’s remarkable architecture. Here, I am on stronger ground. From the glorious Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in the west to the carefully restored Winter Gardens on Glasgow Green, the city is home to some of the most beautiful buildings anywhere in the UK.

Today, it is my intention to become cloyingly sentimental about Glasgow’s parks. Please fake an expression of agreement and nod along as I explain that nowhere can match the Dear Green Place for public spaces. With more than 90 parks and public gardens within the city limits, Glasgow has an abundance of outdoor space in which taps may be removed and cheap plonk illegally guzzled.

It occurred to me, last week, just how blessed Scotland’s largest city is in this regard as I sat in a beautifully tended park in my adopted home of Edinburgh.

A friend and I relaxed in the blazing sunshine while our assorted kids ran themselves ragged. The city’s busy streets could have been a thousand miles away as we luxuriated in an oasis of calm.

Even though we were in the park in the middle of a scorching Saturday afternoon, all – apart from the occasional yelp from our children – was quiet. If we were in Glasgow, I thought, the air would be filled with noise. Teenage goths would be drinking cider under cover of trees, middle-aged men would be stripped to the waist, defiantly displaying acres of tender pink flesh.

But, since this was Edinburgh and we were in a New Town park, there was none of that because – presumably – neither the teenage goths nor the sunburned men had a key to get in. Thanks to an annual payment of 150 quid or so, my chum did have the means to unlock the gate that we might enjoy the great outdoors within strolling distance of home.

The private gardens that run the length of Queen Street are among the most picturesque places in the capital. Yet, stroll past any of them on a sunny day and hardly anyone seems to be using them.

An agreement struck in the late 19th century means that acre after acre of space in the centre of Edinburgh is for the exclusive use of those who can afford to live in the neighbouring streets where houses can easily cost more than £2million. This might have seemed entirely reasonable more than 100 years ago, but it seems quite wrong now.

Those who hold keys to these exclusive gardens will tell you that the annual subscriptions they pay ensure that the spaces are maintained. Past suggestions that these areas should be opened to the wider public have been met with fierce opposition from those who can afford entry.

But how sad it is to see a safe, open space in a busy city centre and for it not to be over-run by kids.

Yes, there’s Inverleith Park or the Meadows if you are not fortunate enough to hold a key to one of the exclusive oases in the New Town but the existence of other public parks doesn’t make the existence of these private ones any less wrong.

I hardly need to list the benefits, both physical and emotional, of getting outside and getting one’s blood pumping. If we want to raise happy, healthy kids, a good start is ensuring that every day they have the chance to (safely) run wild.

There’s precious little running wild in the private gardens of Edinburgh, where one is more likely to come across an ageing professor walking his dog than to hear the sound of children having fun.

There’s a lot of discussion at Holyrood about land reform, about how ordinary people might get the fairest possible deal. Surely the private parks that border the New Town are just the sort of thing politicians should be thinking about.

As Scottish children race into the first full week of the school holidays, how can we comfortably agree that some parks should be available only for the use of those who are fortunate enough to have parents wealthy enough to be able to pay for entrance?

One hardly needs to be a radical Marxist to believe there’s something wrong with that.

Were these parks to be taken over by the City Council, there would be plenty of opportunities to create revenue streams that would cover maintenance costs. During the Festival and Fringe, for example, these gardens could house pop-up venues, restaurants and bars. They could become bustling hubs of cultural activity, instead of lying empty.

We talk a lot about inequality, don’t we? We are, as a society, more alive to the problems it causes than ever before.

This being so, how can we continue to allow only the wealthy to use these wonderful parks?