Another August – another record-breaking Festival summer for Edinburgh. Yet again, in 2016 we saw just how valuable the festivals are to our city – with the emergence of the startling statistic that in selling 2.5 million tickets alone for our summer Fringe festival in Edinburgh and 4.5m across the festival year, we match the multi-billion efforts of the FIFA World Cup.
And the 12 festivals – including Hogmanay and Edinburgh’s Christmas – create £280 million of economic impact every year.
Essential Edinburgh is a leading advocate for the vital role of the city centre at the heart of the festivals – vital for the businesses for which the festivals represent a hugely important time of year, and vital for the festivals who can bring their activity right into the heart of the Capital. This is why it was such welcome news this week that Edinburgh’s Christmas activity will also be spread widely throughout the city centre with The Street of Light in George Street and The Speigeltent in Festival Square.
It is important that footfall is channelled throughout the city through a spread of events and shows. August and its festivals is different from every other month and, along with Christmas and New Year, is one of the most important trading periods for the shops, bars, restaurants and hotels that are so important to the economy and employment of our city and its people.
So when you have the biggest arts festivals in the world, it would be wrong to take all of that footfall and potential away from the city centre if you want to maintain a healthy and vibrant civic heart.
That is why we have been staunch supporters and part-organisers of the activity that has run along the length of George Street and the Squares on either end – and why we believe that the huge successes to date need to be built upon, with lessons learned each year acted upon for the next.
The successes? Bumper numbers in St Andrew Square at the Spiegeltent and festival hub there, and also at the Book Festival in Charlotte Square clearly shows that locals and visitors alike enjoy having a significant part of the festivals in the centre of town.
And, running along George Street, we saw the activation of activity on three of the street’s four blocks through the creative and flexible use of space. This festival, Essential Edinburgh managed the westerly block of George Street, allowing bars and restaurants to utilise additional space to service the greater numbers of people out relaxing and socialising, while at the same time offering a mix of free and paid-for extra entertainment and activity. It worked well, in a format that also allowed pedestrians and cyclists to continue to move around the street easily.
However, we have to accept that a more consistent approach to the offering might deliver better results, especially for issues like general tidiness, and make sure that movement through the street is unimpaired. There are lessons there for us to learn, and it is important for all of the businesses along the street that these lessons are learned.
The City of Edinburgh Council has recently undertaken consultation for a public spaces protocol, and in addition has just finished some work on the future use of Castle Street. Both of these important pieces of work will help shape how we can and should use our important public spaces in the city centre to support a wide range of uses, and public events.
Flexibility has to be the key consideration. Space in the city centre is a scarce and valuable resource.
August is undoubtedly one of the times of year when we have to be creative about how we use the city centre to the benefit of our residents, visitors and businesses. This is a complex issue and is evolving year on year and it’s important we learn the lessons from this year and improve provision for next year.
In summary, Essential Edinburgh is committed to supporting city centre businesses to make the most of the huge opportunities the festivals present by bringing our spaces to life in an attractive, consistent way and via a mix of free and ticketed entertainment. In doing that we need to be considerate to the needs of all of those who work in the city centre and travel through it. And most of all, we need to ensure we build flexibility into our spaces to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future.
Roddy Smith, Chief executive, Essential Edinburgh, www.essentialedinburgh.co.uk/