Lost Edinburgh: the city centre motorway plan

IN 1949 a radical plan was proposed which would have seen motorways driven through Edinburgh’s historic centre and all existing buildings on Princes Street demolished.

Picture: submitted

For a long period, Edinburgh was the largest and most important city in Britain after London and Dublin. However, while the Industrial Revolution produced explosive growth in manufacturing cities such as Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield and Glasgow, Edinburgh avoided much of this frantic growth; being of less strategic importance during the Second World War, it also escaped major bomb damage. However, post-war, the city was in an increasingly shabby condition and traffic was becoming a problem.

A city in need of change

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Change and improvement were the order of the time. This was reflected in the Civic Survey and Plan for the City & Royal Burgh of Edinburgh. Published on 1 January 1949, the plan was prepared by the eminent planning experts, Patrick Abercrombie and Derek Plumstead, and is generally known as the Abercrombie Plan. Its intention was to formalize the city’s approach to planning and guide future development. The preamble to the plan says: ‘A Plan for Edinburgh must needs be a hazardous undertaking: there can be few cities towards which the inhabitants display a fiercer loyalty or deeper affection. Even its blemishes are venerated. The planner who dares to propose improvements must go warily.’ Despite this claim, the plan was a big book packed with survey information and even bigger ideas for change and in today’s terms would appear less than wary.

Picture: submitted

Abercrombie himself noted that the plan was potentially overbold. The plan included proposals for the complete clearance of Leith, Gorgie and Dalry to create industrial zones; redevelopment of the Canongate; a freight railway under the Meadows; the creation of new communities in areas such as Wester Hailes and the rebuilding of Princes Street, under which a second road would be built as part of a new road and rail system. Further ambitious road proposals included a Bridge Bypass, a dual carriageway sweeping around the eastern part of the city centre with tunnels through the Old Town and under Calton Hill, and Milton Road Bypass with a new road carved through Holyrood Park. The plan did anticipate the need for a City Bypass – the suggested route broadly following the line of the road that opened forty years later.

Princes Street plans

The idea of demolishing existing buildings in Princes Street to restore uniformity was taken up in 1954 by the Princes Street Panel which supported the rebuilding of the street from end to end with first floor balconies that would eventually form a continuous elevated walkway. If completed the project would have been the most controversial and prominent examples of post-war brutalism in the country. However, it was in the following decade that the redevelopment of Princes Street got underway, with the demolition of Victorian buildings such as the Life Association building office and the New Club.

In contrast with the English cities where Abercrombie had previously worked, Edinburgh had suffered very little war damage. This was a critical difference when it came to the public’s response to his proposals, and they were widely criticized. They were described by one correspondent to this newspaper as a ‘sacrilegious outrage’, and most were ultimately abandoned. Despite many ambitious plans, Edinburgh escaped the kind of projects that affected other cities: no motorways have ravaged the city centre and a wealth of historic buildings survived. This was due, in some degree, to the innate conservative nature of the city, articulate pressure groups, the outstanding heritage value of the city centre and the topography that made many of the road proposals unworkable.

Slum clearances

Abercrombie identified that almost 25,000 people, half the population of Edinburgh at the time, were living in outmoded property containing inadequate sanitary facilities. Abercrombie recognized that overcrowding and bad housing conditions presented the most urgent problem, and recommended that new housing developments should be carried out to relieve these conditions.

The Abercrombie Plan had also proposed the demolition of slum housing in the St James Square area to create a new theatre and concert hall. The square dated from the late 1700s and had been designed by James Craig, the originator of the plan for the first New Town. The plans for the theatre and concert hall were later abandoned and the Leith Street frontage of St James Square, with its distinctive first level terrace, survived the 1950s. However, the square, along with neighbouring streets, would eventually perish during the comprehensive redevelopment of the late 1960s.

Relatively little of the Edinburgh Abercrombie Plan was actually carried out, but visitors to modern-day Princes Street can still easily identify its hallmarks. The infamous upper level walkway which was to stretch the length of the street is evident in a handful of the thoroughfare’s post-war shop fronts.

• The above passage is an excerpt from Edinburgh in the 1950s: Ten Years that Changed a City by Jack Gillon, David McLean & Fraser Parkinson which is out in shops now.