New plans for ‘bohemian’ Leith endorsed by council

A NEW vision for Edinburgh’s historic port which envisages arts and culture taking centre stage there in future has been endorsed by city councillors.

Students from The Ihayami dance school show their stuff at the 2014 Edinburgh Mela comes on Leith Links. Picture: Toby Williams

The five-year blueprint for Leith and its docklands envisage new arts centres and visitor attractions, artists taking over historic buildings, and run-down shop units being transformed into “pop-up” studios, galleries and performance spaces.

It was approved as it revealed that new research has found that more than 1140 different artists or organisations are now based in the area, which has nine distinct “cultural hubs” used by an average of 7500 people a month.

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A new Leith Creative network is to be launched next month to coincide with the release of the full findings of the “cultural mapping” project, which has identified a shortage of affordable studio and workshop space.

The creative sector has been identified as “the most promising opportunity” for Leith as an “investor location” in the near future, with the latest research expected to be used to help target potential developers in the city’s main marketing campaigns.

The blueprint, which advocates new public art being created around Leith temporary cultural projects being encouraged for gap sites, says there is already a “significant and growing creative industries cluster” in the area, which is believed to be home to 350 different companies drawn from the sector.

Key priorities include finding long-term cultural uses for the Customs House building on the Shore, the former Leith Theatre, off Ferry Road, and a former tram depot, off Leith Walk.

Now new marketing initiatives are to be developed to highlight the area’s attractions while a series of promotional banners from Ocean Terminal to the Shore are planned to try to persuade cruise liner visitors to explore Leith rather than head into the city centre.

The “cultural mapping” project, which has led to the formation of the Leith Creative network, was instigated by the annual Leith Late event and the arts organisation Citizen Curator, which is based in the area.

Morvern Cunningham,producer of Leith Late, said: “We both agreed that although there seems to be an almost universal consensus that Leith is a creative place, there is not a clear idea of what that actually means, and that in order to get a better idea of Leith’s cultural landscape a cultural mapping project was in order.

“We also felt that we were best placed to conduct this research as both our organisations currently operate grassroots art projects.

“There’s been great enthusiasm for what we’re doing from the creative community in Leith. As a result, we’ve grown into an informal network that has the potential to link a variety of different creatives who currently operate in the Leith area.

“We also have aspirations for Leith Creative to become an advocate for creativity in the area.”

Duncan Bremner, executive director of Citizen Creator, added: “Studio space often has to be shared and affordability is becoming a big issue at the moment.

“It’s very difficult for an artist or organisation to start out and take studio space in some of the more established hubs.

“We’ve surveyed around 250 individuals or organisations as part of the project and around 40 per cent of the individuals we spoke to were people who said they worked from home.”

The blueprint endorsed by the council states that Leith has historically had a separate identity but has suffered from “traumatic” events like the impact of long-running tramworks, but it adds that securing a tram link between the city centre and the waterfront would be an “important catalytic enabler” for investment.

It adds: “We will develop our understanding of Leith’s role within the city’s creative sector and use the research to tailor our competitive offer to investors.

“The need for flexible and affordable space for studios, performances, exhibitions and gatherings has been identified as a key priority for the creative sector.

“We will work with developers and occupiers to bring gap sites and unused or underused buildings with the potential to deliver employment or housing back into fully productive use. This will include public sector bodies including the council itself. We will continue to support the animation, greening and temporary use of gap sites and vacant units.”

Lesley Martin, head of economic strategy at the city council, said: “One of the things that make Edinburgh distinctive is having places like Leith. Where else has a port, the maritime history that Leith has, the Royal Yacht Britannia and a very interesting mix of small businesses and undiscovered gems?

“Perceptions of Leith are changing and I firmly believe they will continue to change for the better.

“However so many people have said to us that we have to tell Leith’s story more effectively in more domains. A lot of people just don’t know what is going on there and have no idea that it has a burgeoning creative sector.”

Cllr Frank Ross, the council’s economic development leader, added: “Leith’s physical character is a product of history, its distinctiveness within Edinburgh, its port status, and its heritage. The mixture of old and new, the unusual - even bohemian - and its ‘hidden gems’ provide a powerful set of ingredients for a compelling investment offer.”