Brian Ferguson: Radical thinking required for Royal Mile

Radical thinking needed to reinvigorate Royal Mile.
Radical thinking needed to reinvigorate Royal Mile.
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More than five years have passed since Edinburgh admitted it had a problem with its most historic thoroughfare. A summit on the future of the Royal Mile called by the city council at The Hub heard a depressing litany of complaints.

Officials and councillors admitted key stretches had become too overcrowded, that its roads and pavements were in a declining condition, tartan tat shops were too dominant, and that certain areas were unsafe and unwelcoming.

The Royal Mile and its surrounding streets have becoming noticeably more thronged with visitors since then, clear evidence of Edinburgh’s growing popularity as a city break destination.

However it is hard to identify much that has really improved, other than the arrival of a handful of new independent shops, cafes and bars, most notably in Market Street.

It has been obvious for the last few years that something has to change in the heart of the Old Town to avoid a dramatic decline in the experience of visitors, particularly at the height of summer.

The warnings are spelled out loud and clear in the latest tourism strategy for the city, published a year ago, which admitted there had been a “failure” to address the increasing density of visitors in core areas during peak periods.

It also stressed that growing competition from overseas meant there was an urgent need to tackle long-standing issues over the cleanliness and quality of the environment in the Old Town.

This all provides the backdrop to a new vision for the Royal Mile and the Old Town which envisages it becoming a truly “world-class five-star destination” in the next few years, while protecting its World Heritage Site status.

Perhaps crucially, it is not being led by the city council, although the authority is well represented on a taskforce behind the series of plans aimed at tackling all of the above – and more.

Some ideas for the Old Town Business Improvement District – such as a dedicated marketing campaign for the area and extra street cleaning teams – are long overdue. Others, like a land train running up and down the Royal Mile, have a novelty value about them.

But more interest may lie in what emerges from an ambition to spread the benefits of the tourism industry more evenly across the Old Town. The Samhuiin Fire Festival and the Hogmanay ceilidhs have shown the potential for staging events against historic backdrops.

With the Grassmarket under-used for events, the many little-known courtyards and closes around the Old Town could also be deployed for much more than the occasional walking tour.

While the pedestrianisation of the High Street has been an undoubted success, it has been in place for a decade now. It remains something of a mystery why the concept has not yet been extended elsewhere in the Old Town in the face of such a growth in the tourism industry.

In fact, it should perhaps should go further and consider traffic-free experiments in the Cowgate – where traffic is already banned after 10pm – Cockburn Street and Victoria Street.

Edinburgh has trailed ideas in the New Town during its summer and winter festivals with varying degrees of success. But there is certainly no desire to allow vehicles to dominate to the extent they used to.

Truly radical thinking for the Royal Mile could provide the impetus to regenerate the more run-down and neglected parts of the Old Town, while attracting new events, festival activity and interventions from artists.