US magazine’s damning criticism of Edinburgh

Professor Richard Williams' report hit out at what he perceived were a string of failures in the Capital, including Princes Street and the tram project. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Professor Richard Williams' report hit out at what he perceived were a string of failures in the Capital, including Princes Street and the tram project. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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AN academic who caused outrage by slamming Edinburgh in an article for one of the world’s most respected intellectual publications has defended his analysis of the city.

Professor Richard Williams branded the Capital “a once great city now in abject decline” and referred to it as a “dystopian wasteland” in a piece for the US-based Foreign Policy magazine, and said it was indicative of a nation uncertain about its 

The tramworks make life difficult. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The tramworks make life difficult. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The article drew criticism from bodies including the city’s chamber of commerce, the city council and tourism body VisitScotland, while Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh called it “crap”.

But the Edinburgh University expert on urban regeneration, who had lived in the city for 13 years and says he has family members buried in St Cuthbert’s Church graveyard, today defended the 1500-word essay which he said he had penned because he cared passionately for the 

Professor Williams said: “The piece was about Edinburgh’s regeneration - things like the statutory notices scandal and the trams. These large-scale failures have been a real concern to me.

“We should be able to say we completed a 30-mile tram network or some major piece of infrastructure. In the time we’ve been messing about with trams Manchester has made a substantial extension to its network, and it was delivered under-budget.

“It’s important to speak frankly about the city we live in. Edinburgh very rarely comes in for criticism. On a public level everyone says it’s beautiful and isn’t it great. But it can be lazy and complacent because it is beautiful. We need to say it can do 

Professor Williams also insisted it was the American magazine and not himself had sought to link the article with the Scottish independence debate and revealed that he may yet vote yes in the 2014 referendum.

He added: “In terms of the reaction a lot have jumped on the connection it appeared to make between the independence referendum and the city, but I would de-emphasise that. To say Scotland isn’t ready for independence because the city looks a mess is not quite 

“I’m not some rabid pro-unionist, I’m concerned fundamentally about the condition of the city. Independence may happen or it may not. But Edinburgh does look like a place that doesn’t know where it’s going.

“I would say that the confidence and rhetoric around possible independence is not represented on the ground in the Capital city. If we had a 30-mile tram network, a waterfront brimming with life and no potholes people would be more positive about the 

Despite Professor Williams’ insistence that he did not set out to offend with his piece, the article has provoked an outcry from some.

In the magazine, which was ranked number one most influential read by U.S leaders in 2009, he argued progress is hamstrung through fear of the heritage lobby and middle-class opinion which he deemed as “a Nimby’s charter”.

“Edinburgh struggles with the past as much as it struggles with the future,” he wrote. “The result is a curious paralysis and a paradoxical sense of decline. That’s fine for aesthetes in search of photogenic ruins, less so for the majority population who regard the city as a living entity, not a museum.”

Irvine Welsh, who also wrote A Visitor’s Guide to Edinburgh in 1993, said the report was “the strangest I have ever read.”

He added: “Surely the state of Edinburgh as a tatty, run-down museum, economically and culturally stagnant, devoid of the vision and focus a true capital city needs, is precisely why it needs to be a de facto capital, not languishing in its weary, second-rate, neither-fish-nor-fowl status.

“It’s a bit like not allowing Andy Murray to hold a tennis racket, then saying he’s probably not good enough to compete at Wimbledon. Do they actually pay people to write this crap?”

A spokesperson for Yes Scotland said while independence would benefit Edinburgh, the city was already recognised as one of the world’s greatest capital cities.

City leader Councillor Andrew Burns said Professor Williams’ assertions were “ill-informed” and did Edinburgh a “great disservice”.

He said: “They are contradicted by the city’s continued popularity as a visitor destination and the many international awards cementing this reputation. Recently named Europe’s leading destination at the World Travel Awards, Edinburgh is famed for its history and culture, but is also known as a thriving, modern city.”

But the article did receive backing from some.

Award-winning architect Malcolm Fraser said the Edinburgh’s cosmetics and infrastructure was being “let down” through a mixture of “timidity and politics”.

“We need to stop being so ‘feart’,” he said. “This article certainly reflects a concern that we are not looking good internationally in terms of where we are taking the city compared to where it’s come from.

“There are great architects here that struggle to get any work. They don’t feel there is a culture within which their talent and commitment to the city can flourish.”

Sticking the boot in

PRINCES STREET: Dubbed “Edinburgh’s Fifth Avenue” by Professor Williams, inset, he said it “would be hard to find a more spectacular place to shop”. But he noted that nearly 30 per cent of the units are vacant and that many occupied units are short-term lets selling “tourist knickknacks”.

EDINBURGH WATERFRONT: Reaches the “peak of its despair” at Granton Harbour where “a handful of shoddy buildings emerge from a giant mud pool”. He added: “Wrecked bicycles and shopping carts litter the scene. So poor are these buildings, they’re already – after five years – falling down.”

STOCKBRIDGE: He described walking through the “upscale neighbourhood” with an American urban sociologist who thought it “seemed poor”, given the thrift shops and shabby street frontage.

STATUTORY NOTICES: “The system was rightly feared by residents, who had no control over costs once the council was involved. Those costs could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars . . . The statutory notice system that resulted was a licence to abuse, however. The council could, and did, impose repairs where none were needed.”

FRINGE FESTIVAL: Edinburgh University’s new infomatics facility and refurbished library form one of the main backdrops to the Fringe, he said, and “for a brief period they help give the impression of a city at ease with its future”. He added: “But for the other 11 months, Edinburgh’s urban stagnation is real.”

The not-so-special relationship?

PROFESSOR Williams’ contentious article in the US comes just months after First Minister Alex Salmond challenged the Washington Post claims that an independent Scotland would make the world a more dangerous place.

The row saw Mr Salmond write to the respected newspaper after branding its story “disappointing” and “full of mistakes”.

The article was used by opponents of the First Minister to attack the case for independence.

Mr Salmond’s letter was published on the same day in October that a survey claimed Scotland’s relationship with the US had deteriorated. Scotland is now 13th in a league table of countries ranked by Americans, down from eighth in 2010.