An ambitious vision for George Street, the centrepiece of the New Town, will see pedestrians and cyclists given much greater priority.
Parts of the street are expected to be regularly closed off for events to ease pressure on St Andrew Square, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors during the summer and winter festivals. Just one lane of traffic will be allowed on either side of the thoroughfare.
Roddy Smith, chief executive of the Essential Edinburgh business group, has been involved in revamp talks. He said the changes are intended to boost the image of the street and attract visitors in the face of a multi-million pound regeneration of the city’s east end over the next four years.
New events are planned outwith the peak tourism periods, with sites on Castle Street and the west end of George Street, which was tested during last year’s Fringe, already earmarked. It is hoped the plans – drawn up by consultants Ironside Farrar after a year-long pedestrianisation trial – will be put into place over the same timescale to ensure George Street and nearby streets do not slip into decline.
Work on an overhaul of the St James shopping centre, which will create 850,000sq ft of retail space, 85 shops, 30 cafes, bars and restaurants, and a five-star hotel, is expected to begin within months. Two other developments are planned for sites around St Andrew Square.
Smith, who revealed some of the plans at the annual Edinburgh Tourism Action Group Summit, said: “The St James project is one of the biggest retail developments in the UK and it is going to be phenomenal. There is also The Registers development on and around West Register Street, as well as the big Standard Life Investments development on St Andrew Square, which should be finished this year.
“If you fast forward a few years there will be a real hub and focus of activity in the east end of the city centre. It is going to be really vibrant once you have a world-class shopping destination, as well as a lot of top-end restaurants.
“For us, the challenge is going to be how we draw people through to the west end. The footfall figures are already falling off once you go beyond halfway down George Street and Princes Street. We don’t yet know who is going to migrate into the new St James development from George Street and Princes Street.”
Smith wants to see a more continental atmosphere, ensuring George Street stays attractive as an eating and drinking destination, accommodating events and ensuring people can park outside shops.
Examples of the “shared use” vision include ensuring there are enough parking spaces on either side of the street and retaining access for buses, while creating a cycling lane. Pavements on either side of George Street would be extended to create more room for shoppers and pavement cafes.
However, controversial glass-covered pavilions, which were installed on the street during a 12-month trial, will be banned in favour of temporary “jumbrellas,” which will be removed during colder weather.
Smith said: “We’re fully supportive of the work Ironside Farrar have done, their initial plans are excellent and the reaction from the businesses has been very positive so far. They are essentially looking at having the pavements further out into the street, where there would be one lane of traffic going in each direction. The idea is that if the streets are wider, people will hang about for longer.
“What came out of the trial was that people really liked having a cafe culture on George Street when it was appropriate. The fact that people could eat and drink on the street went down well, but in our climate you can only really do that in the summer.
“The good thing with these jumbrellas is that you can bring them out in 20 minutes when the weather allows it.
“George Street was full of banks and offices 20 years ago – who would have thought it would now be full of high-end retail, bars and restaurants? It has evolved massively and it is probably time to evolve again.”
As well as helping to stage summer and winter festival shows, Essential Edinburgh has also staged fashion, food and drink and film events, as well as installations like the current “Stick Men” light sculptures in St Andrew Square.
Mr Smith added: “The important thing for us is that George Street operates well for 12 months of the year. It’s not just about the tourist high-spots.
“Up until a few years ago there was almost no festival activity at all in the New Town, apart from at the the Assembly Rooms during the Fringe.
“One of the key things for us is to run events in the shoulder months. We have to try to run more events and activities in the west end to spread the load wider.
“One of our key remits is to run, control and manage St Andrew Square, which can be challenging at times. It is an iconic space, but we have to look after it. The marriage between doing events and having it as a green oasis is not easy, especially with the Scottish climate.
“One of the key things in future will be the flexibility of the space on George Street. There are lots of potential events that we could run there if it was easier to manage. You will easily be able to shut down one, two or three blocks of the street for events.”
Edinburgh City Council’s transport leader Lesley Hinds, said: “Our intention for George Street has always been to strike a balance for all users of the street, improving the pedestrian environment and enhancing cycling facilities while maintaining provision for cars. By holding a year-long trial we found that the street is a very seasonal space, used differently throughout the year.
“We were also able to gauge what works and what doesn’t for local people, visitors and businesses, and this information has been taken forward by Ironside Farrar, who are working on a long-term vision for the street.
“I look forward to seeing their initial design principles this year, which build on the trial and feedback from public engagement, focusing on the shared use of the road but also the seasonality of the street and how we can best manage it flexibly to reflect its different requirements throughout the year.”