David Sim: Princes Street a failure on every level

Everybody has an opinion about Princes Street, and there are many different views on what's wrong.

Whether it's tartan tat stores with blaring music, forlorn-looking empty shop units, puddles the size of some people's gardens, the broken paving stones, undisguised scaffolding, vulgar billboards, the road engineers' graffiti, or just the amount of traffic.

These are all symptoms of a place that's under-perfoming. Despite what is probably the best urban setting of any main street in the world, everyone seems to agree that the experience of walking along Princes Street is not what it should be.

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Gehl Architects of Copenhagen, perhaps the world's leading experts in urban quality, were commissioned by the council to analyse the city centre and give recommendations to make it a better place. Gehl Architects work all over the world and clients include local authorities and private developers in cities such as London, New York, Melbourne, Rio and Beijing.

• Is Princes Street just "a big bus station", as a firm of leading architects suggests? vote here

For the last 40 years, the Danish architect Jan Gehl has been studying cities to find out what makes them work - or not. His approach is scientific. It is not about any particular architectural style or taste. It's an analysis of how the place physically works, what it actually looks like, who is there and what people are doing. The questions are often quite simple: How easy it is to cross the street? Is there anywhere to sit down? What is the condition of paving?

Jan Gehl has used this approach to follow the huge improvements in Copenhagen - a city on the same latitude as Edinburgh and with a much worse climate. The Danes have a similar cultural heritage to the Scots, not being Latinos with natural dispositions to promenade or drink coffee outdoors. Yet the Danish capital boasts a thriving city centre, hoaching with year-round, outdoor public life, successful shopping streets and plenty of family-friendly eating and drinking. Every year more people walk, cycle and spend more time in the city.

Sadly the opposite is true of the Scottish capital. Princes Street has fewer people on it than it did 12 years ago.

In basic terms, what we have concluded from this year's study is that Princes Street is a big bus station and George Street is a big car park. This is not to say that buses and cars do not belong in the city, but they should not dominate or have such a detrimental effect.

When we look at a place, we apply our 12-point quality criteria, which cover things like traffic safety, shelter from the worst of the weather, comfort for walking, standing, sitting, talking and playing, and enjoying the best of the weather, and good quality design.

Sadly, Princes Street fails on nearly every single aspect and without going into each one in detail, we can see three main problems: the dominance of the buses, the poor pedestrian conditions and the monofunctional character of the street.

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Don't get me wrong about buses in the city - personally I am a big fan of Lothian Buses. It provide a great service, and clearly public transport is vital to a sustainable city. However, the vehicles are big and noisy. There are 400 bus movements an hour. This means the view and the sunshine are almost permanently blocked and crossing the street is very difficult. The buses cause unpleasant vibrations, as well as fumes way above Scottish Government targets and noise levels which would require ear protection if we were to consider Princes Street a workplace under EU regulations.

There are conflicts between shoppers, bus passengers and tourists as they fight for the use of the same space, to say nothing of the totally unacceptable access conditions for the disabled. Just look at the south pavement, where there are bus shelters, there simply isn't space for wheelchairs and prams to pass.

The poor pedestrian conditions include the patchwork of paving, which apart from looking terrible, provides totally unacceptable surfaces underfoot and frequent large puddles in rainy weather. There are many long shop fronts, with poor quality, plastic signage and ugly security shutters (the kind of thing you would expect on an industrial estate) and there is much undisguised and unprotected scaffolding. There is no protection from the rain. (If you look at old black and white photographs of Princes Street, you'll see almost every shop has a canopy or awning.) All of this makes walking unpleasant and if you consider this physical reality of Princes Street, it's not hard to understand why more families opt to do their shopping in places like the Gyle.

Princes Street is monofunctional - there are no cafes and restaurants, despite the amazing location. The upper floors of many buildings are empty or under-used. There could be flats or hotels here - do shoe boxes really appreciate the view?

Princes Street is dead after the shops shut, which - apart from feeling a bit unsafe - seems like such a waste. This place could be wonderful at night. Even the traffic is monofunctional - vehicular traffic dominates, rather than pedestrians and bikes.

Edinburgh is a great city for walking, but how many places would you be happy to have your eight-year-old child or your 80-year-old granny crossing the street on their own?

Princes Street does not mirror Scotland's demographics - there are few children and even fewer elderly people there.

What we propose is a cultural change in how we use Princes Street - improving the quality for pedestrian visitors. Starting with longer opening hours, better lighting and a wider range of uses - particularly more cafes and restaurants, then tidying up the clutter of railings, broken paving and technical installations.

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There should be temporary closures for special days - say at weekends during the Festival - but only on the condition that there is a programme of events and activities to fill the space.

There could be small, new interventions like a flower kiosk to bring a bit of life to Castle Street, with a condition it opens from seven in the morning to ten at night. South St David's Street (next to Jenners) could be closed off during the Festival and used as an events space. Imagine performances with the Scott Monument in the background . . .

In the longer term, Edinburgh has to reconsider how its public transport works, so rather than redistributing the same old buses and routes between George Street and Queen Street, maybe there could be single-decker, near-silent hybrid vehicles as well as new routings meaning not every bus having to go through the city centre.

New uses need to be introduced to make Princes Street live round the clock - hotels and dwellings, cafes and restaurants.

Princes Street is the nation's High Street - it should be a place for everyone, young and old, visitors and citizens alike, a place not just to pass through but to stay and spend time in.


The 12-point Gehl test for a good city centre space which Princes Street fails on almost every point.

PROTECTION: Avoiding and feeling protected from (1) traffic (2) crime and violence (3) the elements, pollution and noise.

COMFORT: Opportunities to (4) walk unhindered (5) stand and linger (6) sit (7) see where you are going and enjoy the views (8) talk and listen (9) play and exercise.

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DELIGHT: (10) Are buildings and spaces designed to human scale? (11) Chances to enjoy the sun, shade and cooling breezes (12) Opportunities to appreciate the views, plants, water features and other good surroundings.