Fast forward to a fantastic future - Roddy Smith

When we witnessed the wrecking balls, diggers and giant claws attack the out-of-date St James Centre five years ago, little could we know that when it reopened in 2021 it would be at such a time of change. Much was predictable as retail and leisure trends change, but no one had a global pandemic on their radar, or the seismic shock this sent through city centres across the world.
The first phase of the new St James Quarter.The first phase of the new St James Quarter.
The first phase of the new St James Quarter.

Now that the magnificent St James Quarter has opened its doors, we can see for ourselves how it will add to the evolution of our wider city centre. The fast forward button has been pressed, more so than any revolutionary town planner or visionary developer could have imagined. At a time when most city centres retail offering is reducing, Edinburgh’s will emerge larger and more diverse than before. Of course we’ve lost some notable and iconic Edinburgh names, but the St James Quarter has attracted many new brands to the city. As a retail destination our standing will increase, hopefully to be followed by more residents and visitors frequenting our city centre and enjoying everything, and everywhere, it has to offer.

The loss of retail from some prominent city centre buildings affords opportunity for further change, such as The Johnnie Walker Experience and new mixed-use developments at Debenhams, BHS and Jenners. Yes, this has and will change the fabric of our city and disappoint people who loved these old stores and names, but it’s vital for the city to manage this opportunity. A walk along Princes Street this week, especially the western half, shows the challenge at hand with empty units plain to see. We must support our smaller or independent businesses to survive and grow, and this means addressing footfall numbers and wider issues like our public realm on Rose Street and business rates.

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We have one of the greatest, most attractive city centres in the world, but to thrive in the future it must adapt. I firmly believe we have the collective will of property owners, Council and developers to make this happen. This is borne out by many recent announcements and examples as to how to bring historic buildings or empty units back to life and provide new uses for these buildings as we prepare for the next phase of Edinburgh’s city centre history.

Roddy Smith, CEO Essential EdinburghRoddy Smith, CEO Essential Edinburgh
Roddy Smith, CEO Essential Edinburgh

The St James Quarter is a game changer, but we cannot be complacent and think Edinburgh’s recovery will just happen. To continue to thrive we need to welcome investment, imaginative and innovative partnerships, to support our economic growth. The rise of online shopping, the changing work patterns for office-based businesses, changes to how we all want to spend our leisure time and the need for a more ‘experiential’ time when visiting our city centres are all real factors– we need to embrace these changes. Our cultural offering, diverse range of businesses, retail and hospitality provision, Festivals, events and heritage all add to our attractiveness and our whole city centre is there to support this.

We need proactivity now to encourage residents and local visitors back, and that means shouting out loud about what our city has to offer to people across Edinburgh, Scotland, and the UK. When people can travel, we want them to be offered Edinburgh as the fantastic destination, it is in its own right, as well as being the gateway to the rest of the country.

This needs the collective support of local and national government, the cultural and business community, resident groups and every single person or group who has an interest in the city’s economic recovery.

Roddy Smith, CEO Essential Edinburgh



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