How Edinburgh’s festivals are waking up to their responsibilities – Brian Ferguson

Following complaints about over-tourism and impact of events in Princes Street and Charlotte Square gardens, Edinburgh’s festivals are starting to act to address people’s concerns, writes Brian Ferguson.

East Princes Street Gardens in mid-January after the removal of the Christmas Market (Picture: Neil Hanna)

No matter how many images I have seen on social media in recent weeks, it was still an eye-opening recent experience to stroll around Charlotte Square and through Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh to see for myself the aftermath of the major events that they have hosted in recent months. A wander around them to survey their condition from afar was a grim and depressing experience given how waterlogged and caked in mud they have become.

The last time I was in Charlotte Square Garden, on the penultimate day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, it was drenched in sunshine and buzzing with crowds soaking up the atmosphere of the final festival weekend.

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But amid the crowds there were unmistakable signs of wear and tear in the gardens, which had been buffeted by high winds and drenched in downpours on the festival’s opening weekend.

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The last time I wandered through East Princes Street Gardens was Christmas Eve, when it was thronged with last-minute shoppers and families enjoying the start of their holidays. On Saturday afternoon, it was a scene of desolation.

The condition of these two gardens should be a source of embarrassment to the organisers of the city’s annual literary and winter festivals, as well as the city council, which funds both events, and those charged with protecting the city’s World Heritage Site. While record numbers at the winter market and book festival sites have undoubtedly played a part in their current condition, you don’t need to be a gardening expert to work out that Edinburgh’s increasingly unpredictable weather and the obvious long-term impact of hosting events in the those historic sites have clearly made matters worse.

Their respective states seem to have helped focus minds among the directors of the city’s major events as they have faced growing questions about their sustainability, their carbon footprint and how much a part they are playing in the overtourism pressures on the city.

When the Edinburgh World Heritage trust warned nearly three years ago that the city was a risk of suffering the “same fate” as Venice if it did not get a grip of rising visitor numbers and their impact on “our fragile, historic city”, there were howls of anguish and accusations of scaremongering, publicly and privately, from the tourism and events sectors. Well, it’s a very different story now.

Writing in these pages last month, Julia Amour, director of umbrella body Festivals Edinburgh, put it pretty bluntly: “Growth for growth’s sake is not on our agenda.” She said it was “critical” to recognise and deal with real concerns about sustainability, and help ensure the city “manages flows of people of traffic better”.

Last week the Fringe Society pledged a commitment to being “sensitive to the pressures” Edinburgh faces as a “popular destination” and insisted it was “listening carefully” to the ongoing debates about the tourism sector. Singing from a similar hymn sheet was the book festival when it admitted that its annual efforts to reinstate its home without investment in new infrastructure could not continue indefinitely, adding: “We need to find a balance within Edinburgh where the festivals are able to thrive and develop, without having a negative impact on the environment in which they reside.” With the Beltane Fire Festival, which is self-funded, now committed to raising awareness of climate change and reducing its carbon footprint, it appears the city’s most prestigious events have finally woken up to their responsibilities.

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