THERE’S some distance between the “We’re all doomed!” of the Scotsman’s “Edinburgh in Crisis” theme of last week – fire, famine, flood and tramworks – and the “Open for Business” reassurances of the city’s leaders. But all, at least, seem in agreement that the trials of our banks and housebuilders not only demand action from us as a city, but give us unique leverage.
The issue, then, is how we use this leverage to lead the city forward. But first, we need to remind ourselves what Edinburgh’s core value is – our “unique selling point”, the reason why we can consistently trumpet myriad best, or most visited or loved, or best quality-of-life-winning city in Scotland/Britain/the Universe Awards.
It’s this: that we are hugely fortunate to have inherited a city whose centre is a compact, integrative dynamo of a place, a unique urban drama which enables and encourages its inhabitants to live connected and creative lives.
It’s the handy shops for some, the Safe Routes to School for our kids and the businessman who’s relocated his company here because he likes the nice walk to work. Or me, cycling to my office across the Meadows, all the calmer for the fresh air, the trees and the Old Town’s skyline – and maybe even with the benefit of bumping into a colleague with some useful piece of business to impart. It’s the sheer civility of the place.
Overall, Edinburgh’s health, wealth and happiness is intertwined with the health and vigour of its urban form to an unprecedented extent.
We are the original “eco-town” – that debased term, usually (mis)used by developers wanting to build car-dependent diddy-boxes on farmland, actually has meaning here – where else, for instance, can you climb a mountain without even leaving the city centre?
All our efforts must go to fortifying this core value, for our future lies not in becoming more like – say – Slough, or Swindon or some desperate American nowheresville with an emptying city core and burgeoning suburbs, but more like Edinburgh.
And, in doing so, we should also remember that there are huge swathes of Edinburgh without these things, and a pressing need to spread such blessings around.
How do we develop Edinburgh, then, with all this knowledge to the fore? Well, first, we should note that we have plenty of empty space for new development in the city, particularly along our waterfront. The Scottish Government’s support, in allowing councils to borrow and invest against a future tax-take, is critical, and the Council’s determination to use this TIF (Tax Incremental Finance) method in Leith is good. The details of which projects should be supported need revisited (is a big new road really best?), but the investment should also be used to lever real change from Forth Ports, its principal beneficiaries.
They need to be persuaded that, if such investment is to be made, they must tear up their towering-young-executive-penthouse-ghetto masterplans and return to the drawing board, working with the council on new ones that are focused on providing places for families, connect better into existing communities and can be implemented incrementally as the market allows. The council is also leading by example here, its creditable “21st Century Homes” programme prepared to show the private sector the way.
But such good practice, in directing investment into the city and building well for communities, is hugely undermined by the very planning system that should support it.
The “Edinburgh Local Development Plan” tells us that in the south-east of Scotland there will be the “demand” for a staggering 150,000 new homes between 2009 and 2032. In addition, the system requires that planners identify a “generous” over-provision of land for them, just in case these figures be conservative.
Of course all this extraordinary demand stuff is predicated on a world of easy housing-credit that has gone, never to return. There is “demand”, now, for tens of thousands of houses in Edinburgh, with very few of them being built because easy credit is no more. In the same way this massive future “demand” is a miasma.
The net result will be, however, the release of chunks of greenbelt and farmland to meet that miasma and the few houses that we can finance being built there instead of in the city, with its existing schools, sewers, shops and other infrastructure and its general Edinburgh-ness.
This is the threat to our future and the clearest betrayal of the compact, walkable, sustainable beauty that is our core value. The Scottish Government has already foisted an “International Business Gateway” on us, to cheer up RBS on the Gogarburn greenbelt, so that business people can fly to a placeless business park “Edinburgh” without really knowing whether they are in Edinburgh or Luton. We need to persuade our council and our government that such policies may appear “business-friendly” but actively undermine our future, shared wealth.
Of course even with Leith Docks as a new renewables industry zone (a very good idea, how nice to look to industry to rebalance our reliance on services) there are vast, empty sites waiting for housing redevelopment across our waterfront. The best way to enhance our city’s compact beauty is to spread the centre’s wealth down to them by – gulp! – a tram system.
Trams are good. And it’s quite possible to build them without huge fuss, to a plan and a budget – as Sheffield, Nottingham and even Croydon can. So here’s a radical suggestion, that would banish our shame (“get right back on the bike” being an admirable motto) as well as turn the tram from a degraded airport, business park and greenbelt-busting link, to something that properly connects our centre to the waterfront.
The whole northern tram loop should be properly designed and properly tendered, under the correct form of contract this time, raising the value of land down there, rejuvenating communities and enabling good-quality development. A worthy recipient of TIF investment if ever there was one.
Finally, respected architectural commentator, Owen Hatherley, recently excoriated the quality of much new development in Edinburgh as being “shameful in a city with an architectural legacy like this… in any city this would be a scandal, let alone one as rich as this, with architects as talented, in a capital that has not exactly been short of investment.”
Terrifyingly, things have got even worse and the apparent “economic imperative” now means huge pressure to accept that the most miserably compromised proposal can be made just a little less poor if committees and design panels argue over its details and compromise it further.
Look at the west end of Princes Street or the new proposals for the Cowgate and South Bridge (I rest my case). This is Edinburgh. Demand great architecture, not the sort of miserable compromises Hatherley refers to.
I once heard council leader Jenny Dawe suggest architectural competitions for Edinburgh. Why not seek to be inspired on such sites or at the waterfront, in this way?
The best waterfront masterplan in Europe is the incremental one in Reykjavik, Iceland, won in competition by Edinburgh architect Graeme Massie – an architect too good and inspiring to be used here, thus far. Why do we accept the second-rate when we have internationally-feted architects like Graeme or Sutherland Hussey?
So, in short, if we concentrate on a core value that is Edinburgh, not Slough – not some miserable economic imperative but the best value for the whole of the city – and work with the Scottish Government to reinforce it, everything will be okay.
A £1.30 ticket on the first tram to Granton, anyone?
• Malcolm Fraser is director of Malcolm Fraser Architects