How ‘parklets’ can grow a city’s economy

Craig Roman of Dobbie's and staff from Jamie's Bar at one of the capital's two 'parklets'. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
Craig Roman of Dobbie's and staff from Jamie's Bar at one of the capital's two 'parklets'. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
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AN innovative use of public space in Edinburgh has exciting implications for the economy of the wider nation, writes Roddy Smith.

An exciting and novel use of space in the heart of Edinburgh’s city centre was launched in the last few days when what we believe are the UK’s first “parklets” were opened in George Street.

The pilot is about testing out various things, to see what might be best achieved

Created by Dobbies, and funded by the company in partnership with Essential Edinburgh and City of Edinburgh Council, the two 12m by 4m mini-gardens create bright, colourful spaces for the use of residents and visitors.

The spaces are a further demonstration of the creative ways that we can utilise otherwise empty space in George Street that would previously have been given over to cars, and provide a splash of colour and calm to the one-year pilot to part-pedestrianise George Street which comes to an end later in the summer.

There will be much to learn – good and bad – from the pilot. But some things have certainly been successful. For example, the plans for traffic management have seen traffic continue to flow as well as normal, especially when motorists became used to the set-up. The plan also maintained essential parking and access for the businesses.

The creation of outdoor spaces – through decking and the construction of high-quality temporary “pavilions” – has provided city centre hospitality businesses with the opportunity to bring their varied and quality offerings outdoors at key points in the trading year.

And while there will undoubtedly be lessons to learn, it is important to remember the many good reasons that this pilot was approved by City of Edinburgh Council with the support of Essential Edinburgh.

As the Business Improvement District for the Capital’s city centre, we are charged with representing around 600 levy-paying businesses, many of them from retail or hospitality. During August 2013, when a similar project ran for the Festival period, we saw a dramatic upturn in the numbers of people coming to the area.

And there is significant evidence from around the UK that public realm improvements, in particular pedestrianisation, bring major benefits. One major study reported that well-planned improvements to these public spaces can boost footfall and trading by up to 40 per cent.

In turn that means more trading opportunities for businesses, more jobs, and more wealth and opportunity for local people. For example, in Dublin, the redevelopment of the Temple Bar District led to a 300 per cent increase in employment, and cultural quarters in Sheffield and Manchester have also seen increases in employment, albeit less dramatic ones

To return to our “parklets” – they have been designed and planted by the experts from Dobbies Garden Centres to create peaceful, colourful, scent-filled oases in the heart of the city. One will be between Castle Street and Frederick Street and themed “Colours” to reflect fashion, while the other is “Cocktails”, to reflect the street’s hospitality offering situated between Frederick Street and Hanover Street.

Flowers, herbs, shrubs and trees will all be creatively employed, along with quality seating, planters and garden structures.

The parklets will be in place until 1 September, when the traffic order which enables the George Street trial is due to end.

When the project ends, everything will be removed and the street returned to its “normal” set-up. The process of evaluating all that has happened will then take place, and independent experts will be brought in to help run that evaluation.

For me, the key thing this experiment can do is inform the longterm plans for George Street. Of course not everything will have worked as well as we would all have liked. But some things will have worked even better. And at the end of the day, the pilot has been all about that – testing out various things, to see what might be best achieved.

George Street is one of the Capital’s showcase thoroughfares. It is important that we take the time to get things right, but it is also vital that we look at refreshing the street, keeping it relevant as the world changes, and try to create a unified vision on how the street will look in five to ten years from now.

We will certainly be wholly engaged in that process on behalf of our levy payers, and we will do our best, as always, to reflect the views that are put to us, and to ensure that we create a future George Street that maintains its position for high-end retail, top quality food and drink, and as a street that is enjoyed by visitors, residents and city centre workers alike.

• Roddy Smith is chief executive of Essential Edinburgh


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