The transport committee agreed to progress the revamp to the next stage – technical design – but agreed to consider including trees as part of the redesign, which already involves removal of parking spaces, the creation of a European-style "cycle street" and installation of seating and planters.
The committee heard trees had never been a feature in George Street and that James Craig's 1767 masterplan for the First New Town deliberately focused on the grandness of the street with gardens at each end.
Convener Scott Arthur asked whether installing trees could affect the area's World Heritage Site status. "In terms of Unesco status, if we were to put trees along this street, would there be questions raised or not?" World Heritage Site co-ordinator Jenny Bruce said: "Our protection and management of the World Heritage Site is under constant scrutiny. It's not for us to determine what they are going to take issue with, but it is certainly something that would impact on the quality and character and that commitment we have to share what is important about the World Heritage Site."
SNP environment spokesman Finlay McFarlane said he realised the placement of trees was not a simple as it might seem, with the underground complexity of cellars, sewers and utility services, notwithstanding the world heritage element. But he said: "We must acknowledge our responsibility to future proof this design for the next 100 years or so. Global temperatures are rising, we are getting abnormal bouts of severe rain, and if we are to safeguard the future public enjoyment, there is a very clear need for shade and shelter, which we know trees can provide."
Green environment spokeswoman Jule Bandel acknowledged the importance of conserving the city's heritage. However, she added: "I think this needs to be weighed up with conserving our planet and our wellbeing. The people of Edinburgh today have very different needs and wishes compared to the people of Edinburgh in 1766. And the consultations that the council has done showed the majority of people in Edinburgh support the planting of trees on George Street.
“There are many benefits to street trees. The heatwave has shown us how important it is for our health and wellbeing for streets to offer shade, especially for elderly people, and we know these extreme weather events are going to be occurring more frequently in future and we will need to make sure our public areas are designed in a way that protects people as much as possible.”
Green councillor Claire Miller said she had been involved in earlier conversations about the possibility of trees on George Street. "It has been difficult to make the case in the face of the very strong arguments around the built heritage – and I have tried to point out all the different elements of the street which are not heritage and how we adapt and change and that’s how we live in cities – so it's pleasing to me there now seems to be more of a groundswell of opinion around the need for street trees and that that would add a lot of value in George Street.”
A deputation from the George Street Association, which represents businesses and institutions on the street, voiced concern to the committee about the impact which the construction work on the project – expected to take two years – could have. .
Association president Dr William Duncan said: "We do have real concerns that during the extended construction phase there will be a very adverse effect on our members both operationally and financially. Businesses in George Street fear a dramatic decline in footfall as a result of these works regardless of how sensitively the contractors proceed.
“Due to the pandemic, hospitality and retail businesses are carrying unprecedented levels of debt. This continuing vulnerability makes it critical that financial support is provided for George Street businesses through the construction phase of this work. Indeed, without realistic support there is a real risk that on completion of the works George Street could have lost many of the very businesses that make it a desirable and prestigious destination.”
Tory transport spokeswoman Marie-Clair Munro called for a full review of the project, arguing the plans did not fully address the needs of residents, businesses and hotel visitors to access premises in the New Town.
Lib Dem Sanne Dijkstra-Downie raised concerns about the design of four proposed “central squares” along the length of George Street. She welcomed assurances from officials these were not to be “shared spaces” between pedestrians and cyclists. But she said: “We feel there is real ambiguity about who has priority in these spaces and that can lead to unsafe situations. If we look at Leith Walk and what has happened there, we have some areas where cyclists come into direct conflict with pedestrians.”
Welcoming widespread support for the overall project, Cllr Arthur said: “Very few people have been arguing to maintain the George Street car park. Most people see the benefit of what we're trying to do here and it's about the fine tuning.”