Edinburgh book festival admits 'negative' environmental impact on historic garden 'cannot continue indefinitely'

The future of the Edinburgh International Book Festival is under increasing threat due to the “negative” environmental impact of the event on one of the city’s most historic gardens, it has emerged.

Reinstatement work in Charlotte Square Garden is said to have been 'impossible' since October.
Reinstatement work in Charlotte Square Garden is said to have been 'impossible' since October.

Organisers say they are “very concerned” about the gradually declining condition of the 200-year-old Charlotte Square Garden, in the New Town, due to the combined effect of increasing visitor numbers and poor weather.

They admit it has been “impossible” to carry out any reinstatement work since October due to repeated problems with the privately-owned park being waterlogged.

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And they say the growing difficulties in bringing the garden, which attracted a record 265,000 visitors in August, back up to scratch “cannot continue indefinitely.”

The event, which expanded into George Street three years ago, has admitted “long-term investment” is needed to ensure the world-famous event remains in the garden, where it has been staged since the first festival in 1983 It was initially held second year, but has been an annual fixture since 1997.

The square, which was the last section of the first phase of the New Town to be completed in 1820, is described by the Edinburgh World Heritage trust as “one of the finest architectural set-pieces in Europe.”

However its garden has been compared to a “quaking bog” and a “ploughed field” by critics due to its current condition,

A festival spokeswoman said: “We’re very concerned about the impact we have on this magnificent and historically important garden square in the heart of Georgian Edinburgh. As the festival grows, and attracts more visitors, the ground on which it resides is unfortunately being affected.

“Weather conditions in 2019 were particularly challenging. Between July and December, 258mm of rain fell upon Edinburgh compared to 91mm in 2018 and 52mm in 2017.

"Conditions have not improved since Christmas. As a consequence, reinstating the garden has proved impossible. Any attempt to re-turf it while it remains waterlogged would cause long-term damage to the soil structure.”

The festival has been in talks for years with the Charlotte Square Proprietors Association over the declining condition of the garden, but has not reached agreement on how the garden could have new infrastructure installed and a new management regime put in place.

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The festival spokeswoman added: “While we reinstate the Gardens each year following the festival, we are aware that this situation cannot continue indefinitely.

Charlotte Square Garden is said to need at least 1 million worth of infrastructure improvements to allow it to continue to host the book festival.

“The festival, in collaboration with the proprietors, is working on a detailed plan which incorporates drainage, infrastructure, pathways and a long-term tree management strategy. This plan incorporates advice from engineers, landscape architects and arboriculturalists. We are working closely with the proprietors to agree the delivery of this plan.

“The festival’s policy is to keep Charlotte Square Garden as its permanent home. There are currently no plans to move.

"However, we recognise that the garden requires long-term investment. We need to find a balance within Edinburgh where the festivals, which are all culturally, socially and economically important to Edinburgh and Scotland, are able to thrive and develop, without having a negative impact on the environment in which they reside.”

A spokesman for the Charlotte Square Proprietors Association said: “It is unfortunate that the normally rapid reinstatement programme by the book festival has been severely delayed by the wet weather.

The book festival has been based in Charlotte Square Garden since 1983.

“Strenuous efforts are being made to ensure that a means of avoiding this problem in the future is found. We’re committed to making the square available to both the book festival and as wide a variety as possible of other public events throughout the year.”

However Cliff Hague, cliff of the Cockburn Association heritage body, said: “The negative impact that the book festival has on Charlotte Square Gardens is a snapshot of the wider challenges facing Edinburgh and other tourist cities that have become victims of their own success.

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“While talk of ‘managing tourism’ is a step forward from throwing public money at marketing Edinburgh as a destination, we urgently need to find practical solutions before irreparable damage is done. We have to put a higher value on the environment, natural and built.

“There is a limit to how much pressure a garden - or a city - can take before it deteriorates.

“It is time to put major events indoors or on hard standing areas, and to space festivals to smooth out the peak.”

Roddy Smith, chief executive of city centre business group Essential Edinburgh, said: “Keeping the book festival in the square in the long term is everyone’s wish. It just needs some investment in the infrastructure.

The book festival has admitted it is 'very concerned' about the impact the event is having on the 200-year-old garden.

"We will continue to do everything we can to support the book festival to use the westerly block of George Street during August.”

Charlotte Square is described by the Edinburgh World Heritage trust as 'one of the finest architectural set-pieces in Europe.'