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The Impact of Edinburgh's Design Initiative

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4 Jun 2008

Initiative Allan Murray of Allan Murray Architects reflects on the impact of Edinburgh's Design Initiative

It has been over four years since the Urban Design Group, of which I was a member, recommended the appointment of a City Design Champion for Edinburgh. Ambitions were high: serious urban scholars such as Spain’s Rafael Moneo, as well non-architects such as academics and business leaders were all suggested. It was an exciting time.

 Edinburgh was, in many ways, breaking new ground with this initiative and, whilst there was a general consensus that the city would benefit from raising design up the political agenda, it was not clear how this would be done or who would do it. In the end the city decided to appoint both a design champion and a design leader. Central questions were raised such as how should a city design champion provide leadership? Should he/she take a manifesto approach to analysing and (re)defining the city, reporting perhaps only to the city fathers on the key issues facing the future wellbeing of the city, or take a more “hands on” approach tackling key issues head on with teams of creative designers proactively offering direct advice and solutions. Both are inevitably fraught with difficulties not only of a political dimension, but of resource.

The city already has many systems in place to regulate and manage planning and development and it seems appropriate that leadership on design should be outwith this system and steer an independent course. Given the limited resources placed at its disposal it seems appropriate that leadership on design should be focussed on the “big picture” – how the pieces fit together. However, a wide-ranging and independent remit can become ineffective unless it is supported by a strong discourse and I believe by the design community itself.

Every designer brings their own discourse to design; it is the soul of the idea. Inevitably, urbanists (like all designers) have different views on the city. One might focus on the city as a system of movement strategies - pedestrians, cars, buses, trains or trams -another might focus on the city as a system of transactions, social, cultural or economic. The city is, of course, all of these systems and more.

So how has the city’s design champion focussed the limited resources to achieve the most impact on design? The Edinburgh tram initiative is a significant event that is now (re)shaping the city and it seems appropriate that it merits careful attention and that it fulfils its full potential as an asset to the city. The tram route will allow us to redraw our mental map of the city and will open new opportunities on the waterfront, bringing it closer than ever to the city centre and to the west. Design direction and leadership here is fundamental. In this case a wide ranging and independent view is a real asset in bringing often competing and disparate disciplines together. But the tram project will take five years to complete and the design champion has a limited appointment, resource and authority. Will day charrettes and design advocacy be enough?

A new design champion, if it is decided to appoint one, will undoubtedly have a different discourse on the city, perhaps focusing energies on equally pressing issues such as the city periphery, the waterfront or simply housing quality; would this refresh the debate or cause confusion?

Fundamental to the process is the role of the design leader, Riccardo Marini. Perhaps with more input from the design community he can provide the essential continuity of urban initiatives such as the tram as well as the opportunity to keep up debate on new ideas.

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