A politicians view of Edinburgh’s urban design – Councillor Jenny Dawe
5 Jun 2008
It's about trust, quality and change
Sir Terry Farrell was appointed to the honorary position of the City of Edinburgh Council’s first “City Design Champion” in February 2004. His precise role was rather a mystery to those, such as myself, then in opposition and not a member of the Planning Committee. It was not until I became Council leader of Edinburgh’s new coalition administration in May 2007 that I began to understand and appreciate the importance of the Design Champion Initiative supported by the appointment of a City Design Leader.
Having had the opportunity to meet with Sir Terry on several occasions over the past months, I am now fully aware of the significance and worth of what he has been advocating for the past four years. I have been impressed by Sir Terry’s passion for Edinburgh and believe that having an independent voice to help us in problem solving; although it can be painful at times, is extremely valuable. Equally, where we get things right, it is helpful to have an objective valuation of this.
Design is not just about making things look good. High quality urban design is essential to successful place making, which is a crucial component in economic vitality. If people want to visit, study, work and invest in Edinburgh, because it is a great place to be, we will be in a good position to compete effectively in an increasingly competitive European and global sphere.
Sir Terry’s Design Initiative has at its core a desire to break down the counterproductive silo mentality that pervades many public and private sector organisations. Sir Terry’s analysis of the defects of a fragmented and insular approach to place making resonates with many of the challenges facing our new political administration in Edinburgh. We need to break down barriers and create trust between seemingly disparate factions if we are to push forward effectively.
Edinburgh is a beautiful, vibrant, cosmopolitan city. Much of that attraction comes from its wonderful architectural heritage, its natural assets, its culture and its quality of life. It would be easy to rest on our laurels and resist change. But we need to move forward to deliver on our past advantages and future potential to further the economic prosperity of Edinburgh, the city region and Scotland. We have a city and a culture to be proud of but we need to stand out from the crowd as a place to be. Doing the same as we have always done is not good enough. I value Sir Terry’s judgement and believe that many of the issues which he has highlighted need to be addressed if we are to create a heritage of excellence for the future.
Princes Street is a prime example of the great and the awful. It encapsulates the essence of what could be and what we have failed to deliver. This most important space in the city’s identity has become rather sad. It is still a stunning promenade. To destroy it would take considerable effort! It has the huge advantages of the tranquillity of the Gardens and the stunning backdrop of Edinburgh Castle to the south. It has the enormous potential of the shopping side to the north. But it fails in three simple ways.
Movement is dominated by wall-to-wall bus traffic. The best views in town are seldom seen by people. The retail sector is underperforming.
To have this wonderful space constantly filled with buses seems to be a total undervaluing of what it is. Good public transport is a critical element in our sustainable future; and I welcome Edinburgh’s Tram project which will make an invaluable contribution to the city. But in delivering excellent public transport, we need to make every effort to ensure that Princes Street returns to being a “people space”. Buses and trams should be there to deliver a necessary service but must not dominate the space.
At the moment the upper floors of much of Princes Street is a “Des Res” for sales stock. It is a travesty that shoe boxes have the best views in town. There must be a better way to use these spaces. I look forward to the day when this stunning view will be enjoyed by people, not sandals. I am aware that the notion of converting the upper floors along Princes Street to residences could have a detrimental effect on investment values; but I am confident that we will find the right solutions to respect the place and deliver the required return to owners and investors. Edinburgh’s City Centre Redevelopment – the development framework concept – is an immensely exciting project to revitalise Princes Street into a place that will be a delight to visit, to shop in, to live in and to linger in. I am determined it will come to fruition in a way that reconciles the historic environment with the needs of contemporary users; that optimises the site’s potential through retail-led mixed use developments; and that creates a high quality built environment and public realm.
Princes Street is underperforming. It has slipped considerably in the retail rankings. This is worrying. Why are we not attracting the right kind and level of footfall? Have we let Princes Street deteriorate into a place where people have no reason to want to spend time? We need to understand the value of destination and ensure that the retail offer is complementary to it. If we do this then we can begin to realise the true potential of our prime space.
This is clearly a simplistic analysis of a complex matter. But two things are clear: we need to address the problems on the way to finding solutions; and the silo approach is just not working.
The last local elections brought about political change in Edinburgh. The new administration has faced up to severe inherited financial challenges and we are determined to deliver the best for our city. Part of that involves breaking down barriers, releasing creative and financial potential, understanding issues of Place, and delivering “Project Edinburgh” in an atmosphere of trust and shared objectives. We need to welcome change but always be mindful not to destroy the endowment we have inherited. Edinburgh is firmly open for business but not at any cost.
Councillor Jenny Dawe is Leader of City of Edinburgh Council