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The view from Edinburgh's Waterfront

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5 Jun 2008

Waterfront Kenton Wilson works for gm+ad in Glasgow and lives in Edinburgh

It’s sensible to expect theoretical ideas to face harsh and unforgiving trials before they become a reality. Many would even say that criticism should be encouraged, as testing an idea openly will give it a better chance of success than if developed in isolation behind closed doors, and this is not a point that Forth Ports take lightly. During the two year evolution of the outline planning application for Leith Docks, their team of specialists note that public consultees run all the way into three figures, impressively including over 400 shoppers at Ocean Terminal. The application itself is very specific on the matter. “The information gathered is not… a vote for or against specific elements or projects proposed. Rather, it is a record of reactions to images of various real-life scenarios which the respondents were invited to consider.”

RMJM’s framework as an abstract ideal is as malleably resistant to critical discourse as the Ghostbusters marshmallow man was in Ray Stanz’s imagination. Despite being over seven times longer than Edinburgh Council’s Leith Docks Development Framework (which itself was funded by Forth Ports and prepared by their consultants), the Outline Planning Application manages to avoid its predecessors’ onerous precision with remarkable ease. Perhaps the sole fundamental criticism that can be aimed at it is this lack of definition, which its authors often attempt to deflect by referring to the following ‘micro’ master plans for its various phasings – which themselves are presumably left entirely subject to subsequent development partners’ whims. The Outline Planning Application lumps phased development into just two stages, compared with the LDDF’s six. In this respect, at the very least the submission ought ultimately to be supported by a strategy document for the proposed disposal of the site. With the majority of current leases due to expire before 2010, one suspects that a private study on the subject is already at least underway, as selected renegotiations will undoubtedly be necessary before the latter phases of the residential master plan commence on site. Much can happen in the framework’s notional 30 year period and the development needs to be functionally viable at every level of completion.

Terry Farrell has allegedly denounced the lack of connectivity between the Forth Ports study and the council’s own waterfront ‘vision’, which he was instrumental in developing. The Joined-Up-Master Planning group (JUMP) has also received unofficial encouragement from senior council leaders and professionals (from the offices of Andres Duany, amongst numerous other significant professionals) to mount opposition to the OPA, on the basis that without external pressure the council may well feel inclined to approve such a pliable document. While the breadth of the application is hard to fault, its depth should be held severely to task before approval is given - this is, after all, the last opportunity to consider the area as a whole. In the unlikely event of full approval at the end of March, it may well be a decision the council come to regret, as the result would effectively be Scotland’s first privately planned town. Urban design leaders have made their thoughts known. It is now up to A+DS and the council to ensure a more thoroughly tested submission before approval.

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