Euan Leitch: Royal Mile shouldn’t just be for tourists

The Royal Mile. Picture: Jane Barlow
The Royal Mile. Picture: Jane Barlow
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The aim of improving the quality of what the council’s draft Royal Mile action plan humbly identifies as “one of the most iconic streets in Scotland” has to be praised.

Improving the pedestrian experience and the management of refuse were key issues which the Cockburn Association flagged up at last year’s charrette to discuss the future of the street. We have also commented on street clutter and the lack of signage or interpretation and we are pleased to see these being addressed.

The success of the pedestrianised zone outside the City Chambers is a good template for giving pedestrians priority in the other zones. Taming the proliferation of industrial bins from both the street and closes would mark an immediate improvement, but the question arises, where will they go? Underground storage is expensive, with implications for archaeology, and the underground refuse collection chamber in the Grassmarket still has large refuse containers keeping it company. Managing and enforcing compliance on trade and residential waste will require consistency from the council.

The council also holds the key to improving the retail experience, with around 50 of the non-residential units on the Royal Mile under its ownership. The action plan does not detail how it will improve the quality, but Glasgow City Council vetted tenants for its shops in the Merchant City regeneration, favouring creative independent stores over chains or tenants who offered the highest rent and that could be a model to learn from.

The retail element must not just be for visitors and the economic strength of our permanent residential population must not be neglected if the Old Town is to remain a living city. Our local spend is also a significant contribution to the economy that should not be overlooked in favour of the tourist pound.

The charrette identified antisocial behaviour as a common complaint from traders and homeowners but we must be careful about sweeping any evidence of poverty under the civic carpet: the High Street’s fame rests on the rich and poor living cheek by jowl. Dealing with the antisocial behaviour arising from the night-time economy will require traders taking more responsibility.

The closes, and what the Action Plan describes as “Hinterland”, should play a vital role in designing the “world’s best cultural living street” and gems like the currently empty Trinity Apse accessed from Trunk’s and Carrubber’s Closes provide a perfect opportunity. Improving some of the closes could be as simple as mimicking the artist Calum Innes’ lighting installation beneath Waterloo Bridge which transforms the everyday into something beautiful.

Looking at our records from a century ago, we can see that for all the shortcomings of the Royal Mile today we have a come a long way in the last century. In 1912, the Cockburn Association saved Moubray House, Edinburgh’s oldest continually residential dwelling, from dereliction and the current owners are in the process of gifting this historic asset to the nation.

While recently archiving slides we came across images of the High Street dominated by cars – today’s experience is much improved. But recent developments such as the abysmal bollards around the Scottish Parliament do let the Royal Mile down. Signage is a continued problem with visitors frequently asking where the Castle and parliament are. A neat and permanent solution to advertising traders in closes would be welcomed.

Relaying setts in the Canongate would be a simple and effective means of indicating continuity of the Royal Mile, in grey or red granite, and starting with a shared surface at the Canongate Kirk and Museum of Edinburgh is an economically viable start.

It has taken a year to create an action plan and it contains no timescales or funding allocation and the success of the plan will only be seen in the longitudinal study being carried out by the University of Edinburgh’s Business School on authenticity in the World Heritage Site. In the late 19th century a key member of the Cockburn Association, Patrick Geddes, lead the way in restoring the Old Town both in architecture and social life. Today a few of the small community gardens Geddes established have been brought back to life through the work of Edinburgh World Heritage and it is that combination of local community and civic spirit that will be required to maintain continued improvement.

• Euan Leitch is assistant director of the Cockburn Association

RIGHT STRATEGY FOR MERCHANT CITY

Glasgow’s Merchant City was – just 20 years ago – far from the upmarket tourist and culture magnet it is today.

Neglected and bereft of decent shopping and restaurants, it was largely shunned by residents and visitors.

It has since been transformed thanks to a ten-year action plan which saw the district become home to a slew of colourful cafes and quirky boutiques.

A Glasgow City Council spokeswoman said: “These solutions came about by working in partnership to meet the needs of the area at that time and were a right fit and response for us to help the regeneration of the Merchant City.”