A range of fresh development proposals, spurred by the start of a recovery in commercial property, has sparked a growing debate about the positives and negatives of essential regeneration in Edinburgh’s city centre. That should be expected, but what has been disappointing is an increased sense of polarisation between those wishing to invest in redevelopment and those concerned about its impact on the city’s unique qualities.
We can all agree that while the city thrives on its magnificent architecture, we do not want our historic buildings and beautiful parks let down by pockets of rundown streetscape and unused buildings. Edinburgh is a world-renowned destination for tourists, business people, friends and family. Development projects – attracted by a rich cultural and working life – are vital for its ongoing economic growth and international reputation. We must work hard to keep that reputation intact or risk losing it. In practice, we must constantly consider and reconsider how we can attract the investment we need without compromising our distinct historic status.
In the absence of a Scottish finance market that can deliver the quantum of equity needed to enable complex local regeneration, international capital is essential and underpins the vast majority of development activity in Edinburgh. It needs the reassurance that investing in Edinburgh’s historic buildings doesn’t mean taking on additional reputational risk and delays caused by controversy and indecision. That is just one reason why healthy debate about our historic buildings is to be encouraged. And why we have to find a middle ground. As this newspaper reported, we need a formula that makes way for the new while respecting the past.
Modern office requirements (a series of preset standards), contemporary living and enhanced building regulations make extensive demands on construction design from energy saving measures and digital technology through to the need for appropriate working levels of daylight and energising spaces. We also expect quality shops and a variety of restaurants, which drive jobs and bring people to the city centre. To achieve all this in a World Heritage site has its challenges, but it is not impossible.
Let’s not forget that Scotland’s “Best Building” in 2014 was the development at Advocate’s Close, where three once uninviting closes off the Royal Mile have been transformed. Modern apartments have been added on top of partially demolished Victorian and Georgian warehouses and 16th-century townhouses, and the closes are now home to modern businesses and a thriving community. Another example is the renovation of the south terrace of Charlotte Square where a modern atrium forms an extension to the Georgian townhouses.
Historically, cities have always had to change and develop and Edinburgh is no exception.
Our architectural heritage is our pride and joy. How we preserve and celebrate that heritage is important, but can we only appreciate historic buildings if they are kept in their original state? What if that state isn’t fit for useful purpose? Is it sufficient to keep empty facades purely for show, or should we be doing more to promote innovative alteration and reuse? Buildings are designed for a specific purpose, rarely as monuments.
Too many buildings are on the “at risk” register and in danger of crumbling out of existence because they are either too difficult or too expensive to save, or the system can’t agree on what is appropriate.
Let’s encourage positive engagement from all parties to ensure that we balance the importance of Edinburgh’s past with the demands of its future. There is no reason why this cannot be achieved if we embrace the view that old and new can sit comfortably together through creativity, ingenuity and good design.
John Hamilton is chairman of Scottish Property Federation