Kate Higgins: Forgotten Gorgie can thrive

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Gorgie’s an area in 
Edinburgh I’ve always liked. It’s still working class, with an abundance of wee independent shops, local hostelries, and focal points provided by essential community assets including the high school, the memorial hall, the city farm and, of course, Hearts.

Gorgie is a community bustling, thriving with an identity all of its own but one that seems to be being eroded. Having started working there recently, I’m shocked at how much the area is changing.

Most big office blocks have closed, the garage has moved out of town and work on the old fruit market retail zone appears to have stalled. Consequently, the shutters are coming down on shops that gave life and character to Gorgie Road but which need passing trade from daytime workers. 
Fortnightly influxes of fans – a 
diminishing return in any event – are not enough on their own to sustain them.

Sadly, Gorgie has a down-at-heel feel and I’m not sure if its neglect is by omission or design. Edinburgh City Council has a key role to play. It is in charge of planning policy and strategy as well as approving actual applications, and it is the lead economic development body with some levers available to support business and jobs growth. What is it doing to promote empty office blocks – some of which it owns – to potential employers? There are a number of outline and detailed planning consents in place for housing but little sign of progress on these. Why not? Crucially, why has development of the fruit market stalled?

Gorgie does not get a mention in the local development plan passed last year. Its rejuvenation appears to be in no-one’s sights, with the local authority focusing on the city centre and stretching Edinburgh’s city limits through greenfield developments. Gorgie’s corridor status, which is vital to the wellbeing of the city, appears to be being ignored.

The local development plan should acknowledge that Gorgie links outlying areas and villages with the city centre and also all the university and college campuses. It is also walking distance from the Haymarket hub and the financial sector. It is ideally placed to be a mixed tenure housing area – for students, first-time buyers, young families and people retiring and downsizing. With a thoughtful approach, Gorgie could be turned into Edinburgh’s university quarter, creating the right environment for new businesses, restaurants and shops to flourish. Belfast has one which is vibrant, creative, energetic and forms a living, working, leisure space.

Such a development can only work if the council partners the community and provides expertise and resources to meet aspirations and needs. To make spaces places that people want to live in means involving them in their design. In Denmark, children are involved in designing schools and the spaces created are hugely child-friendly. Similar approaches to new housing involving women tend to result in fewer dark alleys, more open space, local amenities and mini parks.

But there’s little sign of Gorgie’s decline even being recognised by planners, let alone innovatively addressed. Without development, Gorgie could become a desert with windows, somewhere people live but go elsewhere to work, shop and play. Gorgie was once a thriving community – it could be again, with the right plan, strong leadership, good community participation and vocal champions.

Kate Higgins is a political activist and commentator, blogging at A Burdz Eye View.