Marion Williams: City lost in tat and clutter

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It’s time to take a whole new approach to how we manage and present our public spaces to show Edinburgh off at its best, says Marion Williams

signage, railings and bollards, refuse bins and a rash of “tartan tat” souvenir shops. The experience of visiting the city centre for residents, workers and tourists has sadly become one of a streetscape dominated by unnecessary clutter.

The parting comments of Professor Charles McKean as he retires as chair of Edinburgh World Heritage Trust (EWH) paint a familiar picture for those of us who live, work and visit the city. The problem of street clutter was identified by the city’s Design Tsar, Sir Terry Farrell, when he was appointed by the city council in 2004 and Jan Gehl revisited the city in 2010 highlighting the same issues, but the council appears impotent and unwanted clutter continues to proliferate.

The beauty of Edinburgh’s architecture and history is self-evident. The enthusiasm for Edinburgh Doors Open Day, an annual event organised by the Cockburn Association, and the hunger for knowledge referred to by Prof McKean cannot be met in one weekend. Riddles Court, off the Lawnmarket, opened for Doors Open Day 2011 to welcome 2000 visitors in one day. They heard about its 400-year history and the work of Patrick Geddes in early 20th century conservation, and were fascinated to learn about the future plans for the building in the hands of the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust. This is just one building in the city, hidden down a close, which has an amazing history that we can learn from but is passed by without note by most on a day-to-day basis. Hidden gems like this across the Old and New Towns deserve far better treatment than they currently receive, not with banners and flags but with discreet signage that alerts people to their existence and importance.

Even the larger attractions need improved signage. Tourists regularly ask for directions to the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Palace and, believe it or not, the Castle! The National Galleries and theatres are also calling out for improved directional signage, leading visitors from the Royal Mile to other destinations within the World Heritage Site.

Is Edinburgh among the worst cities for visitor experiences in Europe? That’s a hard one to gauge. The retail offering is certainly wanting. The tram works are disruptive. Waste management lacks a meaningful strategy. The city is compromised by lack of management and stewardship, poor logistical traffic controls and lack of adequate investment and care in its public realm.

Edinburgh World Heritage has a management plan with policies proposed to protect, conserve, develop and enhance the site and yet, as Prof Mckean points out, many problems remain and few new buildings of note have been built. There is an impression that EWH, compared to its roots in the New Town Conservation Committee and the Old Town Renewal Trust, is stifled by its local and national government funders, and the background influence is not reaching the desired result of a continuously enhanced Edinburgh.

Whilst EWH does good work managing grants on behalf of Edinburgh City Council and Historic Scotland in the restoration of buildings, gardens and statuary across the World Heritage Site, and research into the energy efficiency of historic buildings, its influence has not extended to the art of place making (a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces).

The Cockburn Association is often accused of saying no to development but in reality it says no to architecture that fails to match the quality that Edinburgh deserves. We know that Edinburgh residents don’t want to lose any more historic buildings and that many struggle to see the long-term gain in increasing the number of three-star hotels and budget clothing retailers, and yet council leaders seem keen to pursue this sort of inward investment.

They invited an expert on World Heritage Site economic development to speak at a recent event who described cheap retail and budget accommodation as a route to the bottom. If he is correct, our staggeringly beautiful Edinburgh does perhaps face the future prospect of becoming the destination of last resort, whilst re-conquered cities such as Lyon, Barcelona and Copenhagen top the poll of cities for people.

This month, the city council announced extra investment to boost the city: “Sir Terry Farrell as City Design Champion introduced the notion of ‘place making’ to ensure that the values which made Edinburgh a great liveable city, were understood and continued to shape its future. The Edinburgh Design Initiative has continued to champion ‘place making’ and is using the ‘whole place’ approach to ensure that the council understands the real impact of developments and investments.” Edinburgh Design Initiative received £25,000.

We need more than a drop in the ocean like this to turn things around. We need commitment, vision, leadership and action.

n Marion Williams is the director of the Cockburn Association

‘We haven’t improved the visitor experience’

On Monday we revealed that roadworks and rubbish in the City Centre had led to the Capital being regarded as among the worst places in Europe to visit, according to Professor Charles McKean, the outgoing chairman of Edinburgh World Heritage.

Prof McKean said other European cities of similar size showed Edinburgh up.

“It has been a failure of the last few years that we’ve not managed to improve the general visitor experience, parts of which are among the worst in Europe, particularly with things like historic interpretation and the amount of general clutter,” he said.