Pierre Forissier: Green bridge for Leith is missing link

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Edinburgh should take inspiration from New York, says Pierre Forissier, the architect behind plans for a “green bridge” over Leith Walk

There seems nowadays to be a confused relationship between the citizens of Edinburgh and our own city. Major decisions are born from consultations but their outcome can be so ill-managed that we are simply left estranged. Let’s not talk about the tram for a while. Let’s rather talk about tomorrow’s Edinburgh and what could be its next most important decisions.

URBAN ECOLOGY - TRANSITION CITY

The transport sector produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector in Scotland. But town planning strategies and local policies can call upon a number of initiatives to reduce this source of pollution. More than 300 communities around the world have already joined the “Transition Towns” movement, commencing the process of reducing their dependency on oil. In the same spirit, local associations in Edinburgh like Greener Leith and Leith Open Space are trying to raise citizens’ awareness about environmental issues which concern not only Leith. Edinburgh council has been looking for a vision for Leith Walk and we believe that this vision has to embrace the whole city: the network might be the key, but not any network. A network which belongs to the city’s history, which links the seemingly unlinkable. Edinburgh needs a new landscape which should depend on existing and underlying links. Some of them are missing, while the chains are already clearly visible from above. One can see patches of green, cycle paths but Leith Walk as a central divider. Why? Because Leith Walk has its own logic, its own flow. Going against it is like going against a river. Leith Walk needs a bridge which would link the east cycle path from Portobelo right to Pilrig Park and the west of the city. A bridge which would redirect the ever-growing flows of bikes and pedestrians who are simply crossing the city. The bridge would not only bring a solution to the network’s short circuit, it should also become a landmark.

A SUSTAINABLE DESIGN

One might argue that building a bridge above Leith Walk sounds almost Herculean. Yes, but for one location: The old elevated railway tracks from Gordon Street to Jane Street, where there was once a bridge. The structure is just there waiting.

So what would the bridge be made of? What kind of bridge should it be? The idea is to bring a lightweight structure with low embodied energy. Construction materials based on plant products represent the way forward in terms of diminishing our dependence on hydrocarbons. Therefore timber would represent an excellent choice of material. Locally and bio-sourced timber provides an excellent ecological solution. The whole frame should be sourced from local artisans and locally assembled.

A CONTINUOUS WILDLIFE CORRIDOR

We talked about the bridge but what would the new path look like? The idea is to emulate what has been done in other great cities like Paris and New York. In both cases, disused train tracks became not only public paths but elevated parks and gardens. The Paris experiment known as “Promenade plantée” had its doubters when in the 1980s the run-down area of La Bastille was designated for an overhaul that would not only preserve the old railway arches, but also would provide an unlikely park. The arches got renovated and new businesses arrived. The area is now a must-go for local residents and visitors alike. Years later, the New York “High-Line” seemed like a no-brainer. Chicago, Philadelphia and many more are also now actively reclaiming their lands.

So what kind of garden here? A garden for all, a park made of communal gardens. The new gardens would allow neighbours of all backgrounds to share time and experience to become the new eco-citizens of Edinburgh. Communal gardens can change the social relations of the city by giving a sense of ownership to all. The gardens would naturally encourage biodiversity and offer a natural animal habitat.

The idea of a bridge above Leith Walk is not new but our latest attempt is now generating a growing momentum which could prove decisive. Business leaders will remain sceptical about it. But the idea here could not bring more value for less money. Can our city afford turning 500m of disused train tracks into self- developed gardens and build a bridge out of timber boards? Let’s really hope so.

Pierre Forissier is director of biomorphis architects and a tutor at Edinburgh University