Roddy Smith: Making best use of public spaces will enhance city

TRIAL: George Street focused on cyclists and pedestrians for a while. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

TRIAL: George Street focused on cyclists and pedestrians for a while. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

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FLEXIBILITY to ensure a wide variety of events and festivals will boost economy and lifestyle in the Capital, says Roddy Smith

GREAT public spaces are an essential ingredient in ensuring our magnificent city centre remains vibrant, attractive and sustainable.

That is why we are delighted that Edinburgh City Council is working towards a Public Spaces Protocol, which will look at how we use the spaces we have and how we can create more.

Why is it important? The ability to use public space is key to allowing the spread of footfall throughout the city centre and enabling pressure to be taken off already heavily-used space, and equally bringing footfall to areas that can benefit from it.

How we use the space – or to be more accurate how we are able to use the space – is also crucially important. If we want to maintain a busy and vibrant city centre it is important that spaces can be animated throughout the year with public art, events, free entertainment and, in the case of Edinburgh, for use during the economically-critical festivals.

The Edinburgh Festivals Impact Study (May 2011) reported that the festivals bring significant positive cultural and social benefits to the city, and direct economic benefits to the city and to the Scottish economy (worth in excess of £261m to the latter). In the first festivals health check, recommended in a festivals strategy entitled Thundering Hooves, it is made plain that while the city offers excellent support, there is no room for complacency if Edinburgh’s global position is to be maintained.

It is suggested that benefits would be gained from better communication; more awareness of the festivals as key stakeholders in and contributors to the city’s success; and more intensive care of the city’s public spaces.

It is vitally important that there is an economic case as well as an activity-based reason to animate space. Public realm works cost money – sometimes significant money – and we need to be able to identify significant potential in supporting enhanced public realm works in the city.

But it is not only about the economic benefit. Recent research by CEC for its residents survey suggests nearly 80 per cent of our city’s residents believe the festivals enhance the city as somewhere to live.

It is crucial that our public space can be used flexibly. Already there has been some excellent progress with this principle, especially during the George Street trial last year when there was a higher pedestrian focus than normal.

Our best city centre spaces, such as the Mound precinct and the privately-owned, Essential Edinburgh-managed, St Andrew Square Garden, are used constantly for events – but we need other options as well.

Work undertaken by Edinburgh City Council and Ironside Farrar has produced some superb design principles for the future design of George Street. Although it is always difficult to provide solutions that will be universally welcomed, especially when there may be conservation issues, I believe the plans that will be put before elected officials in due course will enable a flexibility in use at different times of the year that will maintain and enhance one of the finest streets in the city.

Progress is not always straightforward. As our city changes, so must our attitudes to how we use the space we have. For example, with the East End of our city centre developing quickly we need to think about the effects this will have on the West End. Throughout the city centre the ability to animate spaces will help move people around the city centre and assist the public and businesses to enjoy and benefit from a mixture of events and festivals.

• Roddy Smith is chief executive at Essential Edinburgh, which was established to manage the city centre’s Business Improvement District.