The forgotten lesson of mass exodus out of Edinburgh city centre in 1970s – Donald Anderson

A new book reveals the scale of urban blight that affected central Edinburgh in the 1970s, writes Donald Anderson.

Monday, 16th December 2019, 6:00 am
The demolition of the top of Leith Street is almost complete in this picture taken in August 1973

I do love an old book, especially when it has something interesting to say about Edinburgh or Scotland. I recently snapped up a copy of The Unmaking of Edinburgh, a collection of essays edited by Helen Peacock that describes the “decay, depopulation and destruction of central Edinburgh”. Written in the 1970s, it is a cry for help at a time when the city centre was facing what appeared to be an existential crisis.

Back then large swathes of the city centre were being demolished in what seemed to be a chaotic fashion. The book sets out in detail how city centre areas had been subject to huge depopulation with the Holyrood area suffering most of all. Its population went from 19,959 in 1951, down to just 7,950 just 20 years later.

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Across all of the city centre area set out in the book the population dropped from 122,317 to 69,176 over the same period as derelict tenements were demolished and residents moved to the suburbs. That’s a huge drop of 43 per cent in the number of people living in the city centre.

Many cities faced the same issues, but Edinburgh has bounced back in the years since the book was written. There are still some huge issues – not least the issues caused by Airbnbs, but thankfully Edinburgh’s city centre is once again thriving. The figures are a sharp reminder that success now is far easier to deal with than were the past failures of urban blight.