Managing the pressures of our growing city can be difficult. It’s not a process which is concluded overnight but if done well, it’s an iterative, evolutionary process which protects the characteristics of the Capital while continuing to provide the opportunities for development and growth.
Our challenges are well demonstrated during August when it feels like the world descends upon us to create the biggest arts festival in the world. I understand that many would want us to pull up the draw bridge because the scale of our challenge seems too great but I don’t agree with that approach at all.
I spent three years working for the Fringe festival, embracing the opportunities it brings, and the chaotic vibrancy that the festivals add to the city in August is one of the standout features that makes Edinburgh what it is. It’s too easy to forget about the higher levels of unemployment, lower levels of inward investment and lower levels of quality of life that Edinburgh had before the festivals ignited a cultural boom which contributed to an economic boom too.
The 35,000 people now working in the tourist economy in Edinburgh are enriching our city economically and socially. It’s also too easy to dismiss anything to do with culture or the arts as “for tourists”. The concerts in Princes St Gardens weren’t without their controversy, but I know many local residents who attended and loved seeing some of their favourite acts performing beneath the stunning Castle backdrop. While we need to have a full-throated debate as a city about the use of that space in future, that debate needs to include the honesty that the majority of Edinburgh residents attend festival events and young citizens in particular want us to embrace the opportunities of having international acts coming to Edinburgh to perform for an international (and local) audience.
Aside from tourism, more people live in Edinburgh now than when I took over as council leader 14 months ago. And more will live in the city in another year. The challenges of how to deal with a growing residential population draw out many of the same issues as having to cater for millions of visitors each year. In that regard, the council is taking a holistic approach in finding the solutions. The City Centre Transformation project is developing plans of how our city centre can best cater for the transport and public realm demands we’re putting on it. The plans to extend the tramlines will give us a emission-free method of carrying an additional eight million passengers to, or through, the city centre without adding any additional vehicles from what’s already on Princes Street. And our TVL plans will help create a revenue stream to better manage the impact of so many visitors by investing more in city management of services like waste and even providing further infrastructure investment.
As a city we’ve been leading the way with the concept of “placemaking”. The idea that streets should be designed for people first and foremost. It’s a concept that we’ve made great inroads with in recent years and I think is starting to drive up the “this is nice” factor when walking about. But we need to expand this methodology for peak visitor times. Crowd management is essential during these times but the beauty of our Capital has to be protected and it’s not beyond us to find attractive ways of securing public safety when the world comes to town.
A growing city and growing tourist economy in particular is indeed throwing up challenges. But by taking a hard-headed approach to the opportunities and difficulties of growth, we can make sure the (bigger) Edinburgh of the future is one where more of us share in the success of our Capital City.
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