Edinburgh's Princes Street can be reborn by opening up its views and letting ordinary people live there – Professor Joe Goldblatt
Long before the giant retail palace named Jenners closed its mighty and ornate gates, I once briefly glanced out from their second floor – through a rare sliver of window – and cherished the view of Princes Street Gardens and Edinburgh Castle.
I then looked around at the fluorescent, seemingly grey lighting in the claustrophobic sales room and thought, why are we not allowed to enjoy this magnificent and rare view?
Edinburgh is one of the few cities in the entire world that has an uninterrupted view of a World Heritage city as designated by Unesco from the vantage point of a commercial district. However, despite this advantage, our view is almost entirely blocked by the retail design we have developed on our main shopping street.
This was no accident. To produce the most profitable visual merchandising, retailers sought to focus the customers’ attention solely upon the products they wished to sell. They did not wish to have any distractions.
I learned this lesson the hard way when I was a young street performer and wandered into a jewellery shop where a woman was looking at wedding rings.
I tried to amuse her and the manager quickly and firmly escorted me out the front door and then told me: “Never, ever, distract a woman who is looking at diamonds!”
The new Edinburgh St James Quarter has established a new precedent in visual merchandising, however. They have embraced the beauty of this city through their large expanse of glass windows and uniquely magnificent canopy.
Customers have plenty to look at within this new temple to capitalism and, when they need a break, they need only turn their eyes to one of the many windows to enjoy some of the rare sunshine and the ever-present, beautiful and historic views.
So, what shall become of Princes Street in the future? One clue is the legislation that the early city fathers and mothers enshrined in law to ensure that nothing could be constructed upon the southern side of Princes Street.
The only notable exception to this is the stately St John’s Church at Shandwick Place. This exception was granted because, according to local legend, some of the city councillors were actually also elders of this church and they decided to answer to an even higher power than the citizens who had elected them.
This breathtakingly uninterrupted view provides many possibilities for future commercial development. Each of these plans must, first and foremost, exploit the view from the north side of Princes Street.
Future businesses such as restaurants, cafes, hotels, and attractions would find a natural home in this location. In addition, a mixed-use development such as that being planned for Jenners could offer highly desirable homes for sale.
These residential properties must in my opinion also ring-fence an appropriate number of places for senior sheltered housing to provide convenient and low-cost accommodation for the thousands of folk now on a waiting list in our city.
Any development upon Princes Street must embrace the huge gap between rich and poor in our city. Twenty-five per cent of all children in our city currently live in poverty. They must redevelop Princes Street with this in mind and provide housing, jobs and activities that will help close this gap in the future.
If we fail to do this, the view we create will only be more dismal than that of the past. We should try to find the right balance between capitalism and socialism by developing this major avenue as an artery that becomes a life-giving force for the city in the future, by generating employment as well as taxes to fund our future civic ambitions.
The last time that I visited Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, I looked around as I did in Jenners and asked, “How long can this last?” The cost of constant reinvestment in new rides and structures and theming and personnel seems to me to be prohibitive in terms of generating sufficient future profits for the parent corporation.
I suggested to a close friend associated with Disney that perhaps one day there would be more residential accommodation and restaurants on the property and fewer rides and attractions.
To my surprise, Disney continued for many years to invest in retail shop development and now you can hardly move without a retail sales assistant attaching themselves to you to peddle their branded wares.
However, as a result of the global pandemic and declining attendance at their parks, I wonder if their senior executives are now reimagining the parks to offer more residential accommodation and hospitality with a view to generate greater future profits in the future?
This is one of the many challenges for Princes Street. How do we as citizens ensure through proper planning so that this scarce commodity of space is used in the best way to benefit us today and also for future generations.
This is why I believe that the mixed-use approach of accommodation, hotels, restaurants and cafes, colourfully theming Princes Street, shall not only provide a welcome view for future punters but also for the citizens of Edinburgh.
One thing is absolutely certain – a new perspective is needed and now is the time to begin to widen our present view to embrace every logical possibility.
Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of Queen Margaret University and to learn more about his views about the City of Edinburgh visit www.joegoldblatt.scot