There is a bizarre hysteria about how Edinburgh is brought to a grinding halt by the festivals each August, writes Brian Ferguson.
It is an annual melodrama, played out against the backdrop of apparent mayhem on the streets of Edinburgh each summer. While crowds throng the city’s streets round the clock for most of August, queuing for shows and making merry in pavement cafes and pop-up bars, a rumbling of discontent can felt.
Most of the time, it can be easily ignored, like a distant thunderstorm. But just as climate change seems to have turned Edinburgh’s weather patterns upside down, so the pattern of complaining about its festivals has altered.
Blogs and newspaper headlines raising concerns about the impact of the city’s major events, the Disneyfication of Edinburgh and the over-commercialisation of its world heritage site are now a year-round phenomenon.
A case could even be made that there have been more unwelcome headlines about the city’s cultural festivities since the beginning of this year than an average August. But do they reflect growing public dismay and anger about the impact of the festivals or a culture of complaining that is stoked by the fires of social media?
It seems to be both to me. There is certainly an army of (largely anonymous) online activists, who appear hell-bent on the cancellation of the entire Edinburgh Festival and its multiple off-shoots. They regard cultural events as purely commercial enterprises staged entirely for tourists who flock into the city centre and stay in Airbnb accommodation in such numbers that no-one else is able to live there.
There is a bizarre hysteria about how Edinburgh is brought to a grinding halt by the festivals each August, which is completely at odds with my experiences of travelling around the city by various forms of transport, despite audiences topping four million.
The idea that the whole of Edinburgh is swamped by the festivals is, of course, a nonsense. You could stroll down Leith Walk and arrive at the docks without seeing a shred of evidence that the world’s biggest arts festival is taking place a 10-minute cab ride away.
Yet there are many valid concerns about the impact of the festivals which the city has collectively failed to address, despite the huge growth in audience numbers in modern times.
By far the biggest issue is that the city centre is pretty much still a free-for-all for the drivers of private cars, tour coaches, vans and lorries in all but a handful of streets. While more and more people are undoubtedly arriving in Edinburgh each August, the capacity of the city centre’s roads and pavements has remained the same.
I reported last year on growing “negativity” towards the festivals and the tourism industry in Edinburgh, which emerged from the biggest annual survey of public opinion and was identified as a “strategic risk” to the city’s major events, which are attended by two-thirds of people in the city each year. Yet there has only been minor tinkering with the arrangements for handling the huge influx of people in the last decade or so. George Street, which the book festival has expanded into, still largely resembles a car park for most of August, tourists still have to compete with traffic at either end of the Royal Mile. It is nearly a decade since Danish urban design guru Jan Gehl was called in to advise the city on how to shake up the city centre – only for his report to be largely ignored as new political leaders took charge. Mercifully, there are signs of radical thinking emerging from the city council in the proposals to make the Royal Mile, Holyrood Road and the Cowgate traffic-free once a month to test support for more long-term measures. Rolling out some serious month-long experiments to make Edinburgh more people-friendly in August should be next on the agenda.