10 key things Edinburgh must learn from this year's Festival season
This year’s summer festivals were the biggest yet. And they probably sparked more debate than ever before. Is Edinburgh suffering from “over-tourism”? Have the festivals grown too big for their own good? Do we city residents lose sight of how lucky we are to be home to the world’s greatest arts festival?
Here we take a look at ten things that Edinburgh should learn from this summer’s festivities.
The worst bus journeys. Ever.No one expects to get anywhere fast in the centre of Edinburgh during the festivals. But the snail-like pace of buses through the city centre this August broke all records. Diverting so many buses down Princes Street in order to accommodate road closures on surrounding streets simply didn’t work. This approach needs a serious rethink for next year. Traditionally all but essential roadworks come to a halt during the festivals to ensure that the city keeps moving. That was supposedly enforced again this year. Do we need a stricter definition of “essential works”?
Bigger is not always betterThirty years ago there were grumbles about the Fringe being too big for Edinburgh, but it has grown almost every single year since. Is it now, finally, at (or beyond) capacity? There is a growing body of opinion that says it is. As residents, we snap up well over a million of the almost three-and-a-half million tickets sold by the Fringe and International Festival combined. Accommodating everyone who buys up the other two-and-a-half million does put a huge strain on the city. One idea is that the Fringe can spread its wings, by moving into new parts of the city, like it has done into North Berwick with the Fringe by the Sea. But is there an appetite for that? Many people enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city centre but quite like returning home for some peace and quiet. There are lots of potential assets that the festivals could bring to communities around the city from which they could reap benefits that last all year round. Could a plan to stage shows in Portobello Town Hall, for example, help to save the historic venue from the threat of closure? The heavily publicly-funded International Festival helped to do just that at Leith Theatre. Such projects can work fantastically when they genuinely support the best interests of the local community.
I can hear musicFrom Lewis Capaldi to Madness, Kylie Minogue to Primal Scream, the concerts on the Castle Esplanade and in Princes Street Gardens produced many of the most memorable moments of the summer. The stars love coming to Edinburgh during the festivals when venues like the Playhouse and Usher Hall are booked for other events. Despite some disruption and safety concerns around pavements being blocked, these concerts are hugely popular. Complaints appeared to be down on last year due to improved management. There must be ways to ensure the concerts can continue with the minimum of inconvenience. No one wants to go back to having to traipse down the M8 to see all the biggest stars.
I hear the music all the timeAre Silent Discos the most inappropriately named entertainment in the world? They are hugely popular and can be great fun to take part in, but groups of people singing karaoke-style at all hours doesn’t always make for happy neighbours. The rules about busking are also confused and causing increasing friction between city centre residents and performers. Can this be better managed without the city becoming a killjoy? And, if so, who will pay for that management?
We’re full, go homeWe all like a good moan about town being too busy. It’s part of what makes us Edinburgh. And, yes, there have been plenty of reasons to moan at times this summer. There are genuine issues being raised by campaigners against so-called “over-tourism” which the city needs to address quicker and better than it is doing. The festivals need to find better ways of building what they do around the everyday lives of the city. At the same time, we shouldn’t be blind to the way this debate can colour the way we are seen around the world. No matter how some of us feel at times, is “we’re full, go home” really the message we want to send out to the world, especially after Brexit?
What a load of rubbishOverflowing bins and bags of rubbish piling up around them have become as much of a festivals tradition as the Festival Fireworks. The streets certainly weren’t anywhere near as bad as three years ago when the Evening News launched our Bin Watch campaign. The scenes though, particularly as the Festivals pack up, remain a rotten state of affairs and a poor advert for the city. How does the council double down on city centre street cleaning in August without dragging in more staff and resources who would otherwise be looking after the rest of the city?This is one thing that the long-awaited tourist tax must pay for – and the sooner the better.
Breaking down barriersThe stereotypical image is that festival-goers are all tourists and middle-class, flat white-drinking, humous-dipping, culture vultures, with not a working class soul in sight. That of course does not capture the full breadth of the festivals and who they attract. But it is still uncomfortably close to the truth. Festival organisers are acutely aware of this and committed to making the events of August more welcoming to all. That is a long-term job, and there is much work going on quietly with schools across the city, but more needs to be done. How about an across-the-board residents’ discount like that offered during the winter festivals? Free tickets for the city’s unemployed? Booking venues like the North Edinburgh Arts Centre or Firrhill High School for free Best of the Fest-style previews to give more people a taste of what to expect? With a collective will, all these things are possible.
And talking of barriers...Sticking blocks of concrete and barriers that look like they belong on a building site in the middle of city centre streets does little to promote new pedestrian zones. There was a predictable “this simply won’t do in a World Heritage Site” outcry from the conservation lobby. But anecdotal evidence suggests many people didn’t venture into some of these pedestrian zones because, well, they thought it was a building site.
Orchestral manoeuvres in the parkWho would have thought that 15,000 people would turn out to hear a 90-minute orchestral performance without fireworks being thrown in? That’s exactly what happened at Tynecastle Park when the LA Philarmonic performed for the official curtain raiser for this year’s festival season. The International Festival has proved that with imaginative programming you can attract big crowds to events outside the city centre and to types of entertainment that many of us wouldn’t normally consider.
Train in vainAfter the chaos that engulfed Waverley Station when Scotland played France on a Saturday during the Festival, there will need to be a review of how many major events Edinburgh can host during August. Do we have to put the kybosh on big sporting fixtures? Or does ScotRail need to get its act in order?
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