Edinburgh’s arrested development

The lack of vision over the future landscape of the city is laying the foundations for trouble, says Richard J. Williams

March 6, 2014

Source: Getty

Lack of vision: Edinburgh’s poverty of ambition concerning grand projects means that foreign visitors to Scotland’s capital find themselves dismayed by the shabby quality of the city’s infrastructure

One of the most important ways cities talk to their citizens is through architecture. At best buildings can provide a sense of direction

Whether or not the Scots vote for independence on 18 September, it is clear that we are going to see greater differentiation between the country and the rest of the UK. What is curious is that we know so little about what this future Scotland will look like.

This is curious because Scotland has, in Edinburgh and Glasgow, two of Europe’s great urban set pieces. Both were immensely influential in their day and their contemporary success as tourist destinations, especially Edinburgh’s, has everything to do with their architectural qualities.

Take Edinburgh’s New Town, completed around 1820 to an earlier plan by James Craig, and, along with the medieval Old Town, awarded Unesco World Heritage Status in 1995. A sharply hierarchical arrangement with minute gradations of social class built in stone, it is probably the most complete built expression of the Enlightenment anywhere.

In Edinburgh, the New Town represents the high watermark of architectural achievement and, listening in on recent conversations about development, you could easily come away with the impression that nothing of any consequence has happened since. Almost everything has been clouded by a sense of failure or worse.

The University of Edinburgh’s rebuilding of the 18th-century George Square in the early 1960s is still, half a century later, widely regarded as a trauma on a par with the Second World War (according to architectural historian Miles Glendinning, one critic called it a “holocaust”). The St James Shopping Centre at the eastern end of Princes Street, a Brutalist megastructure completed in 1973, is a cause of shame among the city’s chattering classes. The development of the Leith Docks is at best a collection of fragments – and will remain so because they will not be connected by tram to the city centre. Now another architectural embarrassment seems to be in the making: “Caltongate”, a modest mixed-use proposal close to Waverley Station, which many observers think desecrates the Old Town’s Unesco status.

None of this is anyone’s fault in particular, not even Edinburgh’s unloved city council. It’s cultural. Edinburgh (and Scotland more generally) seems to have little appetite for the new. Scots may disagree, but in my 14 years here I have seen only distant echoes of the transformative regeneration that has touched all big cities south of the border, in northern Europe and even in some of the most unlikely bits of the US that, two decades ago, seemed to have given up on city life altogether.

The demography bears this out, too: many of the places I think of as urban reference points in Europe or the US have registered double-digit increases in population in the last decade, including, according to the 2011 census, a staggering 19 per cent in Manchester, the last English city I lived in. By comparison, Edinburgh registered a measly 6 per cent, despite the oceans of capital that flowed through the city in the early 2000s.

Why this is the case remains puzzling. It is popularly recognised, however. An article I wrote on the topic for Foreign Policy, the American magazine, in early 2013 produced a remarkable reaction in the local media, the vast majority of respondents baffled, as was I, by the disjunction between the capital’s wealth and the poverty of its civic ambition. Foreign visitors that I have shown around routinely find themselves dismayed by the shabby quality of the city’s infrastructure and the gloomy, down-at-heel character of shopping streets, many dominated by charity outlets (Americans find this particularly baffling). Dublin, a good comparison in terms of economics and demography, positively crackles with wealth despite its far severer post-2008 crash.

No, there’s something odder at work, on which both sides of the referendum campaign should reflect. In short, there’s no clear vision for the built environment because there’s no clear political vision, on either side of the debate. Vision may not be something we expect from the “No” campaign, but it is from the other side of the independence debate. I’ve twice read all 670 pages of Scotland’s Future, the Scottish government’s 2013 White Paper on independence, and nowhere is there a statement about architecture. The word “architecture” doesn’t appear at all and “design” only in the context of taxation regimes. “Urban” and “city” barely appear. The built environment is mentioned only in the context of heritage.

Building, in other words, happened in the past. That’s fine in and of itself, but it’s not an attitude that squares easily with the ambitions you expect from a perhaps soon to be independent, or as-good-as-independent, nation state. Most conversations about buildings start and end with the heritage lobby. The Cockburn Association, founded in 1875, is the oldest and proudest – but there are probably more, and louder, heritage organisations in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK, and perhaps the world.

New buildings have, on occasion, appeared, but they have been apologetic at best. Take the Parliament building, completed at a final cost of £414 million in 2004. It has become a popular attraction with a critical following, but so anxious is it to blend in with the landscape, so concerned not to blemish the city, that it’s possible to walk around its perimeter and miss it entirely. You certainly won’t find the entrance without persistence and help. Deference to surroundings, a desire not to stick out, obscurantism: these, surely, are not the characteristics a nation, independent or otherwise, would wish to project.

Given the strange context, it is no surprise to find that Edinburgh struggles with things that other cities have found straightforward. Its tram project is a good example. Now close to completion, the project’s costs escalated sharply from £375 million in 2007 to more than £1 billion in 2014. At the same time, the planned network has shrunk from three lines to one, and a total length of 14 kilometres, two-thirds of what was originally planned. It is a wonder it was built at all. In 2011, building was halted by contractual disputes, resulting in such a dramatic rise in costs that in June that year Edinburgh city councillors considered cancelling it altogether. They didn’t, but only because they realised that it would cost more to stop than to carry on.

There were numerous other embarrassments along the way. Leith Walk, a mile-long boulevard connecting the city centre with the port of Leith, was dug up in preparation for the tramline, with massive disruption to local businesses, only to have its phase of the project cancelled. A loop around the waterfront was similarly culled, leaving stalled developments like broken teeth. The Princes Street section, once built, had to be relaid before a single tram had run along it.

The humiliation was horribly public. During the 2011 International Festival, the highlight of the city’s cultural year, a Google search for “Edinburgh” produced story after story about the tram saga. Meanwhile, as Edinburgh stalled, Croydon, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield built extensions to existing tram systems, largely on time, within budget and seemingly without fuss.

Edinburgh’s trams will be fine in the end, of course. But the saga did immense reputational damage. And in a city that was averse to risk in the first place, it is hard to see any future appetite for any more big projects, certainly not trams.

Does it matter? Well, I’d say yes. One of the most important ways cities talk to their citizens is through architecture. Buildings can be irritants, or worse, but at best they can provide a sense of direction that transcends short-term interests. And if they turn out to be no good, you can always knock them down again.

Edinburgh was once outward-looking, energetic and thoroughly modern, the qualities that built the New Town. It needs to recover something of that spirit, for its own benefit, and for the sake of Scotland.

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Reader's comments (1)

"Does it matter? Well, I’d say yes. One of the most important ways cities talk to their citizens is through architecture" Perhaps, but the logic of this article is based around a tourist gaze/conversation