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Edinburgh grapples with big changes to the old and new

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It used to be said that if you left Edinburgh for 10 years and came back nothing had changed, writes Julian Holder.

However, as the RIAS's recent exhibition of new architecture of the 1990s, 'Edinburgh on the rack', demonstrated, this could not be claimed of the past 10 years. Consistently coming in the top three in any quality-of-life survey of British, or indeed European, cities, Edinburgh's problem, as was made clear at an international conference last weekend, is that it is being loved to death. People want to live there and in the Old Town alone the population has increased from 2,000 to 10,000 in the past decade, with people now commuting from the city centre to the edge for work.

Aware of this, businesses are relocating at a growing rate with all the attendant development pressures this brings on residential space, transport infrastructure, leisure and retail facilities and new architecture.

Since 1995, Edinburgh has joined that exclusive UNESCO club of World Heritage sites, thus inviting greater scrutiny of its affairs. Many, including the recently formed Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, welcome this conferment of extra heritage status. Others do not. Composed of both the former Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee and the Edinburgh Old Town Renewal Trust, this new organisation held the timely conference in order to look to the future. Both organisations have achieved much in the past 30 years yet trust seemed to be sadly lacking between the two, now united in a marriage of convenience to reflect the fact that the World Heritage site is composed of both Old and New towns. Edinburgh is almost a tale of two cities - this was almost a conference of two cultures fighting each other over the nature and pace of change.

Speakers from Groningen, Barcelona, Bergen, Brussels, and Toronto, as well as the UK, were invited to offer their experience of how to manage change and development.

David Mackay, in a version of the address he gave to the RIBA's annual conference in Manchester recently, reiterated the need for what he called 'repair with respect'of cities.

Certainly, the vision he advanced of the 'city as a work of art' with architects as its form givers, as opposed to planners' application of formula, persuaded many of the correctness of his approach. For many, however, the 'city as work of art' seemed not only a false, but dangerous analogy, as if Old Masters could be altered 'for the way we live now' rather than a new art gallery or museum be built to hang new works in.

Edinburgh is currently grappling with the creation of its first New Town - an edge city - in more than 200 years as a way of accommodating change while maintaining its historic core. Crucial to the development, Edinburgh City Council is about to issue a set of management guidelines to ensure the appropriate maintenance of the site.

On the strength of this conference it would seem to be necessary to have conflict management at its core if the quality of the experience of living and working in such a unique and loved World Heritage city is to be maintained.

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