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Edinburgh must see off its 'albatross of excellence'

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The city must plan for large-scale change says departing design champion, Terry Farrell

When I was asked more than five years ago to be Edinburgh’s design champion, I did so on the basis that I would only concern myself with proactive city-making – that is to say, with the public realm and large-scale ‘visioning’ work. I would not address development control issues and I would not be involved in planning applications.

Many in Edinburgh (pictured above) have not understood this – the city regularly works itself up into a lather over planning applications. I considered that Edinburgh was more than adequately set up with conservation, heritage advisory bodies and the like to react to developers’ schemes.

But Edinburgh was just not addressing the almost complete lack of proactive planning for the future of the city, and so I have sought to see how this could be remedied. Like elsewhere in Britain, many do not understand that proactive planning is not a properly resourced element of the stewardship and governance of our cities. Development control, namely reacting to developers’ plans, is, on its own, nowhere near enough. What is the benefit of arguing about a change of a shop front on Princes Street when the underuse of its upper floors, the run-down shops at its west end, the traffic, the poor street furniture and inadequate paving and pedestrian crossings are all substandard for this, the finest promenading street in Britain? There is, shockingly, no overall co-ordinated plan for the largest dockland redevelopment in the UK, running for several kilometres along the coastline from Granton to Leith and beyond. The new tram system is costing hundreds of millions of pounds, yet has scant input from urban designers.

There are many other UK cities, large and small, that Edinburgh could learn from: the Medway towns; Birmingham coming to terms with its 1960s motorway madness; and Liverpool, the regenerated City of Culture, to name a few. One of the causes of Edinburgh’s inertia is the excellence of its historic core – what I have called ‘the albatross of excellence’ – which cloaks the city in a wonderful, comfortable aura of fine places. There seems nothing much that planners or the city need to do other than to protect what is there.

Important as that is, there is an enormous amount to do to make the wider city a better one, and inclusive for all citizens. It must plan for inevitable changes around and behind Waverley, in the West End, at the docks, on the huge, run-down outer housing estates, at various universities and businesses and at the St James shopping centre. The economic vitality and the very liveability of the city need to be addressed: plans need to be made – not just by the city council, but by all the private, public and voluntary sectors working together, as they do in the best city-making that is happening elsewhere. Edinburgh needs to take positive steps to put city-making higher in its priorities. It simply can’t afford not to. 


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