Privatisation of Public Space – We have to remember it’s our built and cultural heritage that makes Edinburgh special.

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Juliet Wilson’s image highlights a loss on amenity (and footpath) in Princes Street to support commercial activity.

When I first moved from Dundee to Edinburgh in 1996 is was during “The Festival”. I embraced its vibrancy, diversity and inclusiveness. My abiding memory of that summer was that, compared to Dundee, the large number of people on the streets meant I always felt safe when walking around the city at night.

Since then, however, in my view the Edinburgh’s Festivals have changed. The old experience is still there I’m sure, but it’s drowned out by a bigger and much more commercial offering – this perhaps reflects changes we’ve seen elsewhere in society. One estimate puts the value of the Festivals as being £1 billion.

Although some people do make valid points about the nature and character of Edinburgh’s Festivals (particularly the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), most of us remain proud that people from around the world want to come to Edinburgh to enjoy the Festivals, explore our fantastic city and gamble with our weather. Like me, however, they want visitors to see Edinburgh at its best. Whether visitors are from Newtongrange, Newcastle or New Zealand, Edinburgh residents want to be proud of what they see when they come here. Like me, they want bins emptied, potholes filled and weeds cleared from footpaths. It’s easy to dismiss these problems, but first impressions really do count.

Harder to dismiss, however, has been the creeping privatisation of public space in our cities. The impact of this means that amenity is lost for visitors and residents alike.  Three examples:

  1. I am a fan of Edinburgh’s “A-Board Ban” which means footpaths can’t be used to display temporary on-street advertising structures.  This frees up valuable footpath space, making it easier and safer for those with mobility problems, buggies and young children to get around. Whilst it may be right that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is shown some flexibility on this, the exemption they have has gone much further than expected.
  2. One of the great things about Edinburgh, is the unexpected fantastic views people encounter just walking around the city. However, the creeping privatisation of public space means these views are now being blocked to support commercial activity or to host advertising.
  3. Outside my Ward, one of the best views in Edinburgh is looking from Princess Street, across the gardens, up to the castle. This view is part of what defines Edinburgh and on any day of the year pedestrians (both residents and visitors alike) can you found photographing it. The problem is that these same people can also view ticketed events in Princess Street Gardens so on “safety” grounds a wooden barrier was erected last year and nobody quite knew what to do (see here and here for big talk, and here for the u-turn. This year we have a “curtain style” barrier and access is denied to large sections of the footpath on the south side of Princes Street. The barrier also extends around a large portion of Princes Street Gardens and access is via a £35 ticket. Creeping privatisation essentially means that increasingly the public can’t fully access public parks.

What is interesting is that those that support the ever-increasing impact on public space are unwilling to enter a debate about the loss of amenity. Instead, they suggest that those who question their agenda are somehow “anti-tourist”. Indeed, Steve Cardownie recently referred to those who are trying to make Edinburgh better for residents and visitors alike as the “wet blanket brigade and other assorted naysayers”, and followed this up with a second article written as if he were one of them – Grumpy McGrump.  Written in the “what have the Romans ever done for us” style, it focuses on the many positives of the festival without really considering how it could be improved.

Building on this Cardownie’s argument a fellow Nationalist his, Council Leader Adam McVey, recently took to Twitter to tell the world that the £35 Glasgow’s DF Concerts were charging for access to concerts was affordable to “young people” and “working class people”, and that £145 may be acceptable. Again, no comment was made about the loss of amenity. The reality is that McVey appears a little out-of-touch as many young working class people in my Ward are struggling to pay their rent right now, never mind paying £145 for a concert ticket.

To be absolutely clear I am not saying these concerts should stop, although I know that those who support the creeping privatisation of public space will try to characterise my argument in that way. I do, however, reject the argument that they can’t happen without compromising pedestrian safety on Princes Street and, as I said elsewhere, we need to protect our parks from creeping privatisation.

That’s why I was recently concerned to read that Glasgow’s DF Concerts thinks Princes Street Gardens could become “Scotland’s answer to the Hollywood Bowl” and urged Edinburgh to look at New York’s Central Park because it has “loads of events”, saying cities like Edinburgh need to “utilise their assets” better. The basis of this approach appears to be that West Princes Street Gardens is a commodity which should be encircled by barriers so it can be exploited.  Similarly, the Scotsman is reporting that the gardens may be used to screen  “major sporting events”.

It may well be that these changes are for the best, and the city may benefit from them. I can’t help thinking, however, that we can do better. The Scotsman article also notes that the Gardens may well be used for bite-sized Tattoo performances. Would it not be great if this was opened up to people for free?

In July this year the National Mall parkland in the USA was used as a place to celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. These fantastic events (video link below) were attended by thousands of people for free. I’d much rather that Edinburgh’s public parks was used for this type of  inclusive event rather exclusive events for those that can afford it.

Whether it is obscured views or cluttered pavements, visitors must leave Edinburgh thinking we take our heritage for granted. We have to remember it’s our built and cultural heritage that makes Edinburgh special, not boarded up parks and blocked pavements.

 

 

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