Squint your eyes when looking at Edinburgh from most angles and you can still, despite the uniquely layered density of spires and rooftops, imagine it empty of people, prehistoric.
What Edinburgh has meant in the past is writ large everywhere, usually with a Victorian confidence about such matters. What Edinburgh means right now is debated but still discernible. What Edinburgh means tomorrow is obscure. It is a city with no sense of trajectory, no forward path, no vision.
It seems hard to imagine that a place of such grandeur might struggle to instil a sense of belonging in its inhabitants. But struggle it does, and the reasons become more palpable every day.
Consuming the city
A certain class of people have come to talk possessively of cities. My city, your city, her city — this language of possession is created by the peculiar economic situation we find ourselves in.
Those who make such claims are often the multitude of latter-day flâneurs, who spend much of their time labouring away in front of Mac devices in post-industrial urban spaces.
The proliferation of these (increasingly universal and homogeneous) haunts is premised on the knowledge that physical possession of property within a global city is increasingly elusive. Possession of the urban space is flitting and fickle – but it can at least be framed as a choice.
This process is the precise opposite of that which created urban living in the first place.
The move from rural to urban was born of necessity and displacement. It meant a great ripping up of identity: traditions, languages and crafts became mere ingredients in a chaotic soup.
To be in the city was to have to fight, not just for space and the right to some form of decent collective life, it was to protect and defend whatever sense of belonging could be carried to this strange, new, darker, home. This, in turn, shaped a new consciousness and with it a new politics that sought to move beyond institutional and vested interests.
So when we talk about gentrification, we are not just talking about the displacement of working class communities according to middle-class needs. We are also referring to the reversal of what makes the city a city in the first place.
Gentrification is about a desire to inhabit an authentic urban space, but also to subtly, yet progressively, turn it into a suburban space.
The goal is a safe space for those who consume rather than produce, but that still offers sufficient tokens of local authenticity to mask the emptiness of the individualistic freedoms the global city is built upon.
With a twisted irony, the city itself has also become something to be consumed.
Edinburgh is more vulnerable than most to such processes. Just as it struggles to push back against the low-level colonisation of working class areas by buy-to-let landlords and trust-funded owner-occupiers, it is also pitifully incapable of resisting the extravagances of high-end developers.
Behind many proposals to drastically alter Edinburgh’s fabric, such as the luxury hotel mooted for the site of the former Royal High School on Calton Hill, and the building of a new St James’s Centre, there sits a brutal economic force.
Theirs is a vision of a city become a mere repository for surplus capital – constantly destroying, reshaping and ring-fencing the urban environment.
The Royal High School project seems to have been finally shelved as a step too far, even though it was afforded serious consideration for far too long.
Yet there is still an underlying pattern – a slew of Edinburgh’s finest public buildings have become private spaces with a quiet inevitability.
The most obvious example is the former Royal Infirmary, haltingly transformed into the Quartermile. Work began on this project when I arrived in the city over a decade ago and it remains a still incomplete, vacant, soulless space for the mega-rich.
There are plenty of other examples of such ‘development’: where luxury accommodation is seemingly the only use that can be found for former public buildings, such as Napier University’s Craighouse campus, Boroughmuir High School and the Edinburgh Geographical Institute on Duncan Street.
Perhaps the most disheartening of all is the iconic Donaldson’s School – a Versailles-scale embodiment of Victorian philanthropy. Yesterday’s school for deaf children is only deemed fit to be tomorrow’s batch of exclusive penthouses: where prices are expected to range from £250,000 to £2,500,000.
Community campaigns still happen, petitions are signed, small victories occur – but no part of Edinburgh can escape the march of the identikit luxury development, colonising every vacant space and view. The douce (and well-heeled) folk of Canonmills couldn’t save their bridge from it for this basic reason: at every level, the city has become a mere commodity.
On a smaller scale, many have done remarkably well out of this market. Those who bought flats at the right moment in ropier quarters of central Edinburgh have seen unimaginable returns on their investment.
But the Edinburgh petite bourgeoisie now find themselves haunted by this run of good luck. Communities and stairwells, in even the most genteel corners of the city, are becoming eroded by rent-seeking gone viral. The great appeal of Edinburgh – its urban density and compactness, its liveable scale — is becoming a burden for all ages and all classes.
Other cities, with a far keener sense of their own demos, can suffer the same fate. But the real precariousness of Edinburgh’s situation lies precisely in the fact that it is incapable of understanding itself in collective terms.
Perhaps this situation was already inevitable in the 1960s, when chunks of the old city, easily derided as slums like St James’s Square, were torn down to make way for motorcars and a shopping mall.
As working class communities were pushed out to new banlieues in the name of improvement and modernity, the priority became saving the wealthier districts from more brutalism and urban motorways.
The city was saved, as a site of heritage; the history books and UNESCO confirm this. But was it saved as a city?
The unclaimed city
There are two anomalies about Edinburgh that are often overlooked. Firstly, there is no demonym for an inhabitant of Edinburgh. Secondly, there is no single focal point in the city – no civic square that is understood as the default space where people congregate to protest or celebrate.
Both of these facts are assumed to be mere accidents of language and topography. I disagree. If the people of Edinburgh had felt the need to create a shared identity, they would have felt the need to name it. If they had ever wanted to gather together to assert who they are and stake a claim to a symbolic public space, they would have done so long ago.
Like so many other facets of Edinburgh life, the people can only display themselves in relation to a given institution. They have no shared life. Petitioners might stand outside the Parliament, Occupy Edinburgh camped out in St Andrews Square to irk RBS, Scottish nationalists go to Calton Hill. But there is no space that belongs to the people in Edinburgh because they have never felt the need to claim one.
Having foregone a collective experience of the city in favour of sequestered individual life, Edinburgh’s lightning-fast transformation due to gentrification and financialised development has long been a foregone conclusion.
A new emptiness
As I prepare to leave the place, I do so with the acute and direct knowledge that the squeezing out of those with less in the name of luxury can all too easily be fatal.
It is fatal for pubs, parks, libraries, bookies, cinemas: all of the residual forms of authentic urban community that created the draw in the first place.
It can also be fatal for the individuals who, priced out, find new levels of chaos and impossibility in their lives.
I’ve seen this new Edinburgh eat away at people, curb their prospects, isolate them and cause them to turn them inwards.
When, as in the past few decades, capital demands a seemingly incessant right to remake the urban environment in order to re-create surplus value, this city has found no solid foundation to offer resistance.
Capital cannot rest, the festival cannot stop growing, the construction can never cease: no corner of central Edinburgh is safe from the penthouse and the premium student accommodation block.
I continue to believe that the working class people that I was privileged to know in Edinburgh, who first made me feel at home here, deserved the keys to the city because they cared for it, worked it. It no longer has a place for them and as a result I cannot locate a place for myself in this city.
Why? Because a city reduced to a collection of assets is neither worth looking at nor worth living in. Instead, it is full of a new emptiness that is all too easily left behind.
Main image Donaldson’s School: Paul Patras CC BY-SA 4.0