Thanks to the comforting anaesthetic of its own douce gentility Edinburgh may not look like a city in crisis.
But, as the infamous Golden Turd arises in the east and the ruins of its cash crop economy – mass tourism – emerge through the miasma of the global pestilence, we should not only pay attention to some of our civic disasters, but also ask ourselves if there’s a better way of doing things.
Some cities contract PTSD for obvious reasons. Berlin 1945, the merciless destruction of Aleppo, the blast which ripped through Beirut, the racially aggravated rioting in so many American cities. Edinburgh’s problems are in no way comparable; even so, it would be a mistake to yield to complacency, for as far as its planning and development is concerned Scotland’s capital is turning out to be a very sick city and, increasingly, its inhabitants know it.
This isn’t simply about the developers’ endless attack on our architectural aesthetic or the sapping mediocrity of major projects like the one developer Ediston intends to build at the foot of Dundas Street. It’s also about the betrayal of citizens – especially those needing homes in a city which has handed over its prime sites to global developers and student accommodation speculators and stood by as flats are hoovered up by Airbnb investors.
The latest report from the Edinburgh Poverty Commission says it all. The physical desecration of ‘the brand’ and the denigration of a heritage which ought to be regarded as a shared community asset and world treasure rather than a cake to be carved up between corporate jackals is just another entry on the charge sheet.
How so? Well, let us count the ways. Philistinism in Edinburgh is not new yet somehow today’s malaise is systemic, an outcome of a moribund municipal mindset labouring under a culture of incompetence and constantly overwhelmed by a wave of slick global corporate developers who all but run up the Jolly Roger as they take over our city.
That Golden Turd, an execrable post-modernist goitre desecrating the fair face of the Georgian New Town, is all the more dreadful because corporate raider, US pension fund TIAA, was handed a £61.4 million subsidy by the Scottish government in collusion with Edinburgh council to ‘unlock’ a St James development of luxury apartments, restaurants, and student ghetto as we’ve reported before.
This had, as its vainglorious centrepiece, the copper spiral hotel which, given present circumstances, will almost certainly turn out to be an investment turkey the poor suckered taxpayers are helping to fund.
It certainly won’t benefit the local citizenry, and its shopping mall’s destructive effect on retail patterns in the surrounding streets is already evident. The mandatory affordable housing element (still there for now in the Ediston plans for the RBS site) was negotiated away to some cheaper land elsewhere, so the locals clearly weren’t part of a venture presumably predicated on off-plan sales via property fairs in such places as Hong Kong and Singapore.
Covid Scotland is in flux, however. The luxury residential element of the ‘St James Quarter Lifestyle Destination’ has launched itself under the gratuitously bogus and vaguely Tolkienesque ticket of ‘New Eidyn.’ (The Dundas St equivalent is renamed New Town Quarter…). If you have a spare £350,000 burning a hole in your pocket you can pick up a studio flat within a few yards of the Golden Turd, and you don’t even have to be a foreign investor.
This is only one in a long litany of architectural abuses which has assailed Scotland’s capital since – paradoxically enough – it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The wounds can be grievous. In 2014 I came across a lady looking on as a giant wrecking monster tore into one of St Andrews Square’s elegant stone facades. ‘But they can’t do that’ she declared in disbelief ‘these are historic buildings.’ She had a point. They couldn’t do that, but they did. The buildings were being unlawfully demolished without an environmental impact assessment as required under EU regulations. They were also about to be replaced by a supremely arrogant modernist monolith in the ‘bold intervention’ style deliberately designed to wreck its historic New Town context.
The recent history of Edinburgh’s municipal molestation is plain to see. Public disenchantment set in for real with a chaotic Scottish Parliament project which was years late and more than ten times over budget. At over £1bn, the new tramway wasn’t so much a triumph of civic infrastructure as a pointless replacement for the Airlink bus which transformed the city centre into a lookalike movie-set forDownfall, but without the tanks.
Any debate about the disastrous planning policies of Edinburgh, in either a social or physical planning context, must concern itself with the dreadful things we are doing to ourselves under the rubric which the American urban reformer, Jane Jacobs, termed ‘urbicide.’ Edinburgh may be a world heritage neo-classical gem, but the council, in collusion with its developer friends and some of their crasser modernist architects, seems bent on destroying its unique character.
By degrees, here and there, an incensed citizenry is fighting back against the blundering arrogance of a political establishment which has lost its moral compass. Ordinary people, fuelled by anger and a burning sense of injustice, are demanding to be heard. Local campaigns, to greater or lesser effect, are contesting developer-led planning policies. Even those struggles which fail to attain their objectives, such as ‘Save Meadowbank’ or the fight to rescue the city’s Central Library from yet another mindless hotel scheme, provide educational springboards for local action. Others – like the successful campaign to ‘Save Leith Walk’ around Stead’s Place – have become the morning stars lighting the way to yet more citizens’ action.
On your side
The council is often the adversary, but not always. In the case of the ‘Earthy’ organic cafe and shop at Canonmills, where over 8000 locals signed a petition to save it from demolition and a particularly anodyne spec development, councillors backed the petitioners – but then the Scottish government stepped in, appointed a developer-friendly reporter, and overturned the democratically accountable local decision.
The same fate may yet befall the Royal High School. Councillors voted not once, but twice, to reject proposals to desecrate the A-listed Calton Hill masterpiece, but now Scottish ministers – whose adviser, leading corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson, has publicly attacked objectors as ‘Nimbys’ – will make the final decision.
Yet Edinburgh is by no means the only city suffering the architecture of self-harm and stifling mediocrity. The problem is a universal one. Just over a year ago I attended an urbanist world congress in London where delegates from California, Helsinki, Pakistan, Greece, Palestine, Spain, and several other countries were raising very similar issues. In our profit-driven globalised world urban communities everywhere are being dispossessed of their civic rights in the face of powerful commercial interests as the public realm is eroded, civic demographics are undermined, and destructive developments degrade local identities. The time has come, perhaps, for this localism to go global, and for Schumacher’s ‘small is beautiful’ principle to be fully embraced.
If the discontent is local, its causes are universal. The overweening power of a global-industrial matrix which recognises only one moral imperative – the doctrine of fiduciary duty to the shareholder, otherwise known as the maximisation of profits to the exclusion of everything else.
This is not the model of capitalism envisaged by Adam Smith, that beautiful smooth-running machine with its assumptions of benign reciprocity between an industrialist and a workforce. It is, rather, an unfettered Hobbesian monster, not unlike the rampant and exploitative mercantilism which Smith (a proto-social psychologist, as well as economic theorist) sought to discredit.
To find today’s manifestation of the unaccountable mercantilist doctrine writ large we need look no further than the worst excesses of perverse and disruptive architectural modernism and the forces behind them.
Further reading on the series on St James Quarter by David Black and George Rosie see here