Conservation & Urbanisation in Edinburgh - an identity battleground

Updated: Dec 28, 2019

‘Between Urbanisation and Conservation’ an Edinburgh Perspective is a photography portfolio project funded by the UK National Lottery, delivered by Creative Scotland.

During my undergraduate studies, I remember being assigned a reading from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. It described the process by which identity and sense of belonging are created. Seen through his lens, an identity is not an attribute fixed in time, but rather built and experienced over time by a group. It develops as a shared and fiercely defended building block of a community, the essence of what brings them together. This reading came to mind as it felt particularly relevant to the debate taking place today in Edinburgh on its identity and development.

Stone, Iron and Steel - Photograph taken from Calton Hill overlooking the St James Shopping Centre Development, St Andrews Square and National Records of Scotland Dome.

There is an inherent tension between conservation and development interests in urban environments. Broadly speaking, the former tries to protect and preserve what is there – a building, a green space – and the meaning or identity it embodies. This could be a place of importance to the local community, a building of national or even internationally-recognised value or something that is intrinsic to the identity of the place. Development, or urbanisation, broadly speaking sees the needs of business and society as an imperative for change to ensure that urban environments are fit for purpose for today’s needs (and hopefully tomorrow’s as well).

The particular tension between these ambitions in a city such as Edinburgh in my view is two-fold. Firstly is the question of space – or rather lack thereof – as both forces vie for precious and expensive real estate in our cities. Secondly, as an extension of this first point, are competing visions for the city’s identity and sense of belonging.

The starting point for photography portfolio project I am undertaking was that Edinburgh is undergoing a significant amount of changes to its landscape – to mention just one, the tall cranes dominating the skyline of the city centre from the construction of the new St James centre. I was keen to capture the impact of these changes – positive, negative or both - that these developments have on the city and citizens and their tension with conservation efforts.

One of my first observations – at the risk of stating the obvious – was that this impact was already being heatedly discussed. It became quickly evident that citizens, charities, civil society groups, business interest groups and the Council all engaged in a vigorous conversation on ongoing projects and the future of Edinburgh’s development. In other words, I realised I was not just joining a debate on any individual development or project but one over Edinburgh’s identity. And of course, I am far from the only one to have picked up on this as illustrated by this Guardian Headline: ‘Tacky’ Christmas market inflames battle for the soul of Edinburgh (Source: Guardian)

Title: Edinburgh Christmas Market 2019 - Photograph taken at Princes Street Gardens. © Iscotlanda

It is perhaps that I am now attuned to these issues in a way that I wasn’t before, but it seems that a number of conversation over these very local issues have escalated and made it to national news. This is perhaps an illustration that Edinburgh is far from the only city to face the issues. To name a few, controversies included:

- the question of this year’s organisation of the Christmas Market and its impact on Princes Street Gardens. The controversy surrounds the scaffolding being used to support the market, its impact on the Princes Street Gardens and the planning processes in place. (Source: Guardian)

- A planning application was confirmed as rejected on appeal for Stead’s Place development on Leith Walk. A developer was looking to transform a series of iconic buildings on Leith Walk into student accommodation and retail place, against the wishes of local community groups. Source: (BBC News)

- And very recently the issue of local residents in the City Centre facing some restrictions over the number of guests they may bring in their home at Hogmanay. It appears that residents and guests living within the streets cordoned off for Hogmanay in the city centre will require passes and only 6 guest passes will be issued per property. Though more passes may be issued, the debate has centre on the restrictions placed on private property by the company organising the event. (Source: Edinburgh Evening News)

Title: Leith Love Letter - Photograph taken at Stead's Place on Leith Walk. © Iscotlanda

I do not intend on taking a particular view on any of these issues, as I see my role as a photographer in this project to document and analyse, rather than judge and put forwards a claim in these particular debates.

The one opinion that I would add however is that I find that robust debate is actually a healthy thing for the City’s development. Whichever way development or conservation projects progress, it is much preferable they do so after detailed conversations and scrutiny, rather than going through on the nod.

It also means projects are a lot more likely to take into account the needs, requirements and preferences of stakeholders. I also find it reassuring that some of the arguments being brought forwards on both sides were not simplistic assertions that proponents of conservation are “NIMBYs” while those in favour of urbanisation are supporters of unscrupulous developers.

Title: This is my home. Photograph taken at Johnstone Terrace, courteousy of the Scottish Wildlife Trust. © Iscotlanda

Hoping the reader will indulge me a hyperbole - reading contributions on all sides, it has at times felt like the competing visions could be framed borrowing a phrase from a local author, Ms J.K Rowling, as “neither can live while the other survives”. But it is important that both visions live, that individuals speak for themselves and interest groups or charities speak for their stakeholders, as long as it is clear no one group speaks for all of the City.

And this is why I see that tension as healthy, because tension encourages debate, people caring passionately about their city and its future. And, as has been stated by people on both sides of the debate, the Council and planning permission processes have a key role to play as impartial referees to ensure that these interests are balanced and not tipping the scales one way or another.

And this is also why I have decided to name this particular collection of photographs I am putting together “Look both ways”, echoing a sign at a temporary crossing on York Place.

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