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: Edi