How we use public spaces is vital for businesses and people, says Roddy Smith, Essential Edinburgh
Great public spaces are an essential ingredient in ensuring our magnificent city centre remains vibrant, attractive and sustainable.
That is why we are delighted that City of Edinburgh Council is working towards a public spaces protocol, which will look at how we use the spaces we have and how we can create more. We look forward to this important piece of work going before the elected officials in due course.
Why is it important? The ability to animate and use public space is key to allowing the spread of footfall throughout the city centre and enabling pressure to be taken off already heavily used space, and equally bringing footfall to areas that can benefit from it.
How we use the space – or to be more accurate how we are able to use the space – is also crucially important. If we want to maintain a busy and vibrant city centre it is important that spaces can be animated throughout the year with public art, events, free entertainment and, in the case of Edinburgh, during the economically-critical Festivals.
The Edinburgh Festivals Impact Study (May 2011) reported that the Festivals bring significant positive cultural and social benefits to the city, and direct economic benefits to the city and to the Scottish economy (worth in excess of £261 million to the latter). In the first festivals health check, recommended in a festivals strategy entitled Thundering Hooves, the festivals make it plain that, while the city offers excellent support, there is no room for complacency.
In particular, they suggest that benefits would be gained from better communication; more awareness of the festivals as key stakeholders in and contributors to the city’s success and more intensive care of the city’s public spaces.
It is vitally important that there is an economic case as well as an activity-based reason to animate space. Public realm works cost money – sometimes significant money – and we need to be able to identify significant potential in supporting enhanced such works in the city. In terms of the benefits our festivals, events and tourist visitors bring, that is clearly the case. But it is not only about the economic benefit. Recent research suggests nearly 80 per cent of our city’s residents believe the festivals enhance the city as somewhere to live.
It is crucial that our public space can be used flexibly and for different uses at different times of the year. Already there has been some excellent progress, especially during the George Street trial last year when there was a higher pedestrian focus than normal. The city changes throughout the year and we need flexibility to use our spaces whilst retaining the right balance between pedestrians, cars, cyclists and public transport.
Our best city centre spaces, such as the Mound precinct and the privately-owned, Essential Edinburgh-managed, St Andrew Square Garden, are used constantly for events for Edinburgh residents and visitors – but we need other options as well, especially in light of much needed redevelopments around the city.
Work by City of Edinburgh Council and Ironside Farrar has produced some superb principles for the future design of George Street. Although it is always difficult to provide solutions that will be universally welcomed, especially when there may be heritage and conservation issues, I believe that the plans that will be put before elected officials in due course will enable a flexibility in use that will maintain and enhance one of the finest streets in the city.
Progress is not always straightforward. As our city changes, so must our attitudes to how we use the space we have to support the health and vitality of the city centre. For example, with the east end developing, we need to think about the effects this will have on the west end. The ability to animate spaces will help move people around the city centre and assist the public and businesses to benefit from a mixture and diversity of events and festivals.