Park Life

Much is made of the fact that when you arrive in Edinburgh you arrive in a novel. The monument to Walter Scott in Princes Street Gardens is the largest monument to a writer in the world, which is strange given you’d be pushed to find a single person who has read it. But it’s a beautiful romantic idea, arriving in a city-as-novel, a literary city of global importance. But that status, and that notion is being undermined.

The felling of fifty trees in Princes Street Gardens is an act of cultural and environmental vandalism, but it’s not an aberration, it’s not some kind of mistake, its part of a systemic process to takeover of the city that can be seen across Scotland. The work is we’re told by Edinburgh Council “in preparation for the extension of the National Gallery and some re-landscaping works of East Princes Street Gardens”. The move is claimed to improve pedestrian access, but it appears like a further commercialisation of public space, making way for the Winter Wonderland that now dominates the city centre from November to January.

With the tragic mishandling of the Glasgow Art School, the closure of the Arches, the threat to the CCA, and now the closure of the Peoples Palace and Winter Gardens, the moves can be seen in Glasgow too, with chronic under-investment and development strategies which favour the private over the public and the commercial over the free over and over again.

Princes Street Gardens is the jewel in Edinburgh’s crown. But the axing of so many trees in the city’s central public park raises ongoing questions about the use of public space, Edinburgh council’s competence in urban tree management and the need for constant relentless ‘development’.

A spokesman from the National Galleries said: “This will enable us to create a new, sloped path that will make the gardens and gallery fully accessible to people with mobility impairments, prams and pushchairs. The reduction of the currently dense tree canopy will also recreate carefully framed views through the gardens to the Old Town. These views were part of the architect William Henry Playfair’s original vision for this world-famous location.”

The argument in favour of the ‘landscaping’ cites access and a recourse to a 18th C design but this isn’t some uncontested land, and the changes come in the face of a seeming onslaught of development and planning struggles.

In the week it was revealed that the concentration of Airbnbs in Edinburgh is four times greater than London or Paris, and eight times greater than New York, with the Canonmills development lost, with Drum Properties causing social engineering on Leith Walk, with the St James Jobbie development, with another developer-appeal in progress to turn the old Royal High School into another hotel, with the loss of public playing fields, and with Central Library lost to Virgin Hotels the attack seems relentless.

Anyone who challenges the growth mentality behind this is ridiculed.

But if the people in favour of Edinburgh’s relentless growth, capitulation to development and over tourism want now to hark back to yesteryear, this seems a bit odd. What do they want – an 18th C pleasure gardens with ornate fountains and floral clocks – or a Bavarian market, bars, live music and a year long festival city?

Public space is not just another place to be sold stuff.

Parks are not malls.

The commodification of the public realm is seen everywhere from the privatisation of public assets and utilities to the narrowing of access to housing and education and health and is now seen in the very infrastructure of the city. The underlying message is the same: you are a consumer and your duty is to buy.

The act of sitting in a park, the act of doing nothing, the act of daydreaming is a sedition. What we need in this era of hyper-capitalism is the space to do nothing at all.


Image credit: Stuart Hay


Comments (28)

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  1. Gordon Peters says:

    Utterly shocking. Peoples Palace closing, trees being felled in PS Gardens. We have so far stopped some of the worst of the corporate takeover of public space and ”regeneration” at expense of ordinary folk, here in north London with our campaign against the Haringey Development Vehicle – which is no more as the biggest local authority sell-off in UK history has been abandoned. But as a Scottish exile it is terrible to find what is happening back in Edinburgh. Build a movement against it, take them to court, do whatever you can.

    1. Toni Young says:

      The Peoples Palace is only closing temporarily to facilitate repairs, which had not been carried out under the previous Labour run council.
      You are correct, we do need a movement to protect our open public spaces.

  2. MBC says:

    I think the plan is to replant the trees after they have made the disabled access?

    1. This is true, though trees can’t be torn up and replaced like lego pieces

      1. MBC says:

        True. But can be mitigated somewhat by re-planting trees that are bigger than just saplings. They will grow again.

        1. Rachel George says:

          I’ve read that they have felled 52 and will replant 22 which is clearly not a like for like replacement!

  3. Eleanor Ferguson says:

    Disabled access is definitely needed, the gardens are only accessible via Kings Stables Road. I was a bit shocked at the extent of the felling though! I hope more trees will be planted and maybe in a few years we’ll just accept the new look.

  4. florian albert says:

    ‘with Drum Properties causing social engineering on Leith Walk’

    The growth in university level education in Edinburgh has led to a massive number of flats being built to cater for students – with tourists replacing them in summer. One calculation is that the Drum development will mean that there is accommodation for 5,300 students in such flats within half a mile of Leith Walk.
    I think this is bad for Edinburgh and for Leith in particular. However, there is little sign of anybody else being ready to make alternative investments in places like Leith.
    The council’s ambition appears to start and end with groundhog roadworks. The thought of Edinburgh dependent on transient students and tourists is a grim one.
    At present, it is the only show in town.

    1. Susan Smith says:

      Leithers don’t want redevelopment in that part of Leith Walk, which is home to many thriving local businesses. It’s hard to see the point of building student accommodation such a long way from Edinburgh University campuses – given that all the traffic in Edinburgh makes it hard to travel across the city quickly if the distance is too far to walk. Cycling isn’t that safe either.

  5. Willie says:

    Old trees die, new trees grow. That is part of the natural cycle.
    So what’s the huge beef about cutting down trees to replant later after pedestrian access areas have been upgraded.

    And what’s wrong with Bavarian bars, live music and Edinburgh being a festival city ?
    A bit of a fevered rant if I may opine.

    1. The action has had a huge response of outrage across the city.

      New trees don’t grow instantly, roots systems don’t re-grow instantly. As we’ve written over a number of articles the city is being distorted by over tourism which impacts communities living in the Old Town, distorts planning consent for housing and causes AirBnB to radically affect the housing market making it difficult for people to gain affordable housing.

      There is nothing wrong with live music and Edinburgh being a festival city, but it is out of control.

      Feel free to address the actual subjects and issues raised.

      1. Willie says:

        Thanks for the reply Mike.

        I do appreciate the underlying issues that you raise.

        Edinburgh is a vibrant city, and it
        is extremely popular for many many reasons. The tourism alone tells you that. But so does the number of students who come half way round the world to study.

        History, architecture, festivals, museums, galleries, the perception of Scots themselves all plays a part and I really don’t think we should be trying to reduce Edinburgh’s popularity or stifle the number of people who want to come, visit or stay, study and or work.

        Housing not just in Edinburgh, but across Scotland is a huge problem. It is a social disgrace caused by deliberate governmental policy.

        The property asset bubble and on which the banks then lent was no accident. The policy of choking off affordable social housing, and indeed to an extent private housing too, is well understood. It is an integral part of our neo liberal economy,

        However a rail against trees and popularity is not the answer

        Taking controls over the out- of -control corporates, sharing the economic pie, and indeed rolling back the neo liberal holocaust initiated by Thatcher and relentlessly continued by folks like Tony Blair and now the Brexiteer Brigands thereafter is what is needed.

        Shutting down a popular and successful Edinburgh to tourists, students, and international intercourse across sectors as diverse as academia, industry, or the life sciences, is most certainly not the answer.

        And if the author wants to sit and daydream let him do so as the world rolls by.

        We are actually very much I think on the same side.

        1. Thanks for your comment.

          I’m not railing against popularity nor am I railing against students or festivals.

          I’m railing against an agenda of growth for profit and culture and the city being commodified in a way that channels joey into the hands of the few.

          Over tourism is directly distorting the housing market. Please respond to that simple reality.

          1. Willie says:

            If over- tourism, whatever that is, is a problem and distorting the housing market, then you should say what we should do Mike.

            Should we introduce quotas and who should decide decide what these quotas should be, And how should we police these quota. City entry check points, right of entry pass papers, or what.

            And what about all the other people who come to the city. The students, the folk who come to work, do research or even vote in our Parliament. Dthey not distort the housing market too, or is it just the over-tourists who do.

            In most other cities in the world people would consider that folks wanting to come and work, visit, study, shop, or tourist their city and environs pwould be a good thing. Not here it seems, or at least in the minds of some.

            As I said in my earlier post, housing prices, or more accurately property, prices, are over bubbled assets because of specific governmental policy whereby social house provision was choked off, whilst to a lesser extent, private developer housing supply was also choked off to keep profits and prices high. Build more houses, and not just the success stories ( not ) that were the 1960s schemes such as Wester Hailes or Easterhouse, or Raploch, and you resolve the problem.

            Put a real grant into real peoples hands as opposed to the developers as they do down south and you can further adjust the supply beyond just affordable social housing.

            That of course is a double edged sword since having bubbled the housing prices, dropping them by increasing supply, will not be universally popular with some folks. But housing is a basic human need ,and housing should never have been turned into the economic tool that it has become, where housing supply is deliberately kept short to inflate prices.

            But maybe we should restrict the tourists. With less jobs or in fact job losses due to restricted numbers, the self imposed reduction in economic activity might well undistort the housing market. Let’s tell em all to stay away!

            For me, I’d rather have the jobs, economic activity, social and cultural discourse, whilst building more houses, and good affordable ones at that, that folks could live in. I’m certainly not for building a Trumpesque wall and keeping folks out.

            Otherwise, we may just need to accept the need for an Edinburgh Clearance – and keep the tourists out.

    2. Comment from George Anderson of the Woodland Trust Scotland:

      “The people of Edinburgh and its many visitors clearly cherish these gardens, and the trees are a huge part of the appeal.

      There is little to be done now for the trees cut down this week in the gardens. They are lost. Hopefully the shock people are now feeling can at least spark a debate on the value of urban trees and the threats that they face.

      Urban trees give us more than simply their beauty, highly valuable though that is. They also remove pollutants from the air that we breathe, reduce flooding, deaden traffic noise and improve our physical and mental health. We want our planners to see city trees for what they are; a significant asset not a liability.”

      1. pam barnes says:

        Maybe you can work to save the mature trees to be cut down along London Rd at Meadowbank. The Council’s Planning Committee has given permission for that too against many local objections. But they are not yet cut down. This too is an area where trees are important both for their beauty and also for their ability to remove pollutants from the air – and London Rd certainly needs that. And in case anyone thinks it is necessary for them to be felled so that the stadium can be built – it isnt – they are not on the footprint of the new building. There could be both sport and trees. So why cut them down?

        1. Thanks for letting us know about this Pam, wasnt aware of this one.

          1. Rachel George says:

            There are 167 trees on the Meadowbank site – 61 are directly “condemned” by the council’s plan for the sports centre – and the rest have an unsure future, dependent on what final plans for the rest of the site are agreed….the Wheatley elms are rare and irreplaceable as they can’t be bred any more. Here’s a paragraph from the PPP report :

            “As this proposal is for the comprehensive redevelopment of the site, there will be an impact on existing trees. Currently, there is total of 167 individual mature/ semi-mature trees and four tree groups on the full site. There are 63 trees within or affected by the sports centre site, and six of these are Wheatley Elms. It is proposed that three of these elms are removed in order to accommodate the building (at the corner where it comes closest to London Road). A total of 61 trees are proposed to be lost from the Sports Centre site (including the three Wheatley Elms). There remains the 106 trees plus four tree groups across both the sports centre and masterplan sites. Of the 103 remaining trees on the masterplan site, 27 are Wheatley elms. At this stage, details of tree removals cannot be agreed on the wider site as the final layout will be subject to further applications. However, any loss of trees will be required to be justified against LDP policy Env 12 (Trees). Notwithstanding, conditions should be used to ensure that adequate replacement planting is provided to offset any loss.”

      2. Willie says:

        A bit of a wooden answer a George.

        I think we all know the benefit of trees in an urban and peri urban environment.

        City living is a trade off. If it wasn’t we’d all be back in the cave, or living in the fields, or maybe even up the trees.

        But trees can be replanted, and aside of urban planting, it is very much the case that re-forreststion of mixed species, as opposed to the 1980s Wogenesque mono planting, is now well underway in many areas of Scotland – with much of it done through the good works of the Woodland Trust for Scotland.

        So why all the angst and outrage about these particular trees in Edinburgh that will be replaced,.

        1. R says:

          You can’t just “replace” mature trees. It takes decades for them to grow. This is an act of vandalism in my – and many other peoples’ – view.

          As for some of your other arguments – why not look at other cities around the world which are not crying out for more tourists but struggling. Venice for one. The populace are leaving and the infrastructure can’t cope with the number of tourists arriving and the streams of cruise ships. Or Amsterdam, where they’ve had a huge problem with air b&b for large portions of the year and are trying to find solutions so that residents and communities can cope. Princes St Gardens is a place both tourists and locals love and enjoy and neither will welcome this chopping down of the mature trees. This kind of “all or nothing” argument (or the spurious “stop fussing about Princes St Gardens trees being chopped or go back to being cavemen” argument) is spurious. It’s neither realistic or practical. Real life is about balance. The balance needs to be discussed – between tourism and the needs of residents for example. About air b&b and how this affects communities – about communities feeling forced out of the historic old town due to the over-prevalence of hotels and no social housing. Etc etc. People need green spaces in the city. There need to be spaces the public can go freely that are not commercialised and where they will not be “sold at”. Even the busstops along Princes St are pushing product these days. There is no need to destroy the city’s beautiful public green spaces or take down 52 trees in order to have a gallery extension that isn’t even going to be built on that part of the gardens.

  6. Eileen Covill says:

    How many times are we told that the trees are the lungs of the Earth? How many more trees are going to be felled. There is nothing better than walking through a wood for health and well being.

  7. Eleanor Ferguson says:

    I am surprised that more people haven’t commented on the fact that the council is doing something about disabled access at long last. Obviously nobody has given themselves the fright of their lives by trying to take a wheelchair down one of the paths from Princes Street like I have!

  8. H.L Terry says:

    The National Galleries has a lift and who wants to go to a garden of tree stumps? This was a hateful action, and it will take years to repair this damage.
    We need green space and mature trees to deal with air pollution in the city and also the mental health of its inhabitants. Not rows of tiny lollipop rowans, which the developers seem to think are the only trees to have in urban areas.

  9. Del G says:

    Where to start?
    Common Good
    Princes Street gardens are meant to be ‘common good’ land – there are many such areas in Edinburgh. It took an act of parliament to allow the National Galleries to shave a strip of land for the existing buildings running north to south below the walkway to the Playfair Steps. If the council have plans (yet unknown) for E Princes Street Gardens then the same should apply.
    W Princes Street Gardens are accessible by wheelchair from Kings Stables Road, an entrance only locals know about. However there are unstepped entrances off Princes Street which are too steep for Wheelchairs unless you have a devil-may-care attitude to Health and safety. Easy enough to rebuild these ramps at a shallower angle given they drop down through planting that are largely roses and thistles.
    E Princes Street Gardens are wheelchair accessible by an entrance at the Waverley Bridge / Market Street junction. Again, only locals know about it. I have no axe to grind if the council want to create a ramp down from Princes Street. However I trust the council planning committees as far as I can throw them. They sort of blame the tree-cutting on the proposed rebuild at the National Galleries – which has little to do with it, given that bot the Galleries and the RSA have lifts descending to the lower floor which can be mad more wheelchair accessible at very little cost. I bet they (the council) have other plans as yet unsaid …
    This Summer concert developers erected black screens along W Princes Street Gardens to prevent people eyeballing performances in the Ross Bandstand. When that’s rebuild I expect more pressure for the same given management will pass from the council to the developers / managers. Why shouldn’t tourists (or even locals wanting to look at the daisies) be able to see the gardens from Princes Street? Or even the castle? Bloody hell …
    Meantime CEC makes its profits from giant wheels which outshine the Scott Monument (yes I’ve read Waverley and other Scott tomes) and from noisy pop-up bars above the Waverley shopping centre. No wonder the Tourist office is closing – no-one can see it because of the summer and Christmas bling. CEC seels its soul to mammon.
    I’m old enough to remember mature trees being craned in while the sports centre was being built. The most visible being those planted on the earth mounds used to screen the indoors 100m track. Other trees (less mature) planted on the N side. Are those earth mounds broke? Do they need to fix it, if rebuilding? There have been so many plans for redevelopment I’m not sure where we’ve got to.
    Leith Walk
    Multiple developments have taken place below Elm Row. Enormous blocks, and corporate shops and cafes. The Steads Place development means more of the same. I value the small people like Punjabi Junction or the Leith Cafe – or Leith Depot. I don’t want more concrete and steel blocks, plus Starbucks. I betcha the same will apply almost opposite on the walk in a year or two. Edinburgh University will make a financial killing from foreign post-grad students – that’s who will live in the proposed flats. This is nothing to do with locals; it’s to do with whoever can pay EU’s fees.
    Elsewhere in Edinburgh: Portobello
    Remember Portobello Park? No? well why should you? CEC wanted to rebuild Portobello School there, and local interest groups objected strenuously. CEC dragged this through the courts to demonstrate Porty wasn’t ‘common good’ land. The local golf course also came under threat but was reprieved. Well it’s now under threat again. CEC propose to reduce it from nine holes to six, at which point local golfers will be unable to maintain their handicap and will move elsewhere. I’m sure the council’s long-term plans are to sell off the land for housing – that’s what they initially wanted when Portobello School’s rebuild was first mooted.

  10. Richard Easson says:

    I was going to be visiting, but now won’t. So much for my injection into the local economy.

  11. ian campbell says:

    All the trees and bushes are due to be cleared throughout the country for 5G anyway, this is just the start

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