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