It’s difficult to think of two more contrasting places than Antarctica and the neighbourhoods around Leith Walk. The great southern continent, explored only within the last century, is a land of boundless space, scarcely touched, it seems, by human hand or foot. The communities from Canonmills and Pilrig to Easter Road and Bonnington are among the mostly-densely occupied in Scotland and home to a vibrant mix of people from across the world.
It is home for me too. But I have also just returned from Antarctica and that journey, with its huge contrasts, has given me a chance to reflect on what makes North Edinburgh so special.
Why Antarctica? As an engineer working in renewable energy I was fortunate to be selected for a leadership programme for women working in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine. The intention is to showcase those leadership roles, too often left in the shadows, but also to direct them to the greatest challenge of our age: climate change and finding a sustainable way to live on our fragile planet. Antarctica, although, on the surface, the least affected by human industry, is actually where the global impacts of pollution and a warming atmosphere are most evident.
But, while the evidence of melting ice and rising sea levels may be starkly obvious in Antarctica, it is here, at home, where change is most needed. And not just here in Edinburgh but in towns and cities from California to eastern Australia. That is why, when I returned to Edinburgh in February, I jumped at the chance to stand as Green candidate in the Leith Walk by-election on 11 April.
Because what matters now, with a greater urgency than ever before, is getting things right for both people and planet. I passionately believe that Edinburgh can and should be just as good as the best northern European cities in safe walking and cycling and high-quality bus and tram services; and these also make for less congested, more pleasant public spaces, where local shops and small businesses can thrive.
I am convinced that secure and affordable homes are what allow people to invest in their improvement: drier and warmer, ending fuel poverty and making for more neighbourhoods where people stay and put down roots.
And I am sure that protecting our oases of parks and green spaces right in the heart of the city is one of the best things we can to help personal wellbeing, both physical and mental.
In other words the kinds of steps that take us back from the brink of the climate damage I witnessed at the other end of the world are also good for our quality of life here. More localised services. Less packaging, waste and litter. Local food and produce. What’s not to like?
But there is a great danger just now. The swamp that is Brexit has dramatically undermined confidence in governments to do anything constructive at exactly the wrong time. Two weeks ago, at the impressive school climate strikes outside the Scottish Parliament, one home-made sign said simply “This is much more important than Brexit.” Of course it is. Here in Edinburgh North and Leith just under 80% of people voted to stay in the EU in June 2016, presumably because they can see the benefits and recognise those other priorities. But, despite this, our UK Parliament is gridlocked and incapable of focusing on anything else.
Make no mistake: history will be scathing about this time if we don’t act. According to the United Nations, we have eleven years to make a difference on the climate emergency.
Because, for all the difference in the world between Leith Walk and Antarctica, they are part of the same world.
Lorna Slater is a marine renewable engineer and Green candidate in the Leith Walk by-election next week.