Edinburgh’s New Era

In many ways – from transport, to housing, to culture – Edinburgh can define a new era, writes Alison Johnstone.

The weekend’s increased traffic around the capital may have felt like Edinburgh was returning to a semblance of what would have been called ‘normal’ before the coronavirus lockdown, but I think there’s a growing realisation that life in Lothian may never be quite the same again.

The incredible amount of work that goes into preparing and setting up the festivals that transform our city’s infrastructure for a few months every year is conspicuous by its absence. Those without gardens flock to our green spaces while the normal hotbeds of activity like the train stations, our football grounds, Princes Street shopping and the financial sector remain eerily quiet.

There’s no doubt that this has been a lot to take in, and it’s impossible to predict when or how we will emerge into Edinburgh’s next chapter, but there are reasons to be hopeful.

Even though people seemed to be returning to their cars this weekend, there also seemed to be a lot more bicycles about. This has been backed up by what businesses are telling us. Electric Cycle Company in Edinburgh has reported sales of e-bikes has been up 80 per cent during this crisis. Service sales are up 200 per cent.

Families and friends are clearly enjoying what extra space has been afforded them by pop-up cycle lanes and extra space for pedestrians. To protect our lungs and lower emissions we need to embed this progress, so people can continue to use cleaner and safer ways to get around.

After my colleague Mark Ruskell won an 18-month extension to the temporary measures, the schemes have been granted a new round of funding and Green councillors are looking for suggestions of which places need this extra space for walking and cycling. While we’re at it, this would be a perfect time for the Scottish Government to step in and make Holyrood Park a safe, car free, space to be.

For example, now the volume of cars is increasing, cyclists need protection on the big wide arterial streets which link our communities to the city centre. In many European cities, these types of roads are exactly where cycling is being encouraged. How we travel to work could be changed for good.

It’s not the only opportunity to change things. The Fringe has been an enormous asset to Scotland’s capital as part of the biggest arts festival in the world, and August will be sadder in its enforced absence. But we could see this year as a chance to take a fresh look at how it works and how it serves our city.

The scandal around the damage Underbelly’s Christmas Market did to Princes Street gardens should make us look again at how much power we hand over to profiteering production giants that put their balance sheet above the balance of life in the capital. When visitors return, hopefully they will boost Edinburgh’s local pubs and restaurants instead of stopping at the pop-up bars that see profits taken straight back out of the city.

The festivals have also driven the explosion of short-term lets which has exacerbated housing shortages in Edinburgh. This year, with the travel ban, we’ve seen keyboxes removed from tenement flats in the Old Town as landlords abandon Airbnb and offer traditional rents. These houses are becoming homes again.

All of these signs of progress are vulnerable. If we are to prevent a damaging return to the failures of the past, we need to see bold action by government to embed the gains.