One of the most influential books I have ever read was Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. I borrowed it from the library of then government housing agency, Scottish Homes, in the early 1990s. It had few, if any, borrowing stamps – hardly surprising, since its compelling narrative of community and small-business-led urban renaissance did not chime with the Zeitgeist of the 1980s and 1990s of inward investment and attracting footloose multi-nationals.
Roll on 20 years and we can see what the devastating consequence has been. There are a few pockets of resistance: I was impressed by Linlithgow’s resolute High Street when campaigning there during the Scottish election earlier this year. North Berwick clings on too, it seems. Lanark, Castle Douglas too perhaps. And I am sure there are other resolute examples. But places like my home town of Cumnock are pale shadows of what they once were.
It is harder to find positive city examples. Our noble city fathers spent the 1980s promoting the growth of the by-the-bypass shopping experience. Although this trend has continued (Hermiston Gait in west Edinburgh continues to grow) our council leaders’ new passion is rolling to have their tummies tickled by inner-city supermarket developments. How else can we explain the granting of permission to a Sainsbury store in Gorgie (although Sainsbury in a bizarre implicit insult prefer to brand it “Murrayfield”) which, just as predicted, has amplified the decline of Gorgie Road? Or the new supermarket planned at Longstone, barely a stone’s throw from a new-ish ASDA superstore?
Those were my thoughts recently at a meeting of Gorgie-Dalry Community Council in Edinburgh. I was there to talk about Shandon Local Food Group’s modest attempts to re-connect production and consumption of food in our area. But I was just interested in an excellent discussion initiated by City Council officer, Natalie Russell, at the same meeting – on one of the three town centre regeneration projects recently initiated by the City Council.
My natural cynicism was fuelled by the Council’s seemingly insatiable appetite for more supermarkets but also by newspaper reporting of the early activities of the town centre project in the west city centre – replacing concrete lamp-posts with mock Victorian lanterns. Jane Jacobs will be restless in her grave at that travesty. To be fair on the City Council it was responding to what traders said they wanted and it was perhaps unique to that area. But surely there are more cost-effective measures than a pastiche of former eras.
In the current City Centre by-election the Green Candidate, Melanie Main, is promoting the theme of a “living” city centre. The heart of Edinburgh is an important area of commerce, of course. We are also so lucky to have the world’s largest arts festival and it is right that we welcome visitors from across the UK and overseas. But part of what makes Edinburgh’s centre so attractive is that it is lived in. So we need greater attention on services for people who do live there – shops, community places, green space, to name only some.
Edinburgh has the potential to be a great international city but also to harbour real neighbourhoods that people want to stay in. That’s the balance to strike.