A route map for Edinburgh

There is only one credible route map for Edinburgh to recover from the coronavirus crisis, argues Steve Burgess.

“If there is one lesson to be drawn from the Covid-19 crisis, it is that governments must be better prepared for the worst. The pandemic has shown the lethal folly of ignoring expert warnings about the need to be ready for calamity… Unlike Covid-19, the world has had ample evidence of the damaging effects of global warming for decades. Governments today still have a chance to mitigate these — they should do so as part of the effort to rebuild after the virus.”

Not the words of David Attenborough or Greta Thunberg, but the Financial Times. That the daily reading for the City of London should be spelling out the message so clearly should make even the most staunch climate-sceptic pause. No more bailouts for oil and gas, warns the FT. No handouts without strict conditions for polluting industries. To avoid the Coronavirus crisis drifting into the climate crisis, the paper says, the world must grab the opportunity to launch a Green New Deal, focusing on renewable energy, low-pollution transport and low carbon food and farming.

To those of us immersed in green ideas for decades the menu is familiar even if the waiter is a surprise. It’s a global challenge, just as coronavirus is, but what does it mean here in Edinburgh? If we are to truly learn the lessons of the current crisis, how might it shape our thinking for the city over the next crucial decade?

Take transport, for example. Over the last three months, thousands of people have been discovering the city afresh on foot and bicycle. But it has also exposed how far behind Edinburgh is, with its crammed and narrow footways, its stop-start cycleways and residential streets choked with cars. Even modest emergency proposals to introduce more safe space for people to walk and cycle have been grudgingly contested in some quarters.

Meanwhile, In Paris, Berlin, Athens, cities across the world, hundreds of miles of street space are being allocated to people walking or cycling – prompted by the coronavirus emergency but designed to tackle the climate crisis too. There is opposition from powerful motor lobbies in these places as well, but the tide has turned. People are seeing that engineering a whole city exclusively around cars has resulted in centralisation of services and loss of local businesses. They are enjoying the revival of local high streets as people-centred transport takes over.

So, in Edinburgh we need to build on these green shoots. Economic recovery needs a new start from the failed model that gave us congested roads, choking air and boarded up shops. We need a Green Recovery as reported by the Evening News 4 weeks ago. Very soon the Edinburgh Climate Commission will publish its own proposals for just such a green recovery. Transport transformation; providing thousands of jobs in green energy; celebrating our regional food products; tackling empty homes and shops; protecting our precious greenspaces as the lungs of the city and a touchstone for wellbeing: from schoolchildren to the oldest citizens. Rebuilding a tourism sector which is about rich memories rather than bucket-lists. These are the building blocks of successful cities.

As elsewhere, there will be opposition to this. People will try to call it a pipe-dream. But go to Dutch cites and see it for real. And not just Dutch cities. In Italy, Austria, New Zealand, Ireland, cities with the same heritage as Edinburgh are understanding that the coronavirus crisis is a wake-up call: to heed the warnings, to prepare for the future and to make sure our wonderful city is not lamenting being left behind.

And if you don’t believe me, read the Financial Times.