A cultured city

2020 can provide an opportunity to rethink city space for cultural benefit says Alison Johnstone.

The absence of Edinburgh’s festivals will become more keenly felt in the coming weeks. The biggest arts festival in the world has been cancelled, leaving a yawning gap in the host city’s identity.

But how we fill that gap must be seen as an opportunity. The way Underbelly was allowed to rip apart our iconic Princes Street gardens with its Christmas market was a warning we must heed. For too long we’ve seen a ‘boom or bust’ approach to our festivals. The big London-based producers have been allowed to increase their profits while local residents and businesses become bit players.

Look at the pop-up bars which now dominate the city centre during the Fringe, leaving Edinburgh’s pubs competing for trade.

Hogmanay celebrations now require residents to apply for a ticket to enter their own town centre, while people living within the zone are told how many first footers they are permitted to welcome.

For years, Leith walk residents and businesses had to endure tram works being filled in for the tourists then dug up again in September, only to never see a tram. Yet.

The fact that Edinburgh opens itself up to the world is wonderful. But while there have been some great efforts to involve local people, too many communities are made to feel that the festivals are just not for them.

One notable exception has been the Meadows festival, which is still organised by the local community and gives opportunities to people to run stalls, local bands and sports clubs. Leith festival has also used this model successfully.

The fact that both of these festivals have struggled financially in recent years is a symptom of that boom or bust approach, and evidence that it is failing us.

With far fewer tourists expected in the months ahead, it is these community-based festivals we should be taking inspiration from, holding safe outdoor events which offer opportunities to our local talent and hospitality businesses and give the people of the Lothians a sense of ownership of their city again.

Reclaiming Edinburgh is not just about the festivals. It’s about how this most welcoming of cities looks after the needs of its citizens in all our thinking.

Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have urged the rest of Europe to follow their lead and ‘put their faith’ in cycling as part of pandemic recovery. Milan and Paris have certainly embraced this, with footage of wide arterial roads teeming with bicycles and traffic restricted to a single lane.

This is what the future looks like. What a shame that every pop-up cycle lane in Edinburgh is hotly contested by a lobby stuck with 1960s ideas of town planning.

While bicycle sales continue to boom, Arnold Clark reported this week that used car sales have soared in recent weeks. If we want people to opt for the former, they need to feel safe.

We need to remember, like Paris and Milan have done, that roads do not exist to serve cars. They’re there to serve people and help them get about. We must enable as many people to use them as possible, not exclude them in favour of traffic jams.

Keeping our city alive is about reclaiming our culture and our streets so that we can build a new safer, greener future together in a city we can be even more proud of.