Transforming the Causey for the community

How an urban space redesign project developed a life of its own when locals started sitting outside, looking after planters and blethering.

In the second of our series of public space interviews, Siri Pantzar talks with The Causey campaigners who have created a community space out of a traffic island in the South Side of Edinburgh.

The Causey started as a city infrastructure project, to re-design a road space with the local community in mind. The recent years have shown that to start a transformation, you don’t need to have all the infrastructure in place – you just need people to keep showing up.

The traffic island by West Crosscauseyway is visibly welcoming from afar. There is bunting, flowers, camping chairs and planters, and a dozen people deep in conversations. Cake cutting is about to begin to celebrate Clean Air Day. I am here to meet with Isobel Leckie, Kate Leiper and Robert Motyka, all active in the Causey Development Trust.

The Causey Development Trust works towards a re-design of the Causey area – West Crosscauseway from Nicolson Street to Chapel Street and Buccleuch Street, including the traffic island – permanently changing the road layout to create a safer, more people-focused space (see what it will look like here). The Trust is run by local residents who, since the pandemic, have started meeting in the middle of the traffic island; this development has transformed the campaign by bringing the community directly into the space.

The original design project was dreamed up by late Alison Blamire, a locally based architect who saw how traffic-oriented and unsightly the space was, and dreamed up an alternative. She created an event which in 2007 turned the space into a tropical island for three days, showing the community the potential of the space; and the Causey Development Trust was born. The aim of the re-design is to create a safe space for all road users – and particularly, people walking, cycling and wheeling – as well as a community space.

The plans are built around respecting the heritage of the area. Pointing out different buildings nearby, Isobel notes:

“We felt that this part of the Southside was neglected. There are up to 60 listed buildings within a 5-minute walk from here”.

Robert agrees:

“When you sit down, you notice that it’s actually a nice area”.

In the last few years, the project has taken on a new profile. During the pandemic, when indoor gatherings weren’t possible and the formal Causey Steering Group meetings were put on hold, Kate and Robert – local residents and members of the Steering Group – started meeting on the traffic island to water the planters. They would often stay a few hours chatting, and it soon turned out that other neighbours, isolated as a result of the pandemic, also yearned for social interaction. Robert shares:

“It’s very much about people for me. During the pandemic, we started to sit outside, other neighbours joined, and we all became friends”

These informal get-togethers evolved into weekly ‘Sit Oots’. Sometimes these gatherings have a theme – today it’s planting flowers into big planters cared for throughout the year by the community, and discussing Clean Air Day – on other days the team are just having conversations and building relationships with the people in the area. Bit by bit, the creativity and collaboration of the community has started changing the space. There are the thriving planters, and most recently, new benches. Over the winter, Kate and Robert, who are both artists, created a community art installation in the space, working with Preston Street Primary and many of the local residents. The gatherings have brought a sense of joy and community to the space, as Isobel notes:

“Before I used to hate the traffic island. It was horrible. Now we love it”

Collection of photos from Clean Air Day at The Causey, including cake, chalk drawing and planting
Clean Air Day at The Causey (photos: Siri Pantar)

The way the community has started to own the traffic island has meant that in many ways, the transformation envisioned by the Trust is already well underway. Kate says:

“We are talking about changing the space. In some ways, that’s now done. With the physical transformation we’re just tying up loose ends”.

The Sit Oots have also addressed one of the challenges of the project – resistance from other locals. Despite many of the Causey team being local residents, some other Southside locals saw the campaign as outsiders. The Sit Oots have helped the different members of the local community see each other eye to eye, and helped people get used to seeing the space in use by the community.

Unsurprisingly therefore, when asked what similar campaigns should do, the Causey team recommend just that: go out, bring a few chairs, and start having conversations with people in the space you want to transform. The team are excited about the possibility of ground-up redevelopment of public spaces across Edinburgh, although they are quick to note that the same designs won’t work everywhere. Robert notes:

“Every place has a different kind of potential. But when you sit outside you start to notice things you didn’t before. The ideas will come”

Graphic showing bike with carrier on the front, trees and park bench