Amenity Places, Princes Street Gardens and the Commodification of Civic Space

From its very outset, the Cockburn Association has advocated for quality open spaces available for the amenity and recreation of the city’s citizens.  In the Requisition by Citizens of Edinburgh to the Rt Hon Lord Provost by which the Founders of the Association called the first meeting on 15 June 1875, they set out views for the improvement of public assets.  They called for:

the opening to the public of the West Princes Street Gardens and in connection with that, making the present avenue the public footpath for the south side of the street” and “the acquisition of the wooded grounds of Inverleith, adjoining the Botanic Garden to serve as an Arboretum therefore and also as a Public Park for the north side of the city.”

Furthermore, the newly founded Association set out a vision for “the formation of a suitable public park, comprehending, of the best ground on both sides of the Queensferry Road with belongs chiefly to the Trinity Hospital” hoping also for a pond that would be suitable for skating and curling in winter.  It advocated for “the improvement of walks in the immediate neighbourhood of Edinburgh” and “the preservation and planting of ornamental trees in and around the City.”  And to set the record straight in the context of the current debate around the uses of public parks, it suggested “providing a permanent band of music for the city, to perform regularly in the various suitable localities.”

The First Annual Report of the Association highlighted campaigns for trees at Bruntsfield Links and walks by Corstorphine Hill and Granton West Bay.   In 1876, the Association reported its concerns with the environs around Dean Bridge and the Water of Leith, noting “its capability of improvement and of being converted into one of the finest parterres in that part of the city.”  Ninety-nine years and a lot of campaigning later, the Water of Leith Walkway was formally opened by the Lord Provost.

Calton Hill, Princes Street Gardens, Craiglockhart Hill, tree-planting schemes and the protection of the Green Belt when designated as part of the post-war planning visions for the city have all been affected for the positive by the work of the Cockburn Association.  Amenities we take for granted today were the result of ceaseless campaigning and of efforts to influence the City Councillors and their Administrators by the Association.

Public space and development – Princes Street Gardens

Even before the founding the Association in 1875, the use of open space for development purposes was an issue.  Indeed, it was one of the issues that led to the formation of the Association 21 years after the death of Lord Cockburn.

The battle for Princes Street Gardens began almost as soon as the first sods were cut in the creation of the First New Town.  The Town Council proposed the feuing of land to the south of Princes Street for housing, arguing that it was not contractually bound to James Craig’s proposals which outlined an open space with canal in the Waverley Valley.  As early as 1776, a dispute was submitted to arbitration resulting in a decree-arbitral in favour of David Rae which curtailed some of the development proposals in the east but ruled that the remaining land west of Hanover Street was to be 2kept and preserved in perpetuity as a pleasure ground”.  This was later reinforced by amendments to the 1816 Act of Improvement that further restricted development.  In 1812, the Town Council proposed the erection of a gaol and Court of Judiciary in what is now known as East Princes Street Gardens.  This and other proposals ignited another public campaign, this time led by Henry Cockburn which ultimately resulted in the prohibition of any building development on the east wide of Hanover Street, affirming it as “one of the lungs of the city.”

Since its founding in 1875, the Cockburn was required to defend the gardens on numerous occasions.  The proposal to locate the Usher Hall, following the 1896 gift of £10,000 (£10m in today’s money) to erect a new hall from whisky distiller and blender Thomas Usher, in West Princes Street Gardens just under the castle was one example.  In 1910, the Town Council proposed a “winter garden” – basically a commercial visitor attraction – citing the views of the castle as a particularly enticing marketing opportunity.  Again, the Cockburn campaigned to prevent the development and commercialisation of the gardens.

Post-war, the pressure intensified.  The 1949 Civic Survey & Plan for Edinburgh by mid 20th century planning doyens Patrick Abercrombie and Derek Plumstead proposed a new motorway running through the gardens as a “bypass” to Princes Street itself.  In 1954, the City Corporation proposed a multi-storey car park and bus station which generated considerable opposition.  In the 1990s, the City Council proposed, through its development arm EDI Ltd, a new shopping mall under the length of Princes Street, encroaching in the gardens to provide access and new commercial opportunities. The Cockburn presented its arguments to a Public Local Inquiry and, thankfully, the scheme was dismissed.  However, in the early 2000s, proposals continued to be prepared for the use of East Princes Street Gardens as an adjunct to a commercial development.

Hoarding-gate – concerts in the gardens

Concerts in Princes Street Gardens are no new thing.  Images of large crowds in the 19th century can be seen enjoying music from the original bandstand.  Many have enjoyed Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks performed in West Princes Street Gardens every Hogmanay.

However, in 2018, the city woke up to restrictive black hoardings attached to the railings erected along the length of Princes Street on the south side.  The purpose of these was to screen views into the gardens.  The reason?  The Council had leased the use of the Ross Bandstand to a private concert promoter for the “Summer Sessions” concerts.  These events had been running over the previous few years but had recently increased in number, starting from 3 ticketed events to a proposed seven this year (2021).  Summer Session concerts were (and are) ticketed exclusive events.  Performers have included Tom Jones, Travis and Lewis Capaldi.  Proposed concerts in 2021 (if they are permitted to happen with ongoing Covid restrictions) cost £78 for VIP tickets and £50 for standing.

In order to maximise attendance, and presumably boost profits, the area of the bandstand was extended with temporary structures.  A substantial amount of “crowd control” barriers were deployed and a large section of West Princes Street gardens cordoned off to provide “VIP” facilities.  The access across the railway was closed for the duration of the concerts.  In effect, the promoters are permitted to restrict access to the Gardens with the full blessing of the City Council.  Signs appeared attached to railings and the hoardings stating that if people were found to be in the gardens without a valid ticket, they would be “handed over to the Police”.  The city began to sit up and take notice of the creeping processes of commodification in this public garden.

Redevelopment of the Ross Bandstand

The Ross Development Trust was formed as a philanthropic gesture by a city hotelier, Norman Springford who was concerned with the general lack of maintenance and decreasing amenity of West Princes Street Gardens.  As part of the Trust’s charitable work, it restored the historic Ross Fountain to its former glory; refurbished and occupied the Gardener’s Cottage and initiated a programme of initiatives seeking to improve the gardens.

Key to the Trust’s plans was the replacement and redevelopment of the Ross Bandstand to provide:

an iconic purpose built events venue that reflects and is in keeping with the Edinburgh heritage but which also has a modern and cutting edge design that will benefit both the local population and visitors to Edinburgh alike, ideally becoming an internationally acclaimed and landmark attraction in Edinburgh in its own right” (RDT’s charitable purposes, OSCR).

No serious effort was apparently expended thinking about refurbishment of the existing Ross Bandstand structure, which was dismissed as unfit for purpose with little evidence to justify the position.

As proposals began to emerge of the scale of the proposed replacement of the bandstand, the Cockburn became increasingly alarmed.  It emerged that the City Council proposed to hand over control of the site to an Arm’s Length External Organisation (ALEO), even though the Gardens are Common Goods Assets which restricts what the Council can and cannot do with them.  The Cockburn intervened, requesting a public consultation before any substantive decisions were made.  The public rejected outright the ALEO proposal, and determined that the two characteristics most valued were the greenness and tranquillity of West Princes Street Gardens. Improvements to access and some general enhancements were supported by all.

In 2017, following an international competition to select a designer for a new bandstand, an American-based landscape architecture practice was selected.  In assessing the proposals, the Cockburn was concerned about the proposed scale, but did see some benefits too.  Improvements to the “blaise” area was welcomed as were the restoration of the various shelters along the upper path.  However, it emerged that an objective of the scheme was to significantly enhance the capacity of the facilities for larger and larger events. Thus, the proposals under development were for a 4,000-6,000-capacity concert/performance stadium with a related commercial building for catering, indoor events, etc.  The Cockburn highlighted the scale of intervention in the heart of the gardens and coordinated discussions with the five Community Councils who jointly represent the City Centre.  All were equally alarmed.

Several representations to various City Council committees ensued.  The Ross Development Trust, who at all points were open, cooperative and helpful in their engagements with the Cockburn, continued with the proposals and were in the process of submitting a full planning application when everything went quiet.  The global pandemic is certainly believed to be at the heart of this, but it emerged latterly that the Trust’s project partner, the City Council, and Historic Environment Scotland had written to it ‘in detail, condemning not only the designs, but the entire concept which had secured victory in the international competition’ (Architect’s Journal 29 Jan 2021).   The Cockburn’s concerns were, ultimately, grounded in its understanding of the significance of the site and its role in core values of the World Heritage Site.

Christmas Market – East Princes Street Gardens

As the saga of the Ross Bandstand was being played out, the Cockburn was required to intervene in another damaging development in this most sensitive area of the City.

The Christmas Market has been an attraction in the city for decades.  Originally contained within the hard standing area of The Mound, it eventually began a slow but steady creep into East Princes Street Gardens, firstly, along the upper grassed terrace. Extensive damage to the soft grassy surfaces, followed by increasingly longer periods required for reinstatement, inevitably followed.  Land next to Waverley Bridge was strengthened to allow bigger and bigger fairground rides.  The Christmas market was then amalgamated with the Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations to form the “Winter Festivals”.  In recent years, under the stewardship of Underbelly (the event contractors employed by the City Council to run the Winter Festival) emphasis began to shift away from Hogmanay onto the Christmas Market activity.

In October 2019, the Cockburn Association noticed a large “space deck” of steel scaffolding being erected into the lower part of East Princes Street Gardens.  In a single day’s activity, its sheer scale became alarmingly large.  We immediately wrote to the Chief Planning Officer asking if it needed planning consent, and if so, did it have a valid permission in place?  The answer was no to both counts, nor did the structure have a building warrant:

I can confirm that the current construction of the Christmas market requires planning permission, and, to date, no such application has been received. The previous consent expired in 2018.” Chief Planning Officer, Dec 2019.

Furthermore, it emerged that the event’s organiser had their contract with the City Council extended for a further two years by a senior Council officer under delegated powers, having erected such a massive structure without consent, despite being told so months before that permission was required.  If that wasn’t enough, the event promoter was also allowed to extend the Market south of the railway line, an extension that requires explicit consent from elected Councillors, permission which had not been sought.

The Christmas Market lasted for 6 weeks and was no doubt popular.  It should also have been profitable, with a ride on the Ferris Wheel costing £28 for a family of four (with 20% off if you lived in an EH postcode and could prove it).

East Princes Street Gardens became effectively off limits to the public from the end of October, when the space deck and various other elements of the funfair started to appear on site.  The Gardens did not re-open to the public until the end of May the following year, a period of over 6 months.  For much of this half year, the Gardens, a civic asset and Common Good Land, looked like a bomb site.  The only environmental condition imposed on Underbelly was the reinstatement of turf.

The Cockburn led the campaign against this destructive approach to a public park.  The Cockburn recognises the value to the City of events, such as the Christmas Market, but finds itself forced to voice significant concerns about creep of commercialisation in our public parks and open spaces. The structure erected here was so grossly out of keeping with the amenity of the Gardens that it damaged the character of this part of city; ironically amenity which event operators are often keenest to exploit by hosting events there in the first place.

Commodification of Edinburgh’s Public Spaces

In January 2020, the Cockburn called a Public Summit to discuss increasing public concerns about the intensification of events in the city’s public gardens, parks and open spaces.  On a cold January evening, 850 people squeezed into Central Hall in Tollcross to hear panel of speakers, led by broadcaster Stephen Jardine, articulate a range of issues affecting the city’s open spaces during the Festival and tourist seasons.  The increasing levels of public dissatisfaction had been brewing for time as the city administration sought to develop its tourism offers.

Professor David MacGillivray, of the University of the West of Scotland, suggested that the process of Festivalisation was, in part, the “Trojan Horse” leading to the privatisation of open space. As cities sought to attract more and more events into public spaces, this came at the price of diminishing levels of public access.  Marianne Trusson, a civil engineer who specialises in sustainable building systems, noted that it would take 543 trees over a 20 year growth cycle to offset the carbon from a single day’s travel of visitors to the Christmas market.  Other speakers highlighted similar issues and concerns.

The Summit heard from the floor of concerns about the commodification of open space across the city – in Portobello, in the Meadows and Bruntsfield Link, in Saughton Park.  One attendee exclaimed, “the last time I was at a meeting this large, it was about the Poll tax!”.  Testament to the wide-scale public concern held by Edinburgh residents about their civic spaces.

What’s next?

The global pandemic caused the collapse of the city’s traditional Festival and events sector offer, with a rapidity unknown to most.  The Cockburn shares the deep concern about the impact to many, many businesses and individuals in the city who have been impacted by the necessary Covid restrictions that followed.  However, we remain very concerned that as attention rightly focuses in 2021 on a route forward, a more liberal approach will be adopted by the Scottish Government and the City of Edinburgh Council to hosting private events in public spaces, under the very pressing need to kick-start the economy.

The Association will continue to resist intensive commodification and commercialisation of Edinburgh’s many parks, gardens and civic spaces – Covid has brought into sharp focus just how important these unique places are to the economic, social and environmental well-being of the city and its residents. We will continue to champion, protect and enhance the free and public amenity in each of these precious spaces in the future, just as we have done for the past century and half.

The Association will continue to resist intensive commodification and commercialisation of Edinburgh’s many parks, gardens and civic spaces – Covid has brought into sharp focus just how important these unique places are to the economic, social and environmental well-being of the city and its residents. We will continue to champion, protect and enhance the free and public amenity in each of these precious spaces in the future, just as we have done for the past century and half.