Letter from Gayfield Square

POSTED ON March 23, 2022 BY Neil Gilmour

Local resident Neil Gilmour has sent us some personal insights from his corner of the city for our latest “Letter from…” blog

When I was young and living in Ayrshire my parents would regularly drive to Edinburgh. As we crossed central Scotland the skies would lift, the sun invariably broke through and we arrived buzzing at the prospect of a brilliant day in this jewel of a city.

Decades later, I am lucky enough to live here in Gayfield Square. I spent over thirty years traveling and working all over the world, imagining what life back in Scotland, and in Edinburgh would bring. The skies do still lift when I drive home from visiting my mum in the west. The Georgian architecture is every bit as splendid as I remember. And Edinburgh people are great, not least those who had a tough time during the pandemic. Diverse, friendly, stoic and deeply proud of their roots.

In addition to living in Istanbul, Stavanger and Singapore, I spent over twenty years in The Netherlands, in The Hague and the northern city of Groningen. It is dangerous to make comparisons, and churlish to start that irritating “In the Netherlands this was so much more…”.  Nonetheless I have a couple of “stones in my shoe” regarding life here…specifically the scope for a better Edinburgh based upon what I saw happening elsewhere.

Despite the beauty of our UNESCO jewel the city has a patina of litter and lack of care that is simply shocking. Overflowing bins, face masks blowing along gutters, wrecked paving surfaces, potholed roads. Recently I watched two football supporters’ buses dump large piles of empty bottles and cans on the pavement without anyone batting an eyelid. Cyclists risk life and limb on terrible road surfaces using partly effective cycle lanes which often abruptly terminate.

Our tram construction project causes immense disruption and frustration, much of it completely avoidable. Miserable inconsistent pedestrian access causes us to walk hundreds of extra metres to cross Leith Walk on poorly managed crossings menaced by frustrated drivers. Site information is virtually non-existent. Life around the site is fundamentally miserable. It could easily be so different! I worked for many years with enlightened construction contractors who adapted work processes and sites to minimise impact on local communities (like us!). Who engaged, listened, and adapted. This invariably produced better results: higher productivity, better community relations, safer and cleaner sites. Why not here on my doorstep?

More broadly, Edinburgh consulted over 65 000 people to help define the 2050 city vision which has “Welcoming”, “Thriving”, “Fair” and “Pioneering” at its core. It is tough to argue with any of these concepts. But this is just the start. Execution requires a profound connection between the administrators and the people of Edinburgh. An ebb and flow of ideas and feedback. A genuinely democratic and flexible partnership.

I lived in several terrific truly democratic cities. Groningen had decades long integrated planning to shift towards a more liveable, more equitable greener city for all (residents, students, visitors alike). The Hague systematically improved road surfaces and cycle paths. New housing became more energy efficient and there was relentless and successful pressure to include affordable housing in all new developments.

Residents were continually consulted on the bigger decisions and the “small stuff” concerning everything from new communal bins to reopening previously infilled canals. And our voices mattered. If enough objected, then plans were dropped or modified. In Amsterdam the large influential cycling lobby delayed Rijksmuseum renovation plans for years ensuring that access under the museum for bikes was maintained. In turn, embraced by the Museum, this became an integral part of a beloved national treasure.

I am saddened by the feeling of helplessness many people have here. “Stuff happens” seemingly whether we like it or not. There are counterexamples where brilliant locally led initiatives are succeeding. But the priorities of my family, my neighbours, my local community should be at the core of decision-making and execution, in the manner I experienced in Norway and The Netherlands.

It is not a matter of available resources. Nor can it be explained away by divergent cultural norms. In Edinburgh we are every bit as innovative. And smart. And bolshie. And civic minded. And democratic. And environmentally savvy. And we can legitimately expect so much more. Why can we not have truly participative planning, governance, and execution? A genuine partnership where “we the people” are the main priority and our voices matter every day.

We are incredibly lucky to live in this unique and breathtakingly beautiful city. Fundamentally reinventing the partnership between its wonderful citizens and Edinburgh’s administrators, builders and commercial organisations would truly make it the city we all deserve. Surely the home of the Scottish Enlightenment deserves nothing less?

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