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Edinburgh looks to expand world class waterfront development

Above: Edinburgh's waterfront: the western section of the Granton development area looking towards the Firth of Forth bridges (Aerial Photography Solutions / City of Edinburgh Council)

The Edinburgh Festival is coming to a close this weekend with The City of Edinburgh Council celebrating 75 years of summer festivals in the city and coming top recently in the Time Out Index for 2022, where 95% of residents thought the city was beautiful, as well as 93% deeming it walkable.

The City of Edinburgh Council's Executive Director of Place, Paul Lawrence, spoke to Future Cities Forum in an interview about bringing the quality of building and place forward for the city to maintain its attractiveness for residents, visitors and investors:

'This is the Edinburgh challenge - getting the city centre working fully again, making sure it is attractive to international and national visitors, that the workplace is thriving and transport is working. Having the Edinburgh St James quarter development brings a newness to the city. It was significant risk but we had a unique partnership through an accelerator model. But the city centre is not the same as pre-pandemic and we are constantly innovating whether it is through retail, food or drink, giving visitors a reason to come here and it has got to be done.

'The challenge was there before the pandemic, one of manned over support among the asset classes, with an unusual surfeit of demand for office space both by corporates and creative businesses because we have such a successful economy but with physical land constraints. This is because of our world heritage status. This has led to issues of accommodating growth of the tech sector. I think most global cities are finding the same challenge. We don't know what the new employment patterns are going to look like, whether coming into work for 3 or 5 days a week. Our tourism is going extremely well, but hotels have taken over some office space and there is still a demand for more residential housing in the city centre. The silver lining is that the investment appetite remains very positive and you can see that in the transformation of for example Princes Street. The hunger for investment is very heartening - if you look at what is going on with the Jenners, BHS and Debenhams sites - and perhaps unusual in a UK context.'

Jenners department store building dates back to 1895 on Princes Street and the architect firm, AAA, has suggested introducing a hotel while restoring the top floor glass atrium. The lower section will remain in use as a shopping centre with food and drink outlets.

Paul was asked about whether Edinburgh was facing similar challenges as Cambridge in terms of building new office accommodation and housing:

'The challenges for Edinburgh are comparative for Cambridge and on a smaller scale, Manchester. Edinburgh is the home of government so that is unique compared to the other cities, but it is how we all manage growth, the demand for volume housing building with or without the release of greenfield. We have been carefully re-purposing brownfield sites which has been tricky and we need public private partnership for this over the next few years. What we need is mixed-use neighbourhoods with good transport.

'We have the most exciting waterfront development anywhere in Europe, north of the city. It has the original industrial areas of the city with the world's first electric car factory. We needed total ownership to develop it and now we have a masterplan with funding from the UK government for affordable housing and workplace for the creative industries.

'In the West of the city near the airport we are looking at an urban extension with three developers who are sharing our vision of very dense mixed use, building around existing infrastructure with a tram line in the middle of the site and we are on the cusp of large scale opportunities here. But overall the city centre is still our beating heart.

'Our bio-quarter has the largest concentration of activity outside the golden triangle with world-class NHS facilities and has land. It is not just a science park but has a mixed use proposal, anchored around life sciences which is the most exciting development idea anywhere in Europe.

'We are interested in general terms of developing the idea of the 20 minute city but you just cannot re-route traffic out. It is a complex task. Creating places where you can walk and get most of your daily needs without a car has been undermined in planning terms over the last 40 years. We are lucky that we have eight to nine small centres already, but we must work to sustain attractiveness and transport.'

Below: St James' Quarter, Edinburgh (March 2022)


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