curiosity about the ways of the world

Poetry, politics and pedestrians

I’m walking home along Rose Street when writing on the wall catches my eye. Ron Butlin’s Recipe for Whisky. Perhaps not many people know it but this is the poem that launched Edinburgh’s Poetry Garden in St Andrew Square a full five years ago. It seems significant as I’ve just been to the Living Streets conference (Walking and the Urban Environment) which produced a few poetic surprises of its own.

Ron Butlin's Recipe for Whisky on Rose Street wall

Ron Butlin’s Recipe for Whisky

Well, not just poetry, there was plenty of politics, and some passion too.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by any of it.  Urban planners are a maverick bunch. The best of them can conjure up tantalising visions of cities made for people living a good life. Mike Galloway, director of city development in Dundee, evoked the light shimmering on the River Tay as he described how the  city centre is reconnecting with its waterfront: demolishing (even as he spoke) hideous buildings blocking the view; removing ugly unused elevated walkways over race track roads; easing the pedestrian route to the river.

John Dales, of Urban Movement, drew a gasp from the audience when he said cities like Edinburgh should have no roads at all. Then a sigh of amused relief when he added that roads bring traffic into town, “streets are places where people live and move”.   Most of the time of course roads are allowed to plough right through the places where people live and work so that as he forcefully put it:  “The whole environment shrieks ‘this is for cars’”. He produced plenty of Edinburgh slides to prove it.

I’m thinking about all this (there was much more discussion) as I wander home along Edinburgh’s oldest pedestrian street. Rose Street is an awkward hybrid. It does not shriek with cars but I have seen too many delivery vans nosing their way through pavement cafes.  As Galloway also admitted, urban planners come back from holidays excited by city spaces they have seen elsewhere and then proceed to make a mess of their home towns.


A painting of a jumble of road signs

East London Street Road Works from Tommy Perman’s SURVEY:UK series

They get plenty of assistance. Local traders – notoriously resistant to the notion that pedestrian streets are good for shopping – have so far succeeded in making sure Edinburgh has more roads than streets.  Politicians tend to cave in to the car lobby (parking meters provide useful revenue) though the council deserves credit for imposing a 20mph speed limit across most of the city.

So it’s cheering to hear Lesley Hinds, Edinburgh’s very own ‘tram diva’, reveal plans for a gently-gently scheme to win hearts and minds of Edinburgh’s retail mafia.  Nice and slow, little by little, (always the best way according to Jan Gehl), the council is freeing up space for walkers. “We are finding that pilot schemes give people time to get used to the idea and let us see what works”, says the Convener of Edinburgh’s Transport, Infrastructure and Environment Committee. (Cllr Hinds is in charge of the tram and has made good progress since being handed what everyone thought was the portfolio from hell).   Indeed, it seems, closing part of George Street during the Festival was so popular with both the public and local traders the council is now emboldened to try it for a year, starting in the spring of 2014.

Packing up George St pavement cafe's

Packing up pavement cafes at the end of Festival 2013

Like other speakers at the Living Streets conference, Lesley Hinds cites New York as a standard for excellence when it comes to reclaiming the streets for people. There’s  the High Line built on an old railway line  there’s Janette Sadik-Khan NYC transportation commissioner turning Times Square into a pedestrian paradise and there’s Bryant Park, the Big Apple’s very sociable public space which inspired the look and feel of Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square.

By now I’m nearly at St Andrew Square – once a caged space owned but not enjoyed by surrounding properties – now open to the public and almost always full of people either cutting through the garden or just hanging out in the green space.  Because there’s much more to cities than shopping, this space is discreetly designated Edinburgh Poetry Garden (one day that will be visibly obvious).  It’s a good example of what the city can do when it tries. That calls for a drink, I think.


A Recipe for Whisky

Wring the Scottish rain clouds dry;
take sleet, the driving snow, the hail;
winter twilight; the summer’s sun slowed down
to pearl-sheen dusk on hillsides, city-roofs,
on lochs at midnight.

 Ron Butlin: The Magicians of Edinburgh 

See more of Tommy Perman’s urban drawings on his Surface Pressure website.

1 Comment

  1. fay

    I should declare an interest. As director of Walking Heads (audio walking tours) I am also keen on the idea of ‘walkable’ cities.

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