A robin sings into the night from a bare branch tree.  The sound, sad-sweet in the din and dazzle of Edinburgh’s Christmas markets, seems to come from another world.

It’s a fugitive, recurring memory I’ve carried around for six years since the startling discovery of the new midwinter look for Edinburgh. There she was, fur coat and no knickers, as the old saying goes, East Princes Street Gardens all dressed up for celebration as if there was no tomorrow.

Robins sing in winter to mark their territory for spring. Research suggests they sing in cities at night because artificial light tells them it is daybreak and time to go seeking insects among shrubs, grasses and trees.

Poor robin. This year the Underbelly party leaves an ever-bigger wasteland of compacted mud. It seems no-one has thought to investigate the environmental impact of all that infrastructure, footfall, fumes, and diesel-generated electricity. Despite the city council’s declaration of a Climate Emergency, despite pledges for net zero emissions by 2030, despite the beautifully presented Biodiversity Action Place for the city’s green spaces and ‘wildlife networks’ – despite all that no-one knows the cost of the damage done to the public park.  Owned by the people of Edinburgh, this historic Common Good space is increasingly occupied by private companies with (undeclared) profits to make.

“Re-turfing the grass is not sustainable,” says Mariana Trusson, a chartered engineer specialising in sustainable design strategy. “Reinstatement is a remedy to an avoidable problem… It takes much longer for the soil to recover than simply re-turfing.”  She goes further:  “It takes 40 years for the average tree to displace one tonne of CO2. It will take 543 trees 40 years to displace the carbon impact from travel for 1 days’ worth of visitors to the market.”

Who counts the cost?

Of all the many hard facts and strong feelings presented at City for Sale: the commodification of Edinburgh’s public spaces – a full-to-bursting public meeting in the grand old Central Halls of Edinburgh – it was the environmental carelessness that registered most firmly with me. Cliff Hague, chair of the host organisation, Cockburn Association, summed it up succinctly:

“Edinburgh City Council has given £810,000 to the Underbelly, “ he reminded the audience of more than 850 local people,  “There has been no analysis of the cost to environment, health and wellbeing. No environmental sustainability assessment.”

Health and wellbeing is a phrase buzzing with new political meaning. Earlier that same day Scotland’s First Minister had confirmed her government’s commitment to wellbeing as a better measure of national success than GDP.  (Ironically, Nicola Sturgeon’s speech coincided with new figures showing Scotland’s sharp fall down the index of social and economic wellbeing).

Environment is a crucial element of human health and wellbeing as City for Sale speakers pointed out.  Access to green space is strongly linked to mental and physical health at all ages. The healing power of nature was highlighted by Dr Michelle Hipwell, a health psychologist – and member of the Astley Ainslie Community Trust campaigning for community ownership of one of the very large areas of city land up for redevelopment. It’s good for humans to be among trees and flowering plants in a living green space where birds sing.  

Princes Street Garden is not included in the Biodiversity Action Plan which celebrates Edinburgh’s wealth of natural beauty stretching from Pentland Hills to Firth of Forth. The great green island in the city centre is a favourite destination for visitors, and imaginative planting attracts wildlife too. It’s a precious resource at a time of accelerating species extinction and climate crisis. Why lay waste to it?

‘Ask for it to be green’

There is a perfect storm of local, national and global issues in Edinburgh’s highly charged public meeting.  Across the world, cities are grappling with growing resistance to Airbnb and mass tourism.  But Edinburgh, the international festival city, has its own home-brewed mix of local and national conflict which underlies the loss of trust in local democracy, the growing feeling of helplessness. To meet this year’s budget, like all Scottish local authorities, Edinburgh faces yet more cuts to essential local services. (The capital city has the lowest per capita funding in Scotland.)  And that’s a particularly hard nut to crack for the SNP/Labour coalition in city chambers.  How to protect invaluable public space when local authorities are desperately seeking new ways to generate income?

We’re not against festivals or tourism, City for Sale speakers are keen to stress. “Fairs are fun, we’ve always had fairs,” says Andy Wightman, Green MSP, and a widely respected authority on the long history of the use and abuse of common good land.  Festivals and events can be ‘Trojan horses’, normalising the privatisation of public space, says Prof David McGillivray. But they can also be enjoyable, re-imagining everyday places, bringing streets to life, “festive streets, free of traffic.”

A prosperous modern city needs a joined-up plan for sustainable quality of life. How?  The Cockburn Association gives at least part of the answer in its detailed response to the council’s tourism strategy consultation.  “In the end, the needs of residents and tourist are not necessarily in conflict – a city which is a high quality, accessible, enjoyable place to be will be good for both.”

That requires good management, Cliff Hague emphasises. Edinburgh, a great capital city, has a strong hand if it can find confidence to insist on higher standards from contractors for all events including the winter festival.  “Ask for it to be green”, says Marianna Trusson, move it to streets and squares already set up for markets.  Disperse it round the city. Share the love!

How to make it happen?

“Edinburgh belongs to all of us, but we have a duty of care to look after it,” said the chair Stephen Jardine deftly summing up the energetic but respectful discussion.

A fundamental reform of local government funding is long overdue, and with it a proper balance of power between central and local government, between councils and communities.  Here in Edinburgh City Halls there were glimmers of the answer.

In the great diversity of voices speaking with common concern, I hear echoes of so many other public meetings I’ve attended in the last year.  Imagine what strength the city council could gain from truly listening to the wisdom of citizens. Grassroots energy and ingenuity in partnership with an enabling political will. Together we could provide a constructive, collaborative, inclusive way forward. While we still have robins to sing in public parks.  

Further reading

Cockburn Association Edinburgh Tourism review htt

Cockburn Association City for Sale presentations

Audit Scotland Local government in Scotland: challenges and performance 2019