Enlightened city had let you be

till Mammon’s grasp said ‘damn the tree’;

So far the trees are still there: a splash of green between grey buildings in a grey street. Otherwise only cars and traffic signs add  colour to one of the posher parts of Edinburgh. Planning permission for a new building on the ‘unfinished’ edge of the tenement threatens the trees. I am printing a protest poem by Gordon Peters, one of the neighbouring residents, because it says so clearly what I feel: city life is also about what happens in the space between buildings. Why fill every gap?

In both poetry and prose Gordon Peters has supported a campaign against a decision to build a new home in Hart Street.  The Planning Committee gave permission  anyway to Richard Murphy, an architect whose work includes Dundee Contemporary Art Centre, and whose practice aims to produce   “architecture equally of its place and of its time”.


The no-hopers who post comments on local newspaper websites interpreted the protests as opposition to any modern building in the elegant New Town. But you only have to read the articulate summary of the Hart Street Resdent’s case to see that is not the point at all.   Here is a brief extract:

‘ The New Town was built with the intention of there being open space, trees & gardens; allowing new houses to be crammed into little gaps between Georgian buildings & onto small gardens is undermining the style & quality of the original plan. There is no shortage of housing or office space in Edinburgh’s New Town area; indeed there is a forest of estate agents’ signs offering property for sale or rent. Why was planning permission granted without there being a genuine, long-term need for development; & what is the result?’

I heard Gordon read his poem at a party and asked if I could publish it on my blog. Intriguingly just a few days later I saw the poem pinned to the wall of another architects’ office – Gaia Architects – who just happen to occupy the old Hugenot Monastery at the back of the gardens where the trees grow.  I was there on totally different business, to gather information about inspiring and sustainable use of timber in innovative new Scottish architecture, so we didn’t talk about the campaign.  Besides, the poem is not about the building.  It’s about the tree – and what green space  gives to the city. Since I took these pictures there is just a little less green as the cotoneaster and ivy have been cut down, perhaps in preparation for next year’s building.  The poem raises doubts about the future of the trees:

Tenement  Tree

In blossom or leaf, or russet or bare,

you stand as a sentinel, one of a pair;

your sister along is safer a bit

though developer’s shovel would spew her with grit.

No harm have you done but only sustain

life all around as you drink in the rain,

your listing is said to hold off the axe,

but not from a Council whose ethics are lax.

You’ve heard the yells of women haunted

sheltered Huguenots not wanted,

seen the proud elm yield to the saw,

kept blackbird and squirrel in your maw;

a doomed pigeon you kept on stance

as the peregrine struck just like a lance;

while brambles and currants beside bore fruit,

guarding the tenement you took root.

Enlightened city had let you be

till Mammon’s grasp said ‘damn the tree’;

the planning officer did his best

neighbours rallied, to the provost a pest;

but burgesses whose icon is a tram

determined to build seeing gold in a pan,

yet recession’s cold draft would see gold turn to dust

and you dear tree saved, to await further lust.

Gordon Peters   April 2009 [you can hear Gordon  at local poetry ‘slams’ in The Strathmore in Iona Streeet Leith. Check The Skinny and The List for details]