New Worlds and Old Cities?

“There is a real danger that Edinburgh, with its obsession with heritage, is retreating into a psychology of isolation and will become an introspective museum-piece”

So wrote Bill Jamieson in this weekend’s Scotland on Sunday (March 3rd 2013, p22), in a piece about Scotland’s property market ahead of this week’s annual conference of the Scottish Property Federation.

And he raises an interesting question – are we so wedded to our historic town and city scapes that we are restricting the opportunities for the growth that we so badly need?

Mind you I am not sure that the argument was much advanced by the accompanying photograph – the middle bit of Princes Street as seen from the Castle, revealing some wonderful 1960s warts on the face of that historic and iconic street. If that is what development and building today is going to look like then it isn’t going to be pretty, but maybe that is the price we have to pay?

So what sort of city scape do we want? Should we be looking to the modernist face of London or the transformation of Shanghai, or are we more comfortable with the lower level and restraint of Scandinavia? Either way though we need to be in a position to renew and replace our town and city centres. As Jamieson also says:

The country cannot be run from unsuitable, out-of-date or poorly sited buildings for much longer”

The growing dilapidation of town and city centres as internet retail marches on will intensify pressure for redesign, rebuild and refurbishment. At the same time rising energy costs will intensify a residential move back into urban centres”

Now I don’t buy the argument that internet retail is the beast that has killed our town and city centres. We were quite happily neglecting and ignoring them long before Tim Berners-Lee et al unleashed that tiger. And we have quite happily decentralised all sorts of things away from our centres for many years (Victoria Quay anyone?). What is most painful is that we seem not to have learned the lessons and are still happily decentralising schools, hotels, offices, retail, local government, police services onto greenfield sites in the name of “value”. And we have not learned that we need to make our town and city centres welcoming for a diversity of uses, including accommodating modern uses in old spaces.

The big question, as asked by Bill Jamieson, is the extent to which we are willing to really let go of our restrictions in urban centres and to allow them a renaissance through building and other reduced controls, even if that might mean,  in some places, a radically altered look and feel? Can we find ways to accommodate our desires for dynamic and vibrant urban spaces, and yet keep the city scape we sometimes love?

Is looking like a museum piece all that bad if what is inside is modern and dynamic and useful and interesting? There is a feel to the best of urban places that is distinctly Scottish, and for me development at any cost risks losing something that is good about Scotland – that’s not to say we can’t do better, as we patently can, but it does say we need to be careful for what we wish for.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Internationalisation and Graduate Studies.
This entry was posted in Design, Heritage, High Streets, Internet, Property, Regulation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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