Edinburgh waterfront area development framework

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Traditionally, the story of Edinburgh has tended to focus on the twin personalities of the Old town and the New Town. It is easy to forget that a substantial element of the geography that defines the city is water. All cities with a waters edge, be it coastal or river, generate spaces and places with diverse relationships, the meaning and purpose of which shift over time. This means that the very close relationship of communities with the working and economic base of ports and harbours defines the character of their buildings, spaces and community on one hand. The dramatic coastal and landscape relations, and the microclimate challenges this brings shape the local built environment in other ways. The international relations enabled by shipping and the movement of goods and people through these localities shapes places in more ways again. The result is that these places, exactly like Edinburgh waterfront, tend to have strong stories and identities that work at different scales, even when the original purpose and economic intensity of activity has shifted. These identities, this character and sense of place can be used to shape both the pattern and process of future change. This idea, of starting with the place and its authentic stories, is the basis for the development of the Edinburgh Waterfront Area Development Framework [ADF].

A key challenge with big ideas like Edinburgh waterfront relates back to identity and scale. Is the starting point for the waterfront one big idea, which attaches itself to the city? If we understand the concept of a large area of change in this way, then a singular driving idea can seek to pull the area together. In the case of the Waterfront, one of these driving ideas was the ‘new New Town’. The scale of the waterfront territory is more than equivalent to the existing New Town. The New Town was built as an idea that related to both the spirit of the times and cultural ideas of style and taste, reflecting the city as being at the heart of the Enlightenment. The genius of Craig’s grid plan for the New Town is both its hierarchical structure of streets, lanes and blocks and the way in which the grid maps over the topography of the city. This move gives what could have been a rigid, and boring spatial sequence, drama. This drama, enabled by lifting and folding the grid, relates to the specific contexts of connecting with the landscape and waterscape surrounding the city.

As a result, spatial sequences like the pattern moving from Princes Street to George Street give no indication on the lower elevations of the powerful views of the Firth that unfold when you are at the top of George Street and descending down towards Queen Street. In these instances, you know you are in Edinburgh, in the Lothians, in Scotland. The overall result is a character and identity that is both strong in its interior, enabled by the patterns of streets and buildings, and strong in its exterior relationships. In both instances you are unmistakably in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Waterfront has all the potential for an exceptionally powerful human set of experiences and quality of life that re-define the identity of the city. Its drama is its diversity, its grit and its water and landscape connections, but most especially its communities. To date, the development in the Waterfront area has not capitalised fully on these opportunities.

The inherited townscape that we experience to be today’s New Town has been developed out over a long period of time, through different phases of growth and recession. The current recession has resulted in a stalling of development at Edinburgh Waterfront. The ‘new New Town’ idea has only delivered a very partial set of elements. Within the Waterfont, there have been criticisms of both the individual masterplans and how each masterplan joins up to enable the strategic connections and strategic sense of place to forge the functionality, as well as identity, of the ‘new New Town’. In Leith, Newhaven and Granton, the communities that have developed as a result of the early phases of development seem isolated from facilities, from the rest of the city, and in many ways from existing adjacent communities. This brings us back to the issue of concept: should large areas of change be seen as one big idea or as a set of interconnected communities and character areas?

To interrogate this idea, and to develop a framework which enables delivery of the necessary facilities and amenities to make this a place for people, the City of Edinburgh Council and partners, including A+DS (Architecture and Design Scotland), and NHS Lothian, re-examined the planning framework for the Waterfront in the form of an Area Development Framework. The purpose of the ADF is to take a joined up look at how this part of the city might develop, spatially and as a set of communities. In this context, the ADF sought to look at the hardware of the area, existing and proposed in terms of its streets, spaces and urban building blocks; in terms of the software of the area, the activities of people here, the supporting amenities, the economy, the communities and the organisation, the local and strategic institutions that enable communities to participate in civic life, in shaping change.

The starting point for the ADF process was to understand the context: is this one large area of change, which at one level is an opportunity to meet strategic housing need for instance, or is it a set of individual communities? This point was considered to be sufficiently important to review possible growth strategies for the area; from change driven through one big idea, to change driven by expanding existing communities, to change driven by expanding the city. Each strategy brings with it tangible effects – the quantum, nature and form of development in each case would be different.

Taking these questions as a starting position, the ADF process unfolded as a participatory process which engaged with the idea of change in the Waterfront with three broad communities:

– The community of service providers in the public sector, primarily within City of Edinburgh Council and the NHS

-The community of landowners and stakeholders in the waterfront area

-The communities of residents, workers and citizens that define the existing occupied spaces of the area

These engagements were facilitated through a series of charettes, followed up by discussion and testing of the emerging issues with members of the city’s design community. The second charette held in Ocean Terminal was jointly facilitated between CEC, A+DS and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. This session took the sense of place of each of Leith, Newhaven and Granton as a starting point for a rounded discussion on the economy. What emerged was both a clear picture of the local and organic nature of the informal and social economy, and the nature of the commercial economy in each area at the moment. This enabled some robust discussion and clear direction on the balancing of economy that may be desirable and necessary to enable more resilient and sustainable communities to emerge in Leith, Newhaven and Granton which work with the specifics of these areas.

The final charette focused on spatial structure, and the possible opportunities to ‘stitch’ parts of the area together. This focused a lot on the idea of ‘hearts’ which are identifiable parts of each community, and Waterfront as a whole that people can relate to and understand. These areas include, for instance, the heart of Leith, the area around the shore, Newhaven harbour, Granton Square and the area around Telford college. Starting with these areas, the discussions looked at how the hearts could be re-inforced, informing the briefing for future physical development. The discussions also looked at ways in which the ‘links’ between the hearts could be strengthened as civic infrastructure. What emerged, as a composite picture, is not a single driving idea, but a sensitivity to working with the local scale, and a need to have some strategic cross cutting links, primarily better streets and landscape elements.

The write up of the outcome of the charettes has tried to bring together a robust analysis of the issues, what this area is, and what it might be. It sets out a framework for change which is based on spatial structure, expressed in terms of urban structure [layout], urban grain [the scale and pattern of the urban building blocks]; density and mix of land use; scale, height and massing and public realm. However, the descriptions of the framework also include discussion about the specific assets and resources of each of the areas, in terms of the potential for creative approaches to these elements to deliver better services, enabling better outcomes for people in the community. This ranges from asset sharing, to new forms of maintenance and management to integrated traffic management. The emphasis here is not solely on the physical contexts: it is about taking a good look at the way in which the hardware, the software and the institutional landscape of this part of the city can deliver community outcomes. This is essential to making this part of Edinburgh a place that people want to be in.

The draft Area Development Framework for the Waterfront is an umbrella structure to draw together a set of ideas that were developed through robust yet rapid discussions. The testing of these ideas will continue through the consultation process. The Area Development Framework process has great potential as a planning tool. It takes the sense of place as a starting point and tries to find ways in which this can tangibly shape change. It tries to engage meaningfully with a series of different communities. It uses design not as the outcome, but as a vehicle to enable the various ideas, conflicting interests and perceptions of what the area is and could be, to be brought together and shaped into something that delivers outcomes. It uses design as a means of testing the art of the possible. The speed and robust ness of the process demonstrate how planning can work on an area basis, and how a commitment to working with the story of a place, a willingness to engage with design and spatial structure, and an honest commitment to work with the authentic outcome of discussions with communities can help shape better places.

Place and leadership

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