Posts filed under 'Street life'
I might have known better. Getting into the taxi in Queen Street Station one rainy day I couldn’t help commenting on George Square. Looking a little tidier today, I say, but what’s happening to the statues?
Budapest statue park
Never mind the statues. The taxi driver is irate at the cost of Glasgow City Council’s proposed refurbishment of the square: “£15million and they’re cutting nearly £50 million from the city budget!” By the time we’re three sides round the square ( £3.60 on the meter) he’s in full flow. “You know what they say about our old Lord Provost Pat Lally – he was never going to get invited to Moscow so he brought Red Square to Glasgow”.
That was just days before council leader Gordon Matheson made his U turn, gave in to public pressure and cancelled the refurbishment plans which would have replaced the red tarmac and maybe even moved the statues elsewhere.
I’m keeping my mouth shut on taxi rides these days. The story rumbles on and no-one is happy with the council’s handling of the project which cost £1m in a pointless design competition. But I’m looking at those statues with new eyes. What are they for?
Designed to give you a crick in the neck
A poll showed that most Save the Square supporters could not name the statues but they wanted to keep them anyway. And I must admit my knee jerk reaction was similar when I first read about the council’s proposals for improving the square. Removing the Victorian statues seemed a kind of vandalism. On my way back to Queen Street I took a closer look.
In the cold evening light they’re a chilly bunch. Poker-faced and pigeon-spattered. A poet here, a general there, a monarch on her high horse. Nothing to catch the eye or stir the heart – none of the passion of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, not a word about the trades union rally that filled the square and brought the tanks out in 1919.
Burns, Watson, Watt, Scott. All male, apart from Queen Victoria, and all worth remembering of course but what do they say about Glasgow, Scotland’s most ebulliently creative city?
On her high horse
This is civic art at its most predictable, a tired old imperial ego-trip. In Buchanan Street we meet Donald Dewar as another human being and smile at George Wyllie’s running clock.
So, though my taxi driver made a good point about the cost at a time of cuts, it’s a pity Glasgow city council failed to make a proper case for clearing the Victorian clutter. They could start with that monstrous Walter Scott column (and Edinburgh should banish the preposterous Dundas towering above St Andrew Square). Give us statues we can look in the eye!
Budapest did not have the same problem – once the Soviet Union crumbled they just shovelled redundant communist icons to a field on the outskirts of the city. It’s a great tourist attraction.
In an ideal world, of course, city councils would have control over their revenue so they could invest in the public realm along with maintaining essential services. But that’s another blog.
Old Soviet heroes, rust in peace outside Budapest
February 21st, 2013
The Post Office closed and reopened as a DVD shop. Then the DVD shop closed and reopened as a shop selling…well, to be honest I’m not sure what it is selling, the window display does not tempt me to cross the street let alone go through the door, but it looks like they are selling ‘gifts’. Or to put it another way, more stuff.
Edinburgh’s New Street: not a ‘retail destination’ but the graffiti wall is well worth a visit
While Scottish high street retailers call for a freeze in business rates to help them combat the recession and online sales revolution, Broughton Street is an interesting case study in the evolution of the local shopping centre. Gone are post office, jeweller’s, clock-makers and hardware store. But butcher, baker, bookshop and florist survive among cafes, bars, dress and craft (or gift) shops.
Broughton is what the city marketing department would call a successful ‘retail destination’. Oh, dear god preserve us from marketing-speak. Part of me applauds Edinburgh city council for seeing the value of bustling neighbourhoods like Broughton and Stockbridge (where, incidentally, St Stephen street is ‘Scotland’s first retail destination to win a WorldHost award for customer service‘. No, I’m not sure what that means either but look out for WorldHost signs popping up in other Edinburgh ‘town centres’ – Bruntsfield, Morningside, West End, Grassmarket and maybe Leith Walk).
Encouraging people to enjoy their neighbourhood seems a thoroughly good idea. But my soul shrinks at the very word: retail. On Scottish television last week there was a long item on the plight of the retail industry and the hope that discounts would bring crowds back to those shiny shopping malls. Watching reporters and shoppers trying to get excited about Christmas shopping in, er, shops, I had a brief out-of-planet moment. Is this where evolution has led homo sapiens: from hunter gather to farmer, from farmer to manufacturer, from manufacturers to consumer? Our purpose in life to wander the streets, arms dragged ape-like by bulging poly bags ….? Or, more likely indoors, glued to the screen, in a brave new virtual world of faceless transactions?
Is this really our best hope for the future? So much for George Osborne’s talk of rebalancing Britain’s economy from consuming to making. And latest figures suggest we can’t even shop enough to lift the country back to growth.
San Anton Market, Madrid: a place to eat, drink and meet friends after the shopping is done
While Scotland’s retailers lobby John Swinney to freeze business rates, wouldn’t it be good if policy makers saw an opportunity to do things differently? There’s so much more than shopping to the art and craft of making a prosperous town centre. Cities, like any other environment, thrive on diversity. Good shops are good for local economies but only as part of a healthy mixture of businesses.
In many European cities, visitors can explore the spcciality of the neighbourhood – lace and leather making, woodwork and weaving – and of course tourism helps to keep them going. Instead of promoting ‘retail destinations’ Edinburgh might try nurturing the distinct character and culture of different neighbourhoods. reviving and creating local workshops to display the skills of local talent.
A Berlin side street, shop and cafe combined
December 28th, 2012
My curiosity was raised by three words scratched on the empty shop window. “It’s not Tesco,” was a nicely enigmatic teaser which turns out to be true. The food store about to open in Canonmills is a very different kind of business.
“We won’t be any competition to Tesco,” says Dirk Douglas, one of the directors of Earthy Foods and Goods. Hard to tell over the phone but the comment sounds deadpan. Even so it’s a big, bold move for the organic food business which opened in a former wine store in Edinburgh’s Southside in May 2008. A small company set on growing slowly and surely has found itself taking a big step across the city because the opportunity came up. Just down the hill from Tesco.
Last year they opened their second store, Earthy Porty, in Portobello which now also serves as company HQ. But they’d had their eye on the Canonmills site for a couple of years and when the back-end lease came up recently they jumped at the chance.
“It an ideal site with a high-profile,” says Dirk, “a high street shop without being on the high street if you see what I mean.”
Quite apart from the surrounding economic gloom, the site has advantages and disadvantages: overlooking the Water of Leith but overshadowed by who-knows-when plans for a controversial property development which gained planning permission despite strong local opposition.
I’ve lived here long enough to remember an odd succession of businesses occupying the low-lying building that sits at a junction between Broughton, Stockbridge and Inverleith. The old ship’s chandlers with adjoining real ale shop became an uncomfortable looking outfitters specialising in kilts and evening wear. That didn’t last too long. Then Dionika got off to a good start with a thriving restaurant and deli but, sadly, seemed to run out of steam and customers.
The site looked blighted. Indian take-away moved to premises across the road but when the owner of the fireplace store decided to retire… along came Earthy. And that sounds like thoroughly good news for the area. Food and cafe culture seem to have developed some resilience to recession – when price, quality and location are right. (Although the Starbucks effect can be devastating as recent closure of Always Sunday in the Royal Mile shows).
Earthy, you might like to know, stands for Ethics, Appreciation, Respect (for environment and for people), Trustworthy, Hardworking… and Young at heart. If that sounds far-fetched you just have to meet the team behind the business to see that they mean it.
In fact I met Dirk Douglas and some of the team a couple of years ago when I was on a copy-writing assignment for a Glasgow PR. I went back to the store as a customer a few times – I liked the mix of seasonal food, local produce and friendly self-confidence, but going to the Southside on a shopping trip really meant taking the car and that kind of undermined the environmental benefits of buying local, seasonal food.
“A lot of our customers were asking, when can you come to Broughton? A lot more visit our website and ask can you come to Stockbridge? Come to Leeds!” For now, though, the move to Canonmills is enough. All being well Earthy – food store, take-away café and licensed restaurant – opens in early April.
March 14th, 2012
Just wondering, in the event of revolution where would Edinburgh crowds gather, where is the city square, where the city’s heart? (Twitter Mon 21 Feb 17.50)
It was an impulsive question on Twitter. I didn’t really expect a response. During the Arab Spring it occurred to me that Edinburgh lacks a true centre. In the unlikely event of revolutionary fever spreading through the capital, where would crowds gather? Autumn has brought an answer of sorts.
I had asked a similar question (without the reference to revolution) when I first joined the board of the former Edinburgh City Centre Management Company. Excited by new plans for improving public space, I suggested we might hold a competition to find out exactly where the centre is.
The idea never caught on. So I was astonished at the number and speed of responses on Twitter. I stopped counting when 14 people answered within minutes. Sadly I never got round to making a copy of them; in retrospect they gave a hint of political upheaval to come.
“We could storm the palace then occupy parliament,”
Members of the SNP mostly suggested that Edinburgh’s political epicentre should be outside the Scottish Parliament. “We could storm the palace then occupy parliament,” I paraphrase but that was the gist back in February. (You can tell SNP tweets, by the way, because they sport the party symbol – if anyone wonders why the nationalist party now occupies parliament, if not the palace, just take a look at the social media savvy of their young bloods.)
A few Labour followers opted for Parliament Square, outside City Chambers, or round the Tron. Others just despaired: “We don’t even have a Pearl Roundabout let alone a Tahrir Square”. As far as I remember no-one suggested St Andrew Square. But now here are the non-party-political anti-capitalists politely setting up camp in the garden recently opened to the public. The land, leased to the council and maintained by Essential Edinburgh (which emerged from ECCM), still belongs to property owners round the square, including the Royal Bank of Scotland
Which is why Occupy Edinburgh is there.
Apart from admirable coverage by STV Edinburgh, the media has largely ignored the camp (though Occupy Edinburgh has a good website and well supported Facebook page). Some would say that’s because the occupy movement is not newsworthy, or not in Edinburgh anyway. But I am impressed by their good-natured organisation and the general confidence that the movement will take shape and spread if they talk and listen to enough people.
Maybe, maybe. At any rate I’m delighted to see that ACTive Inquiry theatre company is taking their latest forum theatre play to St Andrew Square. On 19 November Not for Profit explores alternatives to spending cuts among anti-capitalist campaigners.
And at night (pedal-powered) lights shine on rebellious banners slung round the plinth of that disgraceful old rogue Henry Dundas. Why does Edinburgh celebrate the last person in the UK to be impeached? And for misappropriation of public funds! St Andrew Square has reason to become the revolutionary heart of the city.
PS: Not many people know this but St Andrew Square is also Edinburgh’s Poetry Garden. The founder members nurture dreams of projecting poetry on to the plinth. Thanks to Occupy Edinburgh we can see it would show up nicely after dark. And make good use of old Dundas.
November 9th, 2011
Imagine this. A warm October evening in the covered market: on the ground floor stalls packed with gleaming fruit and veg, upstairs friends gather to chat, drink and eat. We wander round, selecting small dishes to taste, secure our stools by the bar and dream about what might have been in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms.
Ah, if only. Inside the City Council other plans are brewing for the George Street building undergoing restoration. But come with us briefly to Madrid where the skies are almost certainly still blue and the air is warm. The metro whisks us to Gran Via, the nearest stop to the central Chueca district. Following the street map, and an email from a friend of a friend, we find the Mercado San Antón.
The new covered market is a remarkable space for several reasons. Not least (if my Spanish is any way correct) because this shining emporium, completed this year, came in more than €3million under budget (Edinburgh please take note).
The building itself, squeezed into a bustling network of narrow streets full of small shops, is clearly not to everyone’s taste. Probably Madrid (observing the MAD in Madrid) likens it to the worst of British municipal architecture of the seventies
But others (see guiriguide) welcome the new market – there was an old dilapidated building on the same spot – as a contemporary twist to the city’s mercado tradition. Our friend of a friend is obviously among them:
Inside there are many stalls where you can try small portions of lots of different kinds of food and cheese and wine – very much like the Mercado San Miguel off La Calle Mayor – but bigger, there are 3 floors, and a huge roof terrace. You can take your food and drink and eat inside or outside. It is not as busy as San Miguel so you can at least sit somewhere!
We didn’t spend much time looking at the architecture, we were more intent on finding what was inside. The roof terrace was full so we retreated to the second floor and spent a happy half hour tasting cheese, chorizo and anchovies with a glass (ok, two glasses) of chilled white wine.
The roof terrace at a quiet moment earlier in the day
Imagine, we kept saying, what you could do with a space like the Assembly Rooms. Bring the Farmers’ Market indoors? Invite new and traditional enterprising local producers from in and around Edinburgh to display their skills in the city centre? Encourage a multicultural market to celebrate Scotland’s growing diversity?
Ah, if only. It’s all too late of course. Back home in Edinburgh, rolling along George Street in a bus on a cold October evening, we look out of the windows counting the succession of bars, bistros and restaurants sliding by: Gusto, Browns, TigerLily, CentoTre, The Living Room, Cafe Andaluz. Is Assembly Rooms really the best location for Jamie’s Italian?
The City Council has decided. Our fantasy covered market will have to find another location. Leith maybe?
October 20th, 2011
The philosopher’s toe: pictures by Andrea McCarthy
Looking back it was a prophetic moment though I did not know it at the time. Almost 14 years ago I covered a Scottish Enterprise conference on the future of Scotland. US futurist Joe Coates, grey and spindly as a heron, stalked the stage and talked about the potential of mobile technology using language most of us hardly understood. What future tourists would want, he said, was a digital companion they could carry in their pockets providing all the information they needed to know about any given place.
In 1997 I didn’t even possess a mobile phone. Now here I am, a director of a brand new media company creating one of those digital companions – or rather, the information that can be loaded on to it.
A roll of good old fashioned drums please. Walking Heads Ltd launches our first downloadable audio walking tour during Edinburgh’s Fringe. At one level Edinburgh Comedy Tour can be taken as a Fringe show (and there are others using digital technology this year) but our 90 minute walking guide includes many layers of information. Just like Joe Coates predicted, it is full of facts people like to know when they visit a new place: where to go, what to see, how to get there. But there’s a difference. With a nice poetic twist, Walking Heads has won a Scottish Enterprise Tourism Innovation Fund award because we promise to take people off the beaten track to reveal the true grit of the place.
So Edinburgh Comedy Tour is a mix of history and folklore, comedy and spicy gossip and I feel it captures the odd Jekyll and Hyde nature of Edinburgh much better than conventional guidebook or guided tour.
Harry Gooch and Jamie MacDonald
With wicked ingenuity our comedian scriptwriters Jamie MacDonald and Harry Gooch have created a surreal narrative that leads you round Fringe comedy venues while developing a dysfunctional but affectionate relationship that leaves you (or me anyway) close to tears at the end. And in the process, with nicely paced navigation from Dougal Perman and incidental anecdotes from comedians Bruce Morton and Susan Morrison, you learn a great deal about the fur-coat-and-no-knickers side of Scotland’s capital. The extra twist to this tale is that Jamie is blind and his running refrain, ‘Be my eyes Harry’, deserves to be a Fringe catchphrase.
Back to the future. We’ve only just begun. We’re learning a huge amount as we go and we have a lot more to learn yet. But already we demonstrate something else that Joe Coates predicted. In the future, he said, companies will be like the film industry: collaborative and infinitely flexible co-operatives, constantly forming and re-forming to share expertise according to the needs of each product.
Unlike a film company, we don’t have best boy nor grip, hairdresser nor continuity girl (though we could do with the hairdresser at times!). But, straddling Glasgow and Edinburgh, Walking Heads is a mosaic of technical and artistic creative talent, buzzing with an enthusiasm that would put big corporations to shame. Of course I am biased and very proud to be part of it.
Since we are a collaborative team, I’m leaving the selling part to other members but I would be mad not to invite you to download Edinburgh Comedy Tour as your absolutely essential companion to this year’s Fringe. At £3.49 for MP3 and £3.99 for the App and Android – that would have seemed cheap back in 1997!
August 15th, 2011
A sunny morning and cafe tables are out on the pavement. Pigeons strut, seagulls soar and two women sip a breakfast smoothie by the bus stop. Slowly, oh so slowly, Rodney Street is gaining a sense of place.
It’s always been a mystery to me why Rodney Street has taken so long to discover a new identity. Sadly, while Broughton Street blossomed, brassed up and acquired a smart urban look, Rodney Street withered and almost died.
It had its own character when we first arrived. I remember pushing a pram down the hill. Past St Cuthbert’s Co-op Store to Preacher’s Patisseries of Perfection, parking the pram outside Bruce and Mary’s fish shop, emerging with newspaper-wrapped, gleaming fresh haddock to find silver coins in the pram (lucky for the new baby).
Across the street a crumbling cinema (what was it called?) was demolished to create a building site that lay waste for a long time. Food shops just about held their own when William Low, Scotland’s own supermarket chain, occupied the dip by the traffic lights. Then Tesco took over and the lights went out: Co-op and chemist closed, bakers shut up shop.
New life flickered from time to time and some of it survived. Bike shop, ski shop, cake maker and booze store are still going. The florist blooms. But somehow the street never held together as a shopping centre, as a ‘destination’ in marketing-speak. Generally it was somewhere people went through – not to – even though the old cinema waste-land filled with new flats and the flats grew old enough to acquire weather stains.
Yet this year, while recession glooms all around, suddenly there is new life in Rodney Street. It has a lot to do with eating. Between the fast food cafe and the ski shop, there’s a sandwich bar and another cafe. But nearby there’s also a gift shop, a letting agency and a chiropractor. Long may they all last.
Actually, a cinema would not go amiss.
July 29th, 2011
Ray Perman’s recent commentary on Leith Walk prompted Ross Armstrong to put down some thoughts about how to improve Edinburgh’s most interesting boulevard (but first he measured it on Google maps).
The amazing potential of Leith Walk strikes me every time I walk down it. It’s a great big boulevard that feels like it’s going to waste. Perhaps because the potential is so obvious to all, it’s always been assumed it will fulfill it eventually on it’s own.
It has history, architecture, excitement and an edge to it, so it’s not that strange to compare it to Las Ramblas, and it’s actually longer (1.6km long as opposed to 1.2km), so there’s plenty of space to work with. This is most likely the biggest problem – because of it’s sheer size it is hard to manage coherently – so it’s perhaps unsurprising the council treat it just like any other big road. However, I believe this is a significant street, and it needs sympathetic improvements, not just box ticking efforts required to make it a functioning dual carriageway.
For starters: one of the big problems I see is clutter. It’s got to be one of the most cluttered streets in Edinburgh. Things off the top of my head that could go:
The aforementioned “ugly metal shutters”, and “garish keep left signs”, and excessive signage in general.
Those Tram adverts, just insulting now.
Cut down on phone boxes, there are loads of them and they’re hardly used these days.
Cut down on bike racks- these are all over the place. (It seems like there was money for these at some point and the council went crazy! They look like they’ve been placed randomly and most are rarely used from what I can see.)
Bins of every shape size and colour, perhaps more effort should be put into standardisation and concealment.
Bus ticket machines. Fail.
Speed cameras, I can think of at least two, they look terrible, take up space on the pavement, and are they really necessary?
Shop signs in the street should be tightly regulated.
“Feeder pillars” or what ever they are called, I’m sure some of these mysterious metal boxes on the pavement are redundant, in some places on Leith Walk there are 3 right next to each other, seems unnecessary. I’ve heard of these being plonked out without prior warning, this certainly shouldn’t happen.
Replace broken bollards/railings, or just get rid of them.
Sell all this for scrap and buy some trees!!
[Many thanks to Ross who kindly let me use his comment on Ray's blog as a stand alone post. He will soon be receiving a copy of Prospect magazine featuring Sir Terry Farrell's design challenges for Edinburgh – including Leith Walk's potential to become Edinburgh's Ramblas]
July 19th, 2011
A couple of bees are busy burying themselves in the private parts of bright pink geraniums. I have it on good authority that ladybirds often lurk among the leaves and grasses too. Oblivious to streams of noisy traffic, nature is thriving on an island of wildness in Broughton.
It’s this “slice of wilderness in the city”, to quote John Frater who designed and planted the borders in Mansfield Place, that stops me on my way home from the corner shop. On a sunny evening flowering grasses catch the light. Something about the planting reminds me of similar free-flowing borders I admired in Berlin a couple of years ago. Not a stiff municipal bedding plant in sight.
And right enough, when I contact Plantforms, Edinburgh garden designer John Frater tells me he spent a week on what sounds like an idyllic gardening course: the Berlin Royal Garden Academy Summer School studying gardens and public spaces in the city. In English. A day with Christian Meyer – the landscape architect who has made his mark with naturalistic plantings across Berlin and many other parts of Germany – inspired John to contact the city council when he got home.
That led to the pilot scheme at Mansfield Place – “a test bed if you like” – which began last year. The aim is to show the benefits of replacing annual plants with a softer more natural scheme of perennials which last for years and, once established, need little maintenance.
It’s a small but perhaps essential step for City of Edinburgh Council and with luck it will go much further. In fact this new kind of planting is beginning to appear on urban roundabouts and city borders across the UK. Under the Sustainability Charter all local authorities must demonstrate efficient use of energy and natural resources and Parks and Gardens departments are no exception. To put it bluntly, producing millions of annual bedding plants costs too much in time, energy, water, waste – and wages.
Now Mansfield Place displays a fine mixture of perennial plants – geraniums, sedums, salvias, spring and summer bulbs – all weaving their way through beautiful waving grasses. The Scottish tufted hair grass Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Schottland’ is the star of the show. “Grasses are the backbone of the planting scheme all year round,” says John “They add height and a soft airyness that can be seen from a distance.” The mix of plants is good for biodiversity – birds, bees, beetles and butterflies – too. And the borders need only a monthly weeding.
Room for growth: John’s picture of the newly planted border last year.
So far so very good. Last year, complimentary comments to the council far outnumbered complaints. This year, as photographs show, plants are bigger and better (most of them survived the harsh winter). In fact the beds look so good I hope the council will gain confidence to let John plant up the whole of the Broughton roundabout instead of asking him to leave space for annuals (in case passers by miss those bright colours).
But that’s far from the end of the story. John, whose first degree was in ecology, has also persuaded the council to allow a more ambitious environmental trial at their nursery. As you can see on his own blog, he is now busy experimenting with seed trials on a spare plot of ground. He hopes to produce a sustainable flowering perennial cover for tricky urban areas like roadside verges and woodland edges. Again there is inspiration from Germany.
So this is a good news story with full marks to City of Edinburgh Parks and Gardens for letting it happen. I am looking forward to following the seed trials – and hope to book a place on one of John’s classes on garden design in autumn and early spring. (And maybe that Englische gartenschule in Berlin!)
July 11th, 2011
Flashback to the successful Friends of the Earth Scotland campaign 2007
“A great city let down by its elected representatives”, BBC Scotland environment and science correspondent David Miller sums up last night’s Newsnight Scotland tram story, possibly the best news coverage so far of this extraordinary mess. The thunder is still rumbling around the city today and it has a long way to roll yet.
But last night’s story asked some very important questions. Not least, where is Jenny Dawe, city council leader. As Miller said last night, if this was happening in London you can bet Boris would be all over the media.
Edinburgh’s media does have some questions of its own to answer. The Evening News has consistently focused on the myths and mischief making of politicians with a party axe to grind. Where was the journalistic investigation into the contract, where the forensic analysis of budgets, where the curiosity about the contractors? How have Bilfinger Berger managed to complete other projects around the world without this difficulty and is it true that the Scottish government has placed a gagging order on the company?
Today as Alex Salmond grants a public enquiry, the city council is faced with the official version of that leaked report claiming it will cost more to scrap the tram than carry on. So the Evening News has published poll results claiming most people in the city want to scrap the tram. Like all polls it begs more questions than it answers. I for one am passionately in favour of the tram. But like most people I know (whether for or against the tram) I cannot understand how the project has become such an extraordinary disaster, or who is to blame. (And I am not at all sure a public enquiry is the best use of public cash).
Apart from lack of leadership and gobsmacking inefficiency, my main criticism of the council is that it has utterly failed to present an inspiring case for the tram. It shouldn’t be difficult. The tram is a fast and energy-efficient way to connect communities across a city with a growing population; it increases social mobility and reduces congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions. These are benefits which should suit the green claims of the Scottish Government. Now the SNP represents so many urban constituencies maybe the tram could begin to look more attractive?
They (and the Evening News) might take a look at Linkedin where Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce has been conducting a civilised and balanced debate with many good reasons for not scrapping the tram. Even as I write a wonderfully sane and intelligent discussion is live on the Better Nation blog. With luck some of the writers will stand for election to the city council next year!
June 23rd, 2011