Wanted: a vision for Leith Walk

May 2nd, 2011

Ray Perman takes a critical look at Leith Walk in this guest blog. With imagination and a little money it could become  the most elegant and cosmopolitan street in Edinburgh. [Many local people agree, see the excellent comments at the end of the post]

There are a lot of reasons for despairing at the dysfunctional political leadership of City of Edinburgh Council, but the degradation of Leith Walk  surely comes top of the list.

This wide and noble street was conceived as an elegant boulevard connecting the newly built Georgian New Town of Edinburgh with the prosperous and bustling burgh of Leith. William Stark, the 18th century architect and planner, commented on the “fine double row of elms” extending for 200 yards down the Walk. His colleague, William Playfair, who designed Leopold Place, just off the Walk on London Road, spoke of “the happy union of foliage and building.”

Despite two centuries of piecemeal development, there are still some fine buildings along the Walk, but the council has turned it into an urban clearway, so there is no incentive to stop and look.  An excess number of garish yellow keep left signs are now the main feature of the street. What are they for?  Does the council seriously expect that motorists would drive down the wrong side of the dual carriageway if they weren’t reminded every 25 yards?

The Walk is wide enough to have a broad central reservation with shrubs and trees – like the one which runs along the broader part of East Claremont Street. But what do we have instead? The cheapest, nastiest black rubber blocks, bolted together. If they weren’t ugly enough, they are flanked by unnecessary white lines, hatched on the road. For what? To deter motorists from parking in the middle of the road?

The whole effect is ghastly, but just think what Leith Walk could become.  With imagination and a little money, it could again be an elegant thoroughfare with broad pavements, street cafés, trees and shrubs. It is the most multicultural street in Edinburgh and could also be the most cosmopolitan.

The Walk had to put up with two years of disruption while the street was torn up for the trams which – thanks to the council’s incompetence – will now probably never traverse it. It deserves better than the fate the council has decreed for it.

Entry Filed under: The City Talks

24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Administrator  |  May 3rd, 2011 at 10:06 am

    Great blog, Ray

    I walked down Leith Walk with new interest today. Those bright yellow bollards are extraordinary.

    By the way, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Angela Blacklock (Labour councillor for the area) talking about plans for the ‘boulevard’ which included removing the ugly metal shutters that add to the degraded look of the street. Even more pleasantly surprised to discover that the traders association for the area supported the plan.

    But now they do all need to get together to draw up an inspiring strategy to reveal the grandeur of this street. It could certainly be as imposing as Newcastle’s Grainger Town where regeneration revitalised local business as well as social and cultural life.

  • 2. Andy Barron  |  May 3rd, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    The grand aspirations for Leith Walk have long been there, most recently with Sir Terry Farrell’s description of Leith Walk ‘as having the potential of becoming one of the “great streets of Europe” – the Edinburgh equivalent of the Ramblas in Barcelona’ (http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/topstories/Sir-Terry-Farrell-in-bold.3985983.jp).

    Unfortunately I don’t hold out much hope – especially in the short to medium term with the near abandonment of the tram link down Leith Walk. Still, while there is an aspiration you just never know…

  • 3. Administrator  |  May 3rd, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Really good point Andy, I was just thinking that’s something else Leith and Newcastle have in common! Sir Terry Farrell. What a shame that ‘masterplan’ seems to have got lost somewhere in the council chambers. Along with the Jan Gehl plan for Princes Street.

  • 4. John  |  May 5th, 2011 at 8:55 am

    The SNP has succeeded in persuading the country it has an optimistic vision for Scotland. Pity the SNP-LibDem coalition running Edinburgh has failed to do the same for Scotland’s capital city.

  • 5. Pauline  |  May 5th, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Leith Walk, easily one of the most interesting streets in the city.

    I would be wary of too much gentrification, it would be a shame to tidy it up too much. But there are great streets like it in East Berlin, with trees instead of traffic islands.

  • 6. Ray  |  May 6th, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    We should start a campaign for Leith Walk. Elm Row shows what can be done with a little imagination, some money and the political will. The trees along the row are looking great at the moment – although they are limes, rather than elms. Perhaps it should be renamed Unter den Linden?

    And, Pauline, you can hardy say Elm Row has become gentrified. Sure it has Valvona, but it also retains the cleaners, the post office and several traditional neighbourhood shops.

  • 7. Fay Young  |  May 6th, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    I’m up for campaigning

  • 8. John  |  May 7th, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Yes, that’s my only criticism of Broughton Street – full of fantastic local shops but we’ve lost some essential local services (post office etc) and replaced them with too much ‘stuff’.

  • 9. Alan D Rudland  |  May 9th, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    I agree with the comments that Ray has made in his article, and the Leith Business Association (LBA) is very conscious of the negative impact the tram works have had on the public realm of Leith Walk, and of the potential offered by the many independent retailers.

    Until such time as a firm decision is made on whether the phased implementation of the Edinburgh Tram Project will see trams running on Leith Walk, no remedial / improvement works will be undertaken. The LBA continues to speak with council representatives and the recently-appointed Leith and Portobello Town Centre Co-ordinator to ensure that the need for this work is not forgotten or overlooked. Either with or without trams, the LBA will be pressing for these improvements to be made – it is only the timescale for these works which will be dictated by the trams decision.

    The traffic management signs and rubber barriers are certainly not pretty, but they are vastly superior to the waist-high M.A.S.S. barriers which preceded them: they severely limited the ability for pedestrians to cross and re-cross Leith Walk. After utility diversion works were removed from Leith Walk, the LBA argued for the re-instatment of the central islands as existed before the works started – the rubber barriers were the poor ‘temporary’ alternative offered.

    With regard to the comment (Administrator #1) on security shutters – this is a complex issue as it would affect only certain external shutter boxes and would impact individual businesses on matters of security, insurance and removal costs. The Leith Business Association has not expressed ‘support’ for this legislation, but has acknowledged that steps could be taken to improve their external appearance and are actively pursuing options in this regard, or that support might be granted to businesses opting to remove shutters.

    Notwithstanding the many problems which beset us, the businesses in Leith are very much ‘Open for Business’ and we would encourage everyone to Walk the Walk and enjoy all that it has to offer. As has been said – if ye cannae get it in Leith, ye cannae get it!

  • 10. Administrator  |  May 10th, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Thank you Alan for a very informative response to Ray’s post and the comments it has stimulated.

    I think everyone agrees Leith Walk is one of the most interesting and impressive streets in Edinburgh and certainly deserves sensitive management as well as sufficient investment to realise its potential.

    It now seems unlikely but my personal hope is that the trams would serve Leith Walk – still better connecting Granton and Newhaven (and the long straggle of Waterfront development) with the city centre. And, equally important, bringing tourists and trade to the heart of Leith. What a pity that vision has never been communicated in the way that would excite public support.

    Anyone who travels to European cities can see how Leith would benefit from such an investment in modern public transport. (Sadly, Edinburgh does not always seem to regard itself as a European city.)

    Wishing you success in keeping Leith Walk at the top of the council agenda.

  • 11. Tracy Griffen  |  May 10th, 2011 at 11:22 am

    As a local trader on Leith Walk (corner Balfour street – there was meant to be a tram stop outside of my shop), and resident of Leith, I am big believer that regeneration would be valuable for the area. The tram fiasco was traumatic for many locals (footpaths dug up, road works and lack of access), and has left Leith Walk a mess.

    There are lots of small businesses opening (and closing) due to the cheap rent in the area. There is a lot of creative energy in the area, which can help lead improvements in the area, but only with adequate funding. Personally I’m keen to attend any forums / meetings on the subject, either as a local trader / resident, or in my capacity as a committee member of the Edinburgh branch of the Federation of Local Businesses.

  • 12. celia  |  May 10th, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    When we first moved to Leith Walk in 1978 they had planted trees up the middle of the street. They always looked very spindly and uncared for and gradually disappeared. What a pity we have lost the incentive of what the trams could have brought to develop what could be a really exciting street.

  • 13. Garry  |  May 10th, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    I love Leith walk, the little stores up and down the full length are interesting and friendly, that’s why I opened my store at the top last year.

    Definitely bring back the tree’s and lets just put these tram works fiasco behind us. I honestly can’t see them coming down the walk within the next 5 years anyway so lets plant trees and get it back to a happy community in stead of mainly complaining about it.

    Why not have a look at new ways of bringing more people down this lovely part of Edinburgh for little cost, Free parking signs (for 1 hour) would definitely be a start, as whenever people see wardens they just don’t even contemplate stopping.

    Encourage more retailers to open on Sundays and keep shop fronts clean and fresh, we can still have shutters but they don’t need to have graffiti on them or look old and tired.

    There’s no better street in Edinburgh when the sun is shining.

  • 14. Administrator  |  May 11th, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Delighted to see so many positive and thoughtful comments. Response from local councillors is also very welcome.

  • 15. Annette O'Carroll  |  May 11th, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Leith Central Community Council (for which I’m the convenor of the planning sub-committee) is also very concerned at the poor state of the public realm on Leith Walk. As soon as any decision is made on the tram we hope that all the bodies concerned with the future of the area – the Leith Business Association, the new Town Centre Co-ordinator, City of Edinburgh Council representatives, local politicians, the Neighbourhood Partnership, the Community Council, and any other interested bodies PLUS all the people that are concerned about the area will get together to discuss and plan its future.

    The area has so much going for it, in spite of the havoc caused by the tram works, that it deserves all the help it can get

  • 16. Councillor Angela Blacklock  |  May 11th, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Leith Walk is one of the most important streets in Edinburgh, in fact I would argue one of the top 5 – Princes St being number 1. It is important not just because of it’s history which Ray Perman rightly mentions but because it links the Waterfront to the city centre and the graceful curve of Leith Walk provides an example of stunning architecture and a beautiful vista.

    It is very unlikely now that the tram will come down Leith Walk. This is a shame because the air quality is just not good enough especially for the children who live and go to school and nursery in the area. Leith Walk could have become a continental boulevard with hotels, shops, restaurants and bars open in the evenings.

    If the decision is made not to have a tram going down Leith Walk in the foreseeable future, the trees which were taken away to make way for the trams must go back. We also need new pavements and central reservations and after that a programme to improve the shopfronts. Watch this space!

  • 17. marjorie  |  May 12th, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Leith Walk is a fascinating and beautiful street — cosmopolitan now and industrial in the past. I think one reason Berlin has stayed beautiful – and St Petersburg until recently – is that it has kept its history while reviving its prospects.

    There may be a temptation go for the ‘cappuccinos and laughter’ type of re-development, but I hope we will accent the good that we’ve got. Spey Street and others behind Shrubhill are lovely.

    I think the trams project was silly because the Council of the time was too relaxed about money– and did not stop to look at what was actually under the road. It was something that turned me off the 3 main parties of those days.

  • 18. Councillor Rob Munn  |  May 12th, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    It is clear that we will not being seeing Trams any time soon on Leith Walk. Things will be clearer on that issue after Meetings of Council this coming Monday and at the end of June.

    Councillors of all parties have been highlighting the need for improvements in road and footways along with the general public realm including what can be done to assist existing businesses in improving their shop fronts and the marketing of the very wide range of outlets there are on Leith Walk.

    I represent Leith Ward which contains the Foot of The Walk an area that would have been a major Trams hub but now even with public realm improvements will probably remain shabby in appearance. I’ve had some informal discussions this week on improving that particulkar area and can see that what is needed is a development plan for the entirity of Leith Walk to build on the good and establish a whole that people want to come to. There is a lot of potential waiting to be released.

    Thanks to all who’ve contributed on this thread to kicking off the debate. It now needs to feed into the decision making and from there into action.

  • 19. Fay Young » Edinbur&hellip  |  May 30th, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    [...] of Leith Walk are (rightly) angry with the council for messing up their street (see comments on Ray’s recent ‘rant’) round the corner residents of the posh New Town are turning their neighbourhood into a tip all by [...]

  • 20. Gordon Munro  |  May 31st, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Do you want a few copies of Prospect magazine which contain Sir Terry’s design challenges for Edinburgh?

    In it he asserts that Leith Walk has the potential to become the ramblas of Edinburgh ?

    You could make it a prize for respondents.If respondents like to email me with their address I can post it off to them

    Regards, Gordon

  • 21. JJ  |  July 12th, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    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 fulfil 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 and wider (1.6km long as apposed 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 is hard to coherently manage, 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 afore mentioned “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 metal and buy some trees!!

  • 22. Fay Young » Clear t&hellip  |  July 19th, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    [...] 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). [...]

  • 23. Insult to Injury | Edinbu&hellip  |  May 2nd, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    [...] Perman wrote in May last year: The Walk is wide enough to have a broad central reservation with shrubs and trees – like the one [...]

  • 24. Fay Young&hellip  |  June 12th, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    [...] quite right). But at least I did manage to make a connection between the Open Space event and the guest blog Ray wrote a year ago  about the shameful state of Leith [...]

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