Briefing: The way forward for George Street
This briefing sets out the views of Living Streets Scotland and Living Streets Edinburgh (the local campaign group) on the future of George Street and the scope to restore it to its rightful place as one of the capital’s and Scotland’s finest streets. It summarises 10 principles that we believe will allow Edinburgh to match and compete with other similar north European capital cities, with principal streets that offer a high quality experience to visitors and residents.
Vision for George Street
George Street could be Edinburgh’s foremost street – by providing an environment that promotes high levels of walking and footfall comparable with the best capitals in Northern Europe.
Achieving the vision
1 – Recognize that George Street is an internationally important asset
As George Street is such a fundamentally important and historic part of the city centre, it merits an open and transparent design process that involves both local expertise which understands Edinburgh and talent of international standing that can produce European best practice. This is the way in which many competitor cities secure innovative, award-winning and ultimately successful designs for their key public spaces – Edinburgh should be no different. Sufficient resources must be available to fundamentally transform the street recognising its position in the original New Town master plan and today’s World Heritage area. A continuation of the piecemeal approach to the street’s management and maintenance would be unforgiveable.
2 – Redress the chronic lack of high-quality urban space in Edinburgh
There is very little high-quality pedestrian space in the streets and squares of central Edinburgh. George Street is the last major opportunity to provide high-quality pedestrian space on a par with those leading cities in Europe, such as Oslo, Copenhagen, Ljubljana, Barcelona, Paris, Gent, Krakow and many others. Glasgow’s Buchannan Street is a Scottish example of what can be achieved. To reach this standard, however, much work is required – as the current pedestrian environment is congested, poorly maintained, fragmented and unwelcoming. Paris, London, Oslo and Dublin are all creating significant new pedestrian spaces, Edinburgh must not be left behind.
3 – More people – not more parking – is the key to George Street’s future success
Pedestrians and those completing their trip to the city centre on foot are the key to making George Street’s shops, restaurants and other businesses economically successful. If we assume that over 10 hours of a busy Saturday the 200 parking bays on George St are all fully occupied then each is used by five cars (five two hour periods of parking). If each car carries an average of 2 visitors, the parking available caters for 2,000 visitors to the city centre over the course of the day. Twice as many potential shoppers arrive on Princes St by bus in a single hour.
Parking should be removed from the majority if not all of George St. Parking demand surveys carried out in 2006 showed that nearby pay and display and off-street parking was not full at times of peak parking demand on George St, indicating that parking demand can be accommodated within existing supply. It will not be possible to restore George Street if the central parking bays are retained – any design incorporating this feature will fail.
4 – Create fully pedestrianised European style spaces
At least two of the blocks on George Street should be fully pedestrianised. Edinburgh lacks a properly pedestrianised street and in this way lags behind its competitors. Elsewhere, traffic levels should be kept to the absolute minimum. In other cities elsewhere in Europe, people still live on streets that are pedestrianised; residential use and pedestrianisation are not mutually exclusive. Whilst we can see that some limited vehicular access may be required, there are many good examples from around Europe of limited access zones using ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) and rising bollards to control vehicle access in time, and to a very limited number of vehicle users.
5 – George Street is not a transport artery, so prioritise place over movement
For the time being, Queen St should retain its role as a key route for through traffic and Princes Street for public transport. George St should therefore be for pedestrians and a properly managed, speed-controlled cycle route, potentially with a 10mph speed limit for cyclists. Generally the street should be designed to discourage fast cycling whilst making provision for family and social riding e.g. 10mph limit and clear pedestrian priority at crossings. Space for cycling infrastructure must be taken from parking and the carriageway and not from pedestrian space. However, all solutions regarding the types of traffic using each of the three main east-west streets should be future proofed such that a possible future reduction in public transport or facilitations of dedicated cycle link on Princes St is not made impossible by designs implemented in George St. This underlines the need to see solutions for George St in the context of a wider vision for access to the city centre.
6 – Quality materials are not enough to deliver a quality street
Creating good public space requires a combination of several factors: focal points need to be created (for example, around statues and fountains); there needs to be shelter from sun and wind and pleasant places to sit; there may be a need for small play areas for children. Jan Gehl has summarised these factors into 12 key principles for creating good public space, of which quality materials are only one amongst many others. South Castle Street demonstrates the problem of focusing only on materials when trying to create good public space, and so we advocate instead a holistic approach based on Gehl’s principles.
7 – Shared space must protect vulnerable users and restrain vehicle speeds
We are not convinced that shared space should necessarily form a part of any solution for George Street. Conventional footway widening, pedestrianisation and additional crossing points may be just as good, as well as cheaper – although neither do we wish to completely rule out shared space if vehicle movement is minimised. If shared space is chosen, it must incorporate design features to make it accessible to visually impaired pedestrians – by creating a “safe zone”, via low kerbs and colour contrasting tactile paving. Careful attention must be paid to ensuring the right mix of and balance between moving vehicles and pedestrians; otherwise a segregated street of pedestrians on one side and vehicles on the other (as per the controversial Exhibition Rd in London) will be created.
8 – George Street must be at the heart of a lively, sociable walkable New Town
Treatment of links to the Squares is vital and must be part of the brief – the current crossing point from the east end of George St to St Andrews Square is inadequate, and that to Charlotte Square, non-existent. Frederick, Hanover and Castle Streets should form part of a master plan and not be treated independently to a lesser standard. Routes to the New St James Quarter are critical to maximising pedestrian access to the street. Links to Frederick & Hanover Street bus stops and Princes St tram stops are also critical routes. Steps to retore Rose Street must also be part of a long-term plan.
9 – Proactively manage and regulate the new street from the outset
A management plan must be in place and designed in tandem – e.g. how formal / informal use of space is regulated from the start. This should also include how utilities works on the street, once its remodelling is complete, are managed and policed, such that the high quality materials are retained and not debased by utility subcontractors who are poorly skilled and supervised. Learning from other local authorities (e.g. Glasgow, re Buchanan St) may be helpful in achieving this. Use of space for restaurants and outdoor dinning must be properly planned and regulated and should not disrupt pedestrian flow and access to shops. Sufficient flexible space for events linked to Edinburgh’s festivals must be integrated into the design – allowing set up and take down of facilities with minimal disruption and intrusion.
10 – Edinburgh must not fail again
With the exception of the High Street, Edinburgh has not delivered an effective streetscape project that could be considered close to European standard. The Grassmarket project is at best a partial success and arguably poor by European standards. Glasgow’s public realm (if only in the central area) is in a different league to Edinburgh’s, due to years of investments. Dundee’s public central area also offers an experience not yet matched in Edinburgh. Only a visionary and properly resourced project can succeed, where previous Edinburgh projects have failed e.g. Castle Street, Festival Square and the deterioration of Rose Street. Too many compromises and uses (particular provision for traffic) will result in a further failure.
The opportunity must be taken to demonstrate Edinburgh’s streetscape can match its world-class architecture.
Stuart Hay David Spaven
Living Streets Scotland Living Streets Edinburgh