From business park to city park

Edward Jones is a director of masterplanning practice, Dixon Jones, whose design for a new, city quarter – to be built on currently vacant land at Edinburgh Park – has recently received planning permission, with construction work about to begin. His ‘A Guide to the Architecture of London’ is in its fifth edition and, here, he explains the thinking behind the quarter’s layout.

IT would be no exaggeration to say that the city of Edinburgh, largely unmolested by the hostilities of the Second World War and some of the misadventures of modern architecture, is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

The plan of the city, partly due to its topography, is distinct in its various phases: beginning with the Old Town, developing along the ridge rising towards the castle and on either side of it; followed, in the 18th century, by the grid layout of James Craig’s New Town plan, to the north, with its rational crescents, circuses and squares.

The genesis of Edinburgh Business Park – designed by the US architect, Richard Meier, constructed during the 1990s and bordering the city by-pass and South Gyle – owes some allegiance to the cool logic of the New Town and its architects, such as William Henry Playfair. 

An one-sided pedestrian route, defining the western edge of Meier’s masterplan is not unlike Princes Street.

But part of the site – 43 acres – remains undeveloped, and is poised to be transformed by the property group, Parabola.

On the train in, from Glasgow, you can see the vacant land, to your left, adjoining Edinburgh Park rail station.

It was six years ago when we were first commissioned (soon after, with Edinburgh-based landscape architects, GROSS.MAX.) to masterplan the undeveloped site to help complete Meier’s vision. 

It’s a vision that now has a tram line slicing through it. It has stayed with me, the memory of arriving into Meier’s now-mature park by tram and how it reminds me of arriving into Waverley rail station by train, set in its own, magical park.

Among the first challenges to strike us about the commission was the lack of a vehicular crossing – across the tram line – for almost a kilometre between Lochside Avenue, to the north, and Edinburgh Park rail station to its south. 

But it was a challenge that helped unlock the whole puzzle. If the tram line is viewed as a north-south axis, and the necessary vehicular crossing as an east-to-west one, the resulting cross becomes the heart of the whole development, comprising four quadrants for development, each with potentially their own, unique character.

The cross concludes Meier’s park, rather than extends it. The quadrants that have been created can then be allocated: (1) offices, retail and cafés focused on a public square; (2) housing related to shared gardens and car parking; (3) the frontage of offices concluding an incomplete block in the Meier masterplan; and (4), a combination of affordable and mid-market housing with their own, discreet open spaces.

As an after-thought and, on reflection, there is certainly something Roman about our proposed ‘cross’, which recalls the Cardo Decumanus of their settlements: north-south tram track, east-west cross street.

As opposed to the urban indifference of many suburban family houses, we have proposed in our initial housing a more urban alternative. 

With the close proximity of public transport and height restrictions imposed by aircraft arriving at (and departing from) the airport, our proposal imagines regular blocks of urban villas. 

This pattern of independent, seven-storey pavilions of apartments form groups around shared gardens and car parking.

The block is further sub-divided by a series of residential mews in the Edinburgh tradition, for the accommodation of large families.

Contributions from other architects are anticipated for the other quadrants of the plan.

When one takes the tram from Edinburgh airport into the city centre, as it flies over the rail line, sufficient height is gained to afford magnificent views of Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat. 

You take the tram in Edinburgh often to undertake specific tasks, such as to watch a rugby match or go supermarket shopping. In that sense, the tram line maps out a linear city, with complete activities marked along its way.

Our intention with Edinburgh Park tram stop and our ‘verdant cross’ (emphasised by formal tree planting) just a couple of hundred yards to its north is to make it every bit as inspiring a place to alight as anywhere else.

Edward Jones

Images: courtesy of Parabola and Edward Jones