Tollcross maybe first, but how exactly?, Mike Wilson

HE was a fellow passenger on the overnight bus from Edinburgh to London. If I clocked his name at the time, I have long since forgotten it (maybe he is reading this article right now, and will get in touch).

This was the mid-1980s (and the bus left from the patch of ground that was once vacant and is now occupied by the Standard Life building on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road), but I still clearly remember our conversation.

He was, as I recall, either a landscape architect or a gardener. And he had an abiding wish: to create a three storey-high wall of flower boxes on the stretch of the street that curves gently south towards the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh’s Tollcross district.

All these years on, and the dream remains exactly that. The hanging baskets of Tollcross.

I was reminded of the conversation the other day, when walking past empty council premises – right royally graffited – at the Tollcross end of Lauriston Place, opposite what is occasionally called High Riggs.

As I was considering the premises’ potential as a centre of architecture – in the spirit of architect, Rab Bennett’s pop-up centre just up the road now almost two years ago – my thoughts quickly turned to what might be the first exhibition.

The answer was obvious: Tollcross itself. 

But what exactly? How does anyone – not least people living there – do anything to enhance the place?

Shops may start up or tart up their frontages. Private sector house-building may take place, albeit in neighbouring Fountainbridge rather than Tollcross itself. And the local authority may carry out some statutory duties in terms of refuse and recycling. And keeping the streetlights on.

But where might an idea such as a wall of flower boxes stand a chance of germinating on such relatively infertile ground?

Tollcross folk rarely get the chance to meet together. I might be doing the local community council a disservice, but I don’t hear of many get-togethers about the urban fabric of the place.

Would anyone even turn up to a discussion about possible alternatives to the existing tangle of roads (or, for that matter, the tangle of cables draping themselves over the fronts of buildings)?

There used to be a local, free newspaper: The Tollcross Times.

Do we leave taking the initiative to the local authority, one that is already stretched in terms of staff and cash?

Follow the money. Well, there is none. You can’t ask households for more, nor local shopkeepers – we are, after all, in the midst of a cost-of-living crises, and there are more pressing concerns than a lack of foliage. 

The only beneficiaries of an ‘improving’ Tollcross will be property owners, who will see the value of their apartments and premises rise, as the district’s reputation soars – potentially to challenge neighbouring Bruntsfield, where property prices are higher. But how does one extract a fair share of that equation?

An architecture centre might spark a couple of helpful ideas, and it will at least provide a venue for discussion (which might, in itself, be no bad thing). Plus, an accompanying cafe might turn a profit – likely very modest.

But when it comes to concerted action on a particular district of town, who gets the ‘ball rolling’ and who pays for it? It feels almost unreasonable to expect the public sector to be the ones having to be responsible.

Maybe it should be down to Place Design Scotland to get the ‘ball rolling’. Where Tollcross treads, others might be less fearful of trying themselves.

But the mechanisms by which real change in any neighbourhood can take place – where the currency is good ideas (no matter who has come up with them) that are actually implemented – currently feels very threadbare.

Even if there is central government or charitable trust money available – and relatively generous too – aren’t these funds predicated on some communities ‘winning’ and others ‘losing’?

Or have I got it all wrong?

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Pictured: Imagine a wall of colour: Tollcross, towards the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

Comments are welcome – only courteous ones (as per our T&Cs) – but they can only be posted by signed-in members. To sign up, for as little as £12 a year, please go here. Please note, comments appear following moderation (so expect a delay when submitting).