Where do you go to, my lovely?

It can take an outsider’s perspective to truly remind us what is important, when it comes to place design in Scotland. So, let’s turn to a former Scotland correspondent for German radio and newspapers…

EDINBURGH’S Princes Street is known the world over. Read travel guides aimed at visitors like myself – from Germany – and they all pretty much same the same: there isn’t a city with a boulevard and accompanying skyline quite like it.

So, here I am. Taking the advice of the travel guide, and I can’t believe just how down at heel the street now feels like.

As someone from a country where neighbourhoods are out in force every Saturday morning, tidying up their streets, Princes Street looks like a place that no-one cares about.

It’s not just the empty premises – that may or may not soon find new occupants – it’s the litter and the graffiti, the spilt food and drink on trip hazard pavements and the thundering hooves of the buses.

I get that the street is going through a transition. I understand that many shops have moved eastwards to the St James Quarter. I appreciate also that COVID-19 and shopping habits (to online) have had a huge impact on retail prospects. 

But where is the vision for its revitalisation?

It might be that the city ‘puts all its eggs in the one basket’, identifying its key target market as foreign, monied visitors. In which case, Prince Street could then become a boulevard of blue chip brands – not dissimilar to the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

By re-directing buses and taxis – perhaps onto Queen Street – it might even be possible to extend pedestrian space, on the north side of the street at least, to replace vehicle lanes with outdoor, cafe seating. Would I be correct in detecting some recent increased interest in the street from cafe, bar and restaurant operators?

I lived in Edinburgh – working as a foreign correspondent for mainly Germany radio and newspapers – for ten years. I left in 2007 to work in Strasbourg, France. When I lived in Edinburgh, friends visiting from abroad would be genuinely awe-struck by the natural contours of Princes Street, leading up to the castle.

Even then, though, they would comment on the litter and a general shabbiness. But they would generally forgive that, because the street itself was full of drama and interesting places to visit. Now that Princes Street is mostly a shell of its former self, there is nothing else for one’s eyes to be drawn towards.

Edinburgh needs to get Princes Street right. It’s too important a jewel in Scotland’s crown.

An international congress – including expert input from other cities that have faced similar challenges – would be a start. And I know exactly where it should be hosted, if it was to be an in-person event: the Ross Bandstand, in Princes Street Gardens, with breakout groups discussing individual ideas under the shade of the trees in the gardens.

Udo Seiwert-Fauti is a senior Europe correspondent, accredited to the Council of Europe, EU Parliament and other European institutions. For ten years, until 2007, he lived in Edinburgh and reported on Scotland for mainly German radio and newspapers.

Picture credit: Place Design Scotland