What’s in Edinburgh’s 10 year transport masterplan?

Edinburgh. Image: Getty.

Edinburgh City Council has released a draft 10-year transport plan, and put it out to public consultation. The jauntily-named Edinburgh City Centre Transformation Proposed Strategy comes soon after a 20 mph zone was rolled out and the extension of the city's tram line was approved.

The council’s overriding aims are to make the city centre much friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists, and to get people out of cars and thus reduce air pollution. With the city forecast to grow larger than Glasgow within our lifetime, and with tourist numbers increasing with every year, it is encouraging that Edinburgh is making ambitious plans for a low carbon future. There is a surfeit of exciting ideas in the proposals, so even if half of them survive the consultation stage it would be a great achievement.

First off, yes there are going to be more trams. The council proposals include a a circular loop with trams going from Princes Street over the majestic North Bridge which connects the Old and New Towns. From there, it will continue over South Bridge, hook west through the University of Edinburgh area before linking back up with the current tram line at Haymarket railway station.

A summary of the plans: click to expand.

This is an exciting update to the tram network, which will provide services to the south of the city centre soon after the trams extend north through Leith. A free hop-on bus will also do a loop around the city centre, and will seek to emulate other cities, such as Talinn, which offer free transport.

North Bridge, which spans over Waverley station, will be closed to cars but will remain open to buses as this is a vital route. There will also be a new lift installed on the south side of Waverley station, to make it easier for people with prams, the elderly and the disabled to get from the platforms up to North Bridge: at present anyone doing this is required to take a lift to Princes Street, on the opposite side of the railway. Further lifts are planned to make it easier to get from the Grassmarket to Edinburgh Castle, from Market Street to The Mound, and from the Cowgate to George IV Bridge.


East of North Bridge there will be a brand new bridge for cyclists and pedestrians connecting the Old and New Towns. Although there is no crossing here at present, those with long memories will recall there was a pedestrian bridge here in the past, originally built as compensation for the fact the railway line had effectively split Edinburgh in half. However, British Rail “temporarily” closed the bridge from Jeffrey Street across the railway line to Calton Road in 1950, and never re-opened it again.

To the west of North Bridge lies Waverley Bridge, which is a lower-level crossing of the railway. At present this is open to all vehicles, and is where the bus to the airports departs from. The council’s plan is for this bridge, which runs from Princes Street to the bottom of the steep Cockburn Street, to be completely pedestrianised.

Actually, in a move that will prove popular with tourists, many streets in the historic Old Town will also be pedestrianised. The city has already began trials of this on the first Sunday of the month, allowing people to have access to Instagram-ready streets such as the winding Victoria Street, which leads to the Grassmarket, and Cockburn Street, which connects the Royal Mile with Waverley Bridge. A greater portion of the Royal Mile, the popular avenue for tourists which is packed during the Fringe, also looks set to be pedestrianised. The plan also promises more support for cyclists, with various segregated cycle lanes, such as one along a newly tree-lined Lothian Road to connect Princes Street with The Meadows.

The proposals for improved cycling access: click to expand.

Altogether, the 10 year vision is very ambitious and in Sir Humphrey-speak, “interesting”. There will surely be a lot of pressure from motorists and the Conservatives to scale back the plans, which aim to seriously reduce when and how car users can access the city centre, in favour of pedestrians and cyclists.

Motorists will lose crossings into the Old Town at North Bridge and Waverley Bridge, although they will still be able to drive from the middle of Princes Street up The Mound. Aside from that, car users wishing to enter the Old Town will be forced to either come in from the west via Lothian Road, or to take a long diversion around Abbeyhill to the east.

Of course the plans could still do with improvements such as re-opening the entirely complete suburban railway which circles Edinburgh and is only open to freight at present. Nonetheless, Edinburgh has been presented with an exciting low-carbon vision of the future. Hopefully it will act on it.

You can see the full plan here.

Pete Macleod tweets as @petemacleod84 and runs Pete’s Cheap Trains.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.