The Streets Are Alive….

BlogFestivalHow can we invigorate towns and cities in the face of economic misery? It’s a huge challenge but spend some time in Edinburgh during August and you might just see how it can be done.

The Edinburgh International Festival was founded in 1947, with the lofty aim of providing a ‘platform for the flowering of the human spirit’ in the aftermath of WWII. The larger Fringe Festival was a reaction to its official counterpart, with people power driving an exponential conglomeration of events. Other distinct festivals were added, showcasing art, jazz & blues, TV and books, alongside the Military Tattoo and the Mela.

This is easily the largest arts festival on the globe. It’s said that the 480,000 population of Edinburgh more than doubles during the festival period. The Fringe alone has 2453 productions with 40,245 performances this year. Ticket sales last year came close to 2 million and this year looks busier still. In typical Scots fashion, this success is quietly downplayed and even derided by some miserable souls. Meanwhile, TV companies are too full of home makeover and ‘C’ list celebrity tosh to give Edinburgh the coverage it deserves.

I’m a resident of Edinburgh. I like the fact that the city offers a wide range of entertainment, arts and cultural events and attracts visitors year round. It a vibrant place in winter, let alone during peak festival season. So how does Edinburgh find the capacity to squeeze in all this extra activity?

The answer should be important to all who provide services, own and manage property or run businesses. In fact, the city simply uses the assets it already has more effectively. Occupancy rates peak in hotels and B&Bs and residents take in family, friends or lodgers. Restaurants add outdoor seating, quick menu options and longer opening hours. Temporary bars and cafes open in courtyards and spaces around venues. Buildings which lie dormant most hours of each day, most weeks of the year, are transformed into hives of activity.

I’m not suggesting this can be sustained over the entire year. However, it does suggest that with a flexible and open minded approach to the use of buildings, spaces and human resources, the towns and cities we all inhabit could operate at a significantly higher capacity without loss of amenity.

Highland Council is facing up to reality in Inverness and Dingwall, which are currently infested by 42 separate Council office and service centres. They aim to have just one or two offices in each location within 5 years, taking a chunk out of planned budget savings of £18.6m before April 2012. The obvious question is ‘how did this inefficient rash spread in the first place?’, but let’s not dwell on that.

A range of interesting development opportunities should soon hit the market, as the Council vacates palatial Victorian edifices and decrepit 1960s shells. Might this help stem the flow of the greenfield suburban tide that is inundating the southern shores of Inverness? Could it produce a more efficient urban form?

Urban intensification has been adopted in cities such as Stockholm, where the City Plan 99 promoted a Green Compact City concept. We’ve flirted with the approach here but inevitably pander to the ingrained business models of the volume house builders.

So all we need is higher density living? No. We need to invest in public transport and open spaces as we build inwards instead of outwards. Critically, we need to realise the greatest resource we have is not buildings but people – and their ability to adapt, create, innovate and perform. Which leads us back to the Edinburgh festivals and the entrepreneurial spirit that makes it all possible. George W. Bush must now know that the French DO have a word for ‘entrepreneur’ and I’m using it here in the sense of generating cultural and social capital, as well as financial reward.

Anyway, must go… to see another Fringe performance.

“It is not by augmenting the capital of the country, but by rendering a greater part of that capital active and productive than would otherwise be so, that the most judicious operations of banking can increase the industry of the country.” Adam Smith (1723-1790)

Richard Heggie