Edinburgh’s precious public spaces should not be used for private profit

There is a growing problem in Edinburgh with public space being used for private profit. Free access to parks and the use of urban space for the public good are fundamental components of our citizens’ “right to the city”. In the Capital, we are starting to see the consequences of uncoordinated, ad hoc urban planning decisions which leave local residents feeling as if their communities and their city are no longer primarily managed in their own interests.

The commodification of urban space is happening at both a community and city-wide level. In my own constituency, Sighthill-Gorgie, a local community arts group is campaigning against a series of advertising boards affixed to buildings throughout Gorgie town centre. A batch of boards have been installed in locations ranging from tenements to underpasses. Gorgie Collective, a volunteer-led cultural group, is currently campaigning for the removal of a board sited on the Caledonian Bridge. This bridge is a B-listed monument and is an iconic landmark in Gorgie. I support this campaign as the bridge forms part of our local cultural heritage and for it to be used as a location for profit-driven advertising benefiting outside interests is completely inappropriate.

There are also issues related to the use of flagship green spaces. Last year, there was an outcry when Princes Street gardens were boarded off to the public to facilitate a ticketed concert. Though the boards were eventually removed, we have just learnt that the Gardens will again be used for a series of ticketed events this summer, limiting access for members of the public to parts of the Gardens for several hours per day.

I believe that public spaces should be used for and to benefit the public. The rights, needs and wellbeing of local residents should be the top priority guiding decisions on the use of space by local government officials.

Increasing numbers of Edinburgh residents are resisting the privatisation of public space and trends in decision-making which put people before profit.

Two examples of such campaigns are the newly-launched Citizen Network, a network of individuals and community groups which has embarked on a year-long process to “re-imagine the city” as a sustainable place for people to live, rather than a space for consumption and profit. The Cockburn Association has also recently launched “Our Unique City”, a consultation exercise examining residents’ priorities for Edinburgh in the coming years.

These campaigns are indicative of growing sense of unease about how our city is managed. My own area, Sighthill-Gorgie, is by far the most dissatisfied with the council’s management of the city; just over half (58 per cent) of my constituents are content. Edinburgh residents are also unlikely to feel that they have a say on local issues and services, with only around a third of people (36 per cent) across the city saying that they do. Once again, my ward is at the bottom of the rankings, with less than a quarter of residents in Sighthill-Gorgie (23 per cent) feeling they are heard on local issues.

Local residents are starting to feel like second-class citizens in their own city as they see more public spaces used for commercial gain. We urgently need to change this. As councillors, we have the responsibility to ensure that Edinburgh once again becomes a city for the people who live here. I will be supporting local and city-wide campaigns to redress the balance in favour of Edinburgh residents in the year ahead.

Published in the Edinburgh News | 3rd June 2019