Bold Moves Need to Make Edinburgh People-Friendly

Edinburgh Council is in the process of rolling out temporary measures to support people walking, wheeling and cycling through our streets as lockdown eases. However, I regret to say we have not acted as swiftly, decisively or indeed effectively as other areas.

Internationally, we have seen Paris transformed. A visionary mayor has seized the opportunity to permanently change the balance of city streets in favour of pedestrians and cyclists with bold new infrastructure. Closer to home, Aberdeen and Glasgow have acted quickly to bring pavement-widening planters and segregated cycleways to locations across each city.

The pavement structures used in Aberdeen feature large planters, a seating area and create extended walking surfaces level with the pavement. My own ward includes Gorgie-Dalry, one of eight town centres in Edinburgh. It is a densely populated, vibrant residential area, home to a diverse community of Scots and international residents from all over the world.

It is also a polluted Air Quality Management Area, so we need to do all we can to encourage as much active travel as possible.

After waiting for two long months for measures to be installed in what is one of the most public-transport dependent areas of the city, I was appalled to see this week that these consist of traffic cones scattered along our main roads. This is just not good enough.

Other areas, such as Morningside, have semi-permanent wands protecting walkers and cyclists. At an absolute minimum, we need sustainable measures which prioritise walking, cycling and wheeling safely and support social distancing.

We should also be using this opportunity to deliver new public spaces, new public amenity and building infrastructure to create healthier and safer streets. The likes of Aberdeen have done this very effectively with similar funding. If this cannot be achieved with a generous funding pot of £5 million from the Scottish Government, some very serious questions have to be asked about value for money, procurement processes and Edinburgh Council’s use of public funds.

I believe we should prioritise people over vehicles across our city. Streets could be dead-ended quickly and simply, pavements widened and segregated cycling lanes installed, maintaining access for residents but prioritising the use of the space for walkers, wheelers and cyclists. New spaces could easily be augmented with street trees and planters to become much-needed green pockets of relief in the medium term.

One arts and culture organisation in my area, Gorgie Collective, is engaged in improving our public spaces. It recently installed a beautiful public artwork in White Park on Gorgie Road.

Entitled the Harlequin Fence, this colourful ceramic sculpture features natural forms and is brightening the day of all those passing by. I have seen local people of all ages stop to admire it. We need more ambitious changes and creative projects like this bringing a sense of place to our local areas. We have the chance to “build back better” and create public spaces that are people-sized, with more amenities, seats, trees and green spaces.

This is vital for health and wellbeing. We should be bold, far-sighted and ambitious. We can make temporary changes now and build on these once it is safe to do so.

This crisis has already brought us significant and lasting structural change. Let’s use it to improve and re-imagine our communities and public spaces and make them safer, greener and fit for purpose, to meet our immediate needs and for a better and healthier future.

Published in the National | 1st August 2020