GEORGE STREET EXPERIMENT THRIVES ON SUCCESS AND FAILURE

Iain MacPhail, City of Edinburgh Council’s City Centre Programme Manager, contacted us yesterday with a response to our recent article on the ‘George Street experiment’ and the flood of reader replies it has generated since.

We reproduce his article in full, picking out a few key phrases in bold italics. Major points emerging include:

  • Marquees and decking to be removed, possibly before end of trial.
  • Council determined not to prioritise private over civic uses.
  • Aim is to animate not compartmentalise the street.
  • Scheme is to assure street's long-term future in face of St James Quarter competition.
  • Significant positive outcomes and lessons learned.
  • Lines of communication open. Council welcomes further feedback.

Overall, McacPhail's approach comes across as reasoned, reasonable and receptive. We are relieved to have it confirmed that someone at the centre of the process appears to share so many of the aspirations for George Street expressed by worried locals. We accept his explanation that one can only hope to learn from an experiment by allowing it to run its course, and that such a process inevitably entails failures as well as successes.

Further readers’ reactions to his remarks are of course welcome as usual. In particular, do you wish Spurtle to arrange a public meeting with MacPhail as guest speaker? Tell us what you think at: spurtle@hotmail.co.uk and @theSpurtle and Facebook 

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THE GEORGE STREET EXPERIMENT

First, I’d like to thank the Spurtle for hosting this comments thread, and thank all the contributors to it.

In what follows, I aim to respond to a few points, to pose a few questions of my own to Spurtle readers, and to confirm that I am following the online discussion. I’m keen to make the George Street trial a beacon of good practice in local engagement and this thread is hugely useful and influential in that process.

APPEARANCE, DECKING AND MARQUEES

In local discussions (and in the Spurtle thread, too), many of the comments I receive relate to the appearance of the decking and marquees.

I can reassure readers that the marquees and decking will not be returning after the trial comes to a close (and they may well be removed before the trial concludes in September 2015).

The purpose of a trial is to test out ideas, and different executions of those ideas. The Council’s aim with the George Street trial has not been to test out marquees or decking (which were installed at their own expense by local businesses, not as part of the Council’s project).

Rather, the Council’s aim has been to seek a better animation of civic space, in a way that allows for civic events to take place, while bringing more atmosphere to the street, in a manner that befits the primary street in James Craig’s First New Town. The local businesses felt that the decking and marquees could achieve that, though the Council remained to be convinced and has let the proof be found in a trial setting. 

The decking and marquees have failed on all of the measures we were testing. There are better ways of animating a civic space year-round. On Light Night (when a record number of nearly 30,000 turned up to see the Christmas Lights turned on) we found that the decking and marquees could not be moved to accommodate this event.

The Council has no wish to hand over civic space to commercial interests, and Light Night evidenced that the marquees and decking are too inflexible and too permanent to be considered as an option. Better alternatives exist at (for example) the Italian Centre in Glasgow or at Rutland Place, where large (entirely removable_ umbrellas have been installed, sunk into the ground, carrying their own electricity supply. Should a civic event like Light Night or the Moon Walk require access to those spaces, the ‘Jumbrellas’ can be removed at short notice, maintaining the priority of civic uses of civic spaces.

The marquees and decking fell at the first fence in that regard and appear to be just a commercial use of civic space. For that reason they will not be in place when the trial period comes to an end.

The Council is seeking to test ways of animating the public space, and this represented a second failing of the decking and marquees installed by the businesses. The marquees have been found to ‘box in the buzz’ and to animate only the private enclosed space, while offering no additional atmosphere to the street around them. The Jumbrellas, and similar approaches to Jumbrellas, are a preferable alternative to test because they are not only removable on request, but provide some atmosphere to the civic space around them, which is a prerequisite of any longer-term approach.

A third failing of the decking and marquees, in the eyes of the Council, is their appearance, though we would temper criticism by mentioning that decking was only ever a short-term measure as any longer-term approach to the street layout would follow the Grassmarket example by providing a flat and useable paved space for outdoor tables and chairs.

However, that said, the decking has been hugely unpopular, and does create a barrier to pedestrians entering the space – a lot of contributors have described their impact as making a greater space feel actually more hemmed in than before.

The decking and marquees can be ruled out as an option for George Street in the long run on account of their overly permanent and private use of civic space.

CYCLE PATHS AND LACK OF SYMMETRY

There is an undoubted lack of symmetry to the trial layout, but I can reassure readers that this is not the long-term proposal for the street. A number of cycle groups have expressed their preference for a more conventional and symmetrical layout for any long-term cycle facility on the street, and the return of the pleasing symmetry of James Craig’s plan should be welcomed.

In terms of how the design side will be addressed during the trial, there will be an independent design expert appointed early in the New Year (independent of the Council) who will lead a design-led workshop process, providing a SWOT analysis and careful scrutiny of four design options.

These will include the previous layout, a one-way system layout (similar to the current one), a more pedestrianised layout, and then a fourth option (which will begin with a series of design principles rather than a specific layout in mind and work up an option based on sound design principles).

The output from these meetings will be reported to the Quarterly Stakeholder Meetings and will be included in the final committee report reviewing the trial after it concludes in September 2015.

NO COMPLACENCY, BUT DON'T IGNORE POSITIVE NEWS 

By leaving it till this stage of my article, I hope I can reassure Spurtle readers and others that there is no sense of complacency in the project and there are a lot of aspects we are looking to improve during the trial period.

However, there are some very positive aspects to the trial coming out of the research and it is important to keep those in the forefront of people’s thoughts and attention, too. We have commissioned an independent research company to conduct 1,200 on-street interviews, to provide (for the first time) an empirical baseline of data telling us how people move round the city centre, how they feel about the street, and how they use it.

We are at 300 interviews so far, and some of the results have strongly challenged preconceived notions. They have shown:

  • More people than ever before have been visiting George Street, since the trial came into being.
  • Those people are lingering longer on the street (spending three hours typically, a long time).
  • They are returning more frequently than they did before (they like the space and the street).
  • A significant majority (more than 75 per cent) want to see more pedestrianisation of the street.
  • People like the concept of pedestrianisation and café culture in the long term, even if the short-term execution of it (the decking, marquees etc.) has not worked in the trial.
  • Car use in the city centre is 25 per cent lower than 2005, yet more people than ever are in town.

For businesses, there are more eyeballs at their shop windows than ever before on George Street, but the top reason for visiting George Street (38% of visitors) was reported as ‘window shopping’ while a much lower number (20%) said ‘shopping’, which was fourth on the list of reasons to visit.

This fits with a UK-wide trend: an increase in ‘showrooming’ in city centre retail areas, where the more clued-up consumer (a typical George Street shopper, perhaps) is browsing in-store but buying online, in some part encouraged by greater consumer protection offered to online purchases, especially for clothing and tailored goods). The Council will work closely with businesses in looking for ways to address this trend.

QUESTIONS TO PONDER

A number of people locally have asked me ‘Why are you even doing this?’, and ‘What was wrong with George Street as it was before?’ Those are perfectly valid and reasonable questions, in my book.

To those people, I point out that George Street pre-trial had fewer people visiting, for less time, and returning less frequently. People sometimes forget that the traffic levels were so intense before that George Street recorded quite dangerous (and failing) levels of air quality for a number of years in a row (they are improving now, and people are coming with greater frequency). There were a lot more buses, and one impact of that was to reduce the visibility of the shops and the architecture on the other side of the road, it all being obscured by the traffic. These are all areas the trial is improving.

I do have a number of people approaching me to (by and large) quote John Stark in the 1806 Gazetteer of Scotland. Mr Stark said famously that George Street had ‘no rival in Europe, or perhaps the world, for the grandeur of its appearance, the elegance of its architecture or its exact uniformity’.

Returning the street to some of this glory is a driving force for me in the project. However, I would qualify that by noting Edinburgh has (in the recent past) suffered a little when mixing hyperbole and complacency, and I’m keen to avoid that happening on George Street in 2015. For example, I remember 25–30 years ago people pointing to the view of the castle from Princes Street and being bold enough to say ‘Princes Street will always be one of the finest shopping streets in Europe because no other street has that view going for it. It will never go downhill’. That mix of complacency and hyperbole masked the issues facing Princes Street. The castle is still there, as is the view, but the perception of Princes Street has dipped dramatically in the intervening years.

So, when people ask me ‘Why are you doing this?’ and ‘What was wrong with George Street before?’, and then they say to me ‘What are you doing to the finest street in Europe?’ I do feel compelled to point out that this is the perfect moment for the community (locals, businesses, workers, visitors, diners, retailers, commuters, drivers, cyclists) to be asking what George Street is to be for in the future. It needs to work hard to maintain and enhance that perception of high quality.

The nearby St James development will create a high-quality environment for shopping and leisure facilities, and is due to be completed in 2020. My honest take on matters is that George Street, in its previous layout, would not withstand this competition, and – if we simply rolled back the trial, the research, and the fledgling design process that are underway – we could have another Princes Street on our hands where a mixture of complacency and hyperbole would see George Street sleepwalk into decline.

I want to keep in people’s minds that ‘the finest street in Europe’ will only retain that lustre if we all work together to achieve it. We have some of the finest heritage expertise in the country, some of the sharpest retail brains and a passionate community within the New Town of Edinburgh, and my role is to make this project accessible to all so that the unrivalled expertise we have locally can contribute to the success of George Street in future.

On a final note, I do have retailers and residents on other nearby streets contacting me and posing a different question. They ask, ‘Why is George Street getting all the benefit of this research, the heritage expertise, the design champion, the local community engagement, and why not us, too?’ I’m mindful that I’m the City Centre Programme Manager (not the George Street Manager) and that my employers are the City of Edinburgh Council (not the George Street Council) so these questioners absolutely have a point.

My reply to them is that George Street is the starting point for a civic discussion on a new, dynamic city centre. There are huge challenges facing city centres all over the UK and beyond. Edinburgh is no different. George Street is the starting point for that wider discussion.

We need a baseline of empirical data on how people move around, how they feel about the many varied places in a city centre which is of such calibre that it has been recognised by UNESCO. We also need to understand how city-centre retail and leisure patterns have changed and are changing (the ‘showrooming’ data for example) and how to respond to that, as a city. We have five to six years before the St James development is complete, which represents five to six years in which to steal a march. We need a clear vision of what George Street is for and how to make the best use of the exceptional cultural and architectural inheritance it provides.

In so doing, we need to respect the local community and encourage the wide variety of leisure, office and retail uses that have thrived in recent times on George Street, providing an environment that will help them thrive across a much longer-term timeframe.

I hope this lengthy contribution has explained the rationale for the trial. There are great risks and dangers around for city-centre streets, and these next few months are about getting it right on George Street for the long haul.

I really am grateful to the Spurtle for setting up the comments thread, and to all their contributors. I’ll look to respond individually from now on, and I’d be happy to attend a public gathering early in the new year if Spurtle readers felt that would be useful, too.

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 Peter Holmes ‏@BeSeatedLeith  

@theSpurtle bugs me that the idiots @ the council who approved glorified conservatories on such a historic thoroughfare are still in a job!

@theSpurtle Great article! Have shared on our FB too.

Jenn B ‏@fullglassgunner 

@theSpurtle did anyone who sat in these greenhouses really enjoy their meal whilst ppl walked/staggered by esp in the evenings?

Jon Gwinnett ‏@Jon_Gwinnett  

@theSpurtle @edinspotlight thank goodness, revised layout is messy confusing and seems to offer no benefit.

I a n M o ‏@sodascone

@theSpurtle You've obviously fried your servers by this story! Can't read, will try later.

Kim Harding ‏@kim_harding

@theSpurtle there are a lot of crashing snobs in the New Town, they don't like mixing with the plebs...

@kim_harding @theSpurtle marquees were mistake from the outset. Pavement cafes are transition between cafe and street. Not isolated tents.

 jacqueline ‏@mrsjacmac  

@theSpurtle @edinspotlight really pleased, George Street smelled like a fast food joint

SRD ‏@SRDorman  

@thespurtle you're right. that is a great reply.

SRD ‏@SRDorman 

@cllrnormanwork right now motorised traffic treated v. preferentially. wrong balance for our premier shopping st @LAHinds @theSpurtle

ZenBike UK ‏@ZenBike_UK  

.@theSpurtle @SRDorman - How can this be? :) "Car use in the city centre is 25% lower than 2005, yet more people than ever are in town."

 euan leitch ‏@papawasarodeo 

@SRDorman @theSpurtle well done Iain MacPhail.

@theSpurtle thought it was a good response, balanced and optimistic for the future.

 bruce findlay ‏@brucerisk

@theSpurtle @MichaelMacLeod1 pleased to hear it ........ it was a 'good' try, but it didnae work! #thisisedinburgh

 Peter Matthews ‏@urbaneprofessor  

@nora_eats @theSpurtle @SRDorman definitely worth the wait :-)

SRD ‏@SRDorman 

@thespurtle you're right. that is a great reply.

Milo McLaughlin ‏@milomclaughlin

@theSpurtle Good work!

 Chris Gray ‏@scottishchris

Excellent example of public engagement “@theSpurtle: George Street: aim is to animate not compartmentalise

euan leitch ‏@papawasarodeo 

@scottishchris @theSpurtle and of trialling a temporary intervention.

Chris Gray ‏@scottishchris

@papawasarodeo @theSpurtle and of actually doing empirical research!

@scottishchris @papawasarodeo @theSpurtle this is why I'm applauding CEC on this. I think it's all great :oD

 Lynn Henni ‏@LynnHenni

@theSpurtle excellent news re Geo St experiment - helpful article from Iain McPhail.

 Jason Clark Hurrah to that.

David Sterratt ‏@DavidSterratt 

@urbaneprofessor @nora_eats @theSpurtle @SRDorman Apologies from Spurtle's webmonkey for the delays - the site should be faster now.

@theSpurtle They will come up with another plan. You can't fix stupid.

theSpurtle Do you have the questions that are being asked in the survey? Previous surveys were not done in an unbiased way.

  Spokes CycleCampaign ‏@SpokesLothian

Congrats @theSpurtle on this great GeorgeSt item. But G St mustn't revert to previous in Sept if no decision yet http://www.spokes.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/1412-29-action-update.pdf  [#6]

@theSpurtle Am I the only one unconvinced by the Council's 'wish' to not hand over civic space to commercial interests?

@NewTownFlaneur Depends on individuals & depts & where in Embo. But no. By no means entirely convinced. We'll return to that soon.

@NewTownFlaneur @theSpurtle This will make you smile then (or grimace) http://www.essentialedinburgh.co.uk/projects/george-street-festival-2014/ 

 Motivation ‏@Motivationprobs

@Protonmale @theSpurtle @NewTownFlaneur The gullible public fall for it every time.

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31.12.14

 Rhona Stewart Cameron At last the Council have found some sense. Now let the traffic get back there both sides and the race track which is Queen Street will feel safer to cross.

 Sally Hinchcliffe ‏@sallyhinch

Council official sounds like human being, shock http://www.broughtonspurtle.org.uk/news/george-street-experiment-thrives-success-and-failure 

Cycle Devon ‏@CycleDevon 

@sallyhinch Ouch :-(

Sally Hinchcliffe ‏@sallyhinch

@CycleDevon OK, *Senior* council official sounds like human being, shock...

 Kim Harding ‏@kim_harding 

Interesting to see how many of the lessons learned could have been predicted by looking at other places...

Looks like curtains for the continental cafe culture dreams of @brianjaffa - George Street marquees face chop: http://bit.ly/13Jequ3 

@Gedwardsistaken @brianjaffa Worth noting this story was broken by the brilliant Brought on @theSpurtle yesterday :)

 Grinch Edwards favorited a Tweet you were mentioned in
@Gedwardsistaken @brianjaffa Worth noting this story was broken by the brilliant Brought on @theSpurtle yesterday :)

http://www.broughtonspurtle.org.uk/news/george-street-experiment-thrives-success-and-failure  @theSpurtle I wonder what John Stark would say about the Car Park that George Street has been turned into? Any ideas?

@kim_harding He would no longer say, 'It is terminated on the east end by a beautiful square, called St. Andrew's Square'.

E-mail from Ian Mowat, Chair, New Town & Broughton Community Council: Congrats to Spurtle  for breaking this story and to Iain MacPhail for his frank acceptance that aspects of the George Street trial have not worked, and his willingness to take a step back and think this through. The New Town and Broughton Community Council are keen to develop a residents vision for George Street and will be discussing at our meeting on Monday 12 January – anyone interested is welcome to attend.

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3.1.15

 Napier Bathrooms & Interiors Ltd. With our climate is was a ridiculous idea!

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See also Letters (1.1.15) and 'Languid Lingerings' (Breaking news, 2.1.15).

George Street
55° 57' 11.0088" N, 3° 12' 1.0908" W