City for sale? Hundreds attend meeting on future of Edinburgh’s open public spaces

Hundreds attended a meeting on Wednesday night to discuss the future of how Edinburgh’s public open spaces are used.

The event in Central Hall, Tollcross, was hosted by the Cockburn Association, the centuries-old heritage body that initially exposed that the Council did not seek planning permission for this year’s Christmas Market.

A selection of speakers provided perspective on the issue, and an open floor was included to allow the public to share their view. All public comment was recorded to form the heritage body’s statement following the event.

Stephen Jardine opened the meeting by describing the commencing period of Edinburgh’s history as a “journey and great period of change” and was critical of the fact increasing visitor numbers remains the “holy grail”.

Professor David McGillivray then spoke about the “festivalisation and privatisation of public spaces”.

He discussed the “shift from citizen to consumer as a focal point” and making “public spaces saleable as urban assets” as these spaces are “commodified, branded and enclosed”.

McGillivray also described how events can be used as “Trojan horses” for new systems and practices such as increased CCTV, advertising and public space ownership and that previous events are used to justify future ones. However, McGillivray concluded optimistically by saying how public places can be used positively for events and how events can revitalise areas, citing the London Olympics.

Second to speak, Cliff Hague, Cockburn Association Chair, questioned the punctuation at the end of the event’s title, stating “there is no doubt this city is for sale”. He criticised the draft tourism strategy, questioning what is in it for the people – and not for the benefit of tourists – especially as issues of transparency, equity and good governance remain. Hague said that “high quality public open space is fundamental to the identity of Edinburgh”. He went on to reiterate the association’s objection to the commercialisation of public space and will assert the residents right to open space.

Hundreds attended the event in Edinburgh (Credit: EN4 News)

The floor was then opened to comment from the audience.

One resident described Edinburgh as “the Venice of the North” due to how unsustainable it is becoming, and another claimed that they had submitted an FOI request which revealed the Council has no way of assessing the environmental or social impact of festivals. A former GP stressed the importance of access to open spaces for health and well-being.

Following public comment, Dr Michelle Hipwell discussed the importance of saving our green open spaces for health and well-being. She stressed that green/blues spaces are essential for this, citing research that found there are 15 pathways linking the two. Hipwell went on to talk about her work with the Atley Ainslie Community Trust, which campaigns to keep the green space site as a community asset.

Next, Mariana Trusson discussed sustainable public space and environmental well-being. She presented the fact that there is no environmental legislation in place for events like Edinburgh Christmas Markets. Trusson identified various environmental impacts of these events such as waste, transport, noise pollution, and unsustainable practices like re-turfing. She went on to claim “543 trees need to grow for 40 years to displace the carbon from one day’s worth of visitors”.

MSP Andy Wightman spoke about Common Good Law, describing it as “the origins of Scotland as an urban society” and legislation for the “good of the inhabitants”. He said that Edinburgh has many Common Good assets – including The Old Town, Princes Street Garden and The New Town – but insists that the city is careless with these assets, using the council allowing tables to be placed on George Street as an example.

A second open floor session was held in which a musician expressed his frustration with the busking ban and the fact you can’t sing after 9pm but can have fireworks at any time. Another resident stressed the need for residents to speak out, lobby and a fair funding solution for the city.

To summarise, Cliff Hague declared that the meeting’s attendance was higher than most Council consultations and that it is not anti-tourism or anti-festival, but calls for better management of these events.


The Director of the Cockburn Association, Terry Levinthal, thanked everyone for their attendance and described how the body intend to respond to views expressed in the meeting. He said that there are two planning applications on the horizon for East and West Princes Street Gardens and the body will be analysing the report released by the Culture and Committee over the weekend.

Stephen Jardine concluded: “Edinburgh belongs to all of us.”

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